Meaning and function of discourse signals

Essay, 2006

10 Pages


This essay will deal with discourse signals, with special focus on their function and meaning.

It is important to understand that in the term “discourse signals” two other terms are included: “interaction signals” and “discourse markers”, which are explained later on in the text.

Discourse signals as such, as the name already says, signal the structure of the discourse. They are usually used in order to make the interlocutor see one’s current relationship and attitude towards the state of the discourse. The signal therefore helps the listener expecting a certain utterance intention of the speaker. Hence the former can somehow foresee the intention of the latter.

The following text will go into detail concerning function and meaning of discourse signals.

1. Function and position of discourse signals

A very important aspect is that the meaning of discourse signals does vary depending on the position in the discourse. It is therefore important to regard the signal’s position in the conversation, i.e. if it arises as a turn on its own or if it is on first, second or third position.

Making up a turn of their own can be equated with being simply one act. Yes can for example not only be an answer but a complete act that consists of a response-marker. In longer turns the same word would only be a part of the whole act.

However, discourse signals do often appear at the end of a turn and at the beginning of new turns, as at these points interactional signals are necessary.

e.g. alright is followed by right and then by oh.

Nevertheless discourse signals still appear in the middle of a turn, as they help to structure the turn and organize the conversation. In this case they are called “stage markers”.

e.g. that’s it. The folklore society library. Yes. That’s right. That’s fine. Yeah. Right.

Apart from structuring the conversation, the main purpose of discourse signals is to function as gap or slot fillers. Gap fillers are used in the exchange between two turns, whereas one signal can fill more than one gap. Slot fillers are used among different slots within one single turn. In this case it is also possible that one signal fills more than one slot in the turn.

To sum up, the function and meaning of discourse signals is on the one hand dependant on the position in the conversation. On the other hand they can also do different things in the same place.

2. Interactional signals

2.1. Function and Position

Interaction signals are used to start, sustain and end a conversation. There are many different occasions when to use interactional signals. When it comes to feedback it can be given (e.g. I SEE) or appealed (e.g. RIGHT), signals can be used to involve the hearer in the conversation (e.g. YOU know) and to respond (e.g. YES, that’s RIGHT).

When it comes to the function as a gap-filler, interactional signals mostly occur in a turn of their own, which can be proven in the following examples. An exception would of course be turn 1, as an interactional signal always has to reply somehow to a proceeding turn. A good example would be the word “right”, which can come about in all three turn-places.

1. Turn 2

A: …it’s under – H for Harry


[illustration not visible in this excerpt] In this example “right” functions as a respond to person A.

2. Turn 3

A: …would twelve o’clock be ok

B: lovely


B: yes

[illustration not visible in this excerpt] In this example “right” works as a re-opening of the conversation

3. Turn 4

A: …what time are you coming this afternoon?

B: about four o’clock

A: ok yeah


[illustration not visible in this excerpt] In this example “right” works as a follow-up that confirms again what person A has confirmed already before. It is therefore the second follow-up in this turn as “ok yeah” was the first one.


Excerpt out of 10 pages


Meaning and function of discourse signals
University of Bayreuth
Written and Spoken English
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
385 KB
Meaning, Written, Spoken, English
Quote paper
Catharina Kern (Author), 2006, Meaning and function of discourse signals, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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