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Pragmatic markers

The designation pragmatic marker encompasses a range of expressions that are not integrated as constituents in a clause, but occur at the edges, without influencing the word order of the other elements. Some, if not all, of them are labelled as interjections or inserts, although they display a wide range of grammatical types that cannot be summarised easily in a single categorisation.

They cohere functionally in that they express non-propositional content, that is content that is not usually subject to truth conditions. The non-propositional content is best understood from a functional perspective on language, where the propositional (or ideational) function is identified as one among a number of functions that language performs, where the two major other ones are the interpersonal and the textual functions (e.g. in the traditions of Halliday's Systemic Functional Linguistics (Halliday and Matthiessen 2014), with corresponding distinctions in the Functional Theories of Dik (1978) and Givón (1995)). The broad lexical versus functional phrase contrast of the generative tradition, and subdivisions within the functional phrase complex, also correspond to these contrasts, although the key focus of the generative work is on those non-propositional elements that are integrated into the grammar of the clause.

The pragmatic markers with an interpersonal function include the following types:

  • Vocatives and other appelations to call for the attention of an addressee
  • Response items, such as the words ja yes and nee no, alongside other items with similar function
  • Markers of turn-taking and back-channels
  • Stance markers

The pragmatic markers with a textual function are mainly conjunctive devices that indicate the relationship between propositions. These textual markers can be integrated syntactically as conjunctions or adverbials, but are often placed outside the grammatical boundaries of clauses.

The interpersonal and textual pragmatic markers that are in focus in this section are those that are not grammatically integrated in the clause. It is possible, and many examples can be found, that the interpersonal and textual functions are encoded by constituents of clauses, using grammatical resources such as adverbials or modality, and even lexical resources like the choice of a more loaded rather than a more neutral noun or verb to designate a particular entity or event.

[+]Interpersonal pragmatic markers

During spoken interaction (and representations thereof in fiction or news reporting), a very frequent need for speakers is to get the attention of a particular listener. This can be done for purposes of unique identification, for instance where a speaker wishes to address only one person among a group of people within earshot. Alternatively, a potential addressee may not be attending to the speaker at a particular point, but may be busy with something else, in which case the speaker may wish to call the potential addressee to attention first before proceding to talk. The pragmatic marker to achieve this effect is the vocative, where one calls out the intended addressee's name, or another form of address that substitutes for the name, such as a honorific, title or kinship term, usually before the clause addressed to that person, to appeal to their attention first and then proceed to offer them the intended information or to make a request or issue a command. The use of typical Afrikaans vocatives is illustrated by the examples in (1), where example (1a) to (1c) show forms of address of different levels of formality, from informal to formal, while example (1d) and (1e) show that it is also possible to use other positions than preceding the clause, i.e. to position the vocative as a parenthetical interjection in the middle of an utterance, or at the end of a clause.

a. Miemie, bring vir Pa 'n kers.
Miemie, bring (your) dad a candle.
b. Tant Lily, tannie was lank betrokke by die biblioteek hier in Clanwilliam.
Aunt Lily, aunty were involved in the library here in Clanwilliam for a long time.
c. Mevrou Munnik, kan u asseblief u radio baie sagter draai in u huis asseblief?
Mrs Munnik, can you please turn down your radio quite a bit in your house?
d. Dit is langer, Tannie, seker al vyf jaar.
It was longer, Aunty, probably five years already.
e. Wat is daai bossie se naam, Pa?
What's the name of that little scrub, Dad?

The examples illustrate a feature of Afrikaans vocatives that is quite unique in comparison to related languages like Dutch and English. Kinship terms, especially Oom Uncle and Tannie Aunty, are used in an extended way, to address not just blood relatives, but also older males and females, typically around the age of the speaker's parents and older. These same terms are often used where second person pronouns would be expected, as is shown by the use of tannie in example (1b), which functions as the syntactic subject of the clause after the vocative, in stead of jy you. The term antecedent repetition is used to classify this phenomenon. As part of the same custom, older people have the habit of not referring to themselves as in the first person as ek I when addressing younger people, but use the third person in the shape of some kinship term, such as Pa in example (1a), but not in the shape of a third-person pronoun. See Bosman and Otto (2015) for a recent, corpus-based exposition of this phenomenon in Afrikaans, as well as earlier publications like Kotzé (1987), and dissertations by Wybenga (1981) and Swanepoel (1989).

Other ways of hailing the attention of the addresse include greetings, as illustrated in example (2) which represents two consecutive turns in a radio phone-in broadcast. One also finds general appelations that have their origins in greetings, but where the nuance of greeting is bleached out and the function of appelation and calling to attention becomes the dominant one, as illustrated in example (3), which are taken from interactive on-line data, rather than speech.

a. S1: Goeienaand! Hallo! Ja gesels, meneer Duvenage.
S1: Good evening! Hello! Yes go ahead, Mr Duvenage.
b. S2: Ja goeienaand, meneer Tinus.
S2: Yes good evening, Mr Tinus.
a. Hi Griff
Hi Griff
b. Hi daar slaaiblaar
Hi there, salad leaf
c. Haai, sies man, waar leer julle so praat?
Hey, sis man, where did you learn to speak like that?

Once a conversation has been initiated, speakers continue to manage the floor, and use various devices to regulate turn-taking. Afrikaans has a number of tags that signal that the speaker seeks affirmation from the hearer that they are still part of the conversation, which may also signal the end of the speaker's contribution and an invitation to the hearer to take over the floor. These pragmatic markers typically occur at the end of an utterance. Typical examples include are isn't it / not so?, of hoe? or what do you say?, or nie waar nie? not so? / isn't it true?, in increasing degrees of formality.

Listeners can also signal that they continue to participate in the conversation, by collaborative speech and by the use of back-channels, such as the following: o.k. o.k., oraait all right, reg so right'o, natuurlik of course, mmm mmm, hm-mm uh-uh, ja yes, nee no, jy's nie ernstig nie you can't be serious, jy speel seker you must be joking, or jy kan dit nie oorvertel nie you can't tell this to anybody. These backchannels are usually stand-along utterances that are interspersed with the speech turns of another speaker, rather than attached to an utterance of the speaker, although they can be repurposed as devices to take over the speech turn, thus conceding to have listened to the first speaker, but then claiming the floor to respond, in which case these back-channels occur right before a new speech turn by a different speaker.

A specialised type of interpersonal pragmatic marker is the signalling of affirmation or disagreement, which is done with the forms ja yes and nee no. They can also function as back-channels, where their propositional meaning is not salient, and where they even combine freely to form the expression ja-nee yes-no / now you see, which is a typical marker of continuation, signalling that the speaker continues with the same topic and does not change the topic (despite the fact that the degree of topic continuity that is required can be quite loose). Example (4) illustrates one typical case of the use of ja-nee, where speaker 1 makes a claim about the high quality of the wood that was used to build cupboards for a new house, and speaker 2 then makes a related comment about the wood, starting with a signal of topic continuity. The form ja-nee is conventionally pronounced with rising intonation, and signals continuation, rather than the termination of a speech turn.

a. S1: Dit is regtig goeie hout
S1: This is really good wood.
b. S2: Ja-nee, dit moet darem vreeslik wees om sulke hout te verf.
S2: Indeed, it must be rather terrible to paint such wood.

In a more substantive way, speakers can also encode stance by means of pragmatic markers. This is not of necessity a function that only pragmatic markers can perform. Speakers can choose to integrate stance with the clauses, for example in (5a), where the highlighted expression that conveys stance is part of a complement clause and the stance itself is mainly apparent from the lexical items selected by the speaker, or (5b) where an extraposition construction is used to lay special emphasis on the stance expression highlighted. When speakers choose to present the stance expression as a pragmatic marker, it is usually presented before the main clause begins, and does not affect the syntactic structure, as exemplified by (5c) and (5d).

a. Dis nie nodig om fokken goor te wees vieruur die oggend nie.
It's not necessary to be fucking nasty at four in the morning.
b. Dis 'n kak gevoel om terug by die huis te kom na 'n lekker holiday en daar is net sulke skaduwees teen die muur waar jou TV, Xbox en hi-fi gestaan het.
It's a shitty feeling to return to your house after a nice holiday and there are only shadows against the wall where your TV, X-Box and hi-fi stood.
c. Fok, maar dis 'n duur storie om so 'n lucrative besigheid soos 'n koerant aan die gang te hou hoor.
Fuck, but it's an expensive story to keep such a lucrative business as a newspaper afloat.
d. Ag nee man, jy maak nie reg nie.
Oh no man, you're not doing the right thing.

The following extract from an anonymous conversation (recorded with permission of the participants) illustrates a number of the interpersonal features mentioned here. Speaker 1 starts with a stance marker, encoding negative emotion towards the nationwide strikes. This speaker continues to hold the floor into a second turn, despite seeking affirmation at the end of the first utterance, after which speaker 2 obliges with a back-channel, but allowing speaker 1 to continue:

a. S1: Ai. Maar lyk my dit is nou tyd om te staak vir almal, huh?
S1: Oh dear. But it seems to me as if is time for everybody to strike now, isn't it?
b. S2: Ja.
S2: Yes
c. Almal sommer so op 'n ry.
Everyone like in a queue.
[+]Textual pragmatic markers

The management of textual information in discourse can be achieved by means of pragmatic markers, or can be done in syntactically more integrated manners. Syntactic options like topicalisation and dislocation allow speakers to put special emphasis on particular elements of the propositional content of clauses. Adverbials with conjunctive function and coordinators and subordinators serve to make explicit the relationship between a particular clause and its surrounding clauses.

Coordinating conjunctions like en and and maar but, and overt organisers of the flow of argumentation can be used before clauses, in order to highlight how the following information should be integrated into a text. When these textual markers are syntactically integrated, they function as adverbials and their integration is shown by the fact that the clause to which they are attached will have a verb, rather than the subject or another non-verbal constituent immediately after the textual marker, as illustrated by example (7). However, when the sentence starts with the subject or another adverbial, with the verb in second position after that, it illustrates that the textual marker is not syntactically integrated, but functions as pragmatic insert. Such overt textual organisation is quite typical of written academic discourse, but also of public speeches, and are illustrated in example (8).

a. Eerstens word kortliks gelet op die huidige stand van Bybelinterpretasie in Suid-Afrika.
Attention is firstly given to the current state of Bible interpretation in South Africa.
b. Aan die ander kant is die oudste teks nie noodwendig reg nie.
The oldest text is on the other hand not necessarily right.
a. Eerstens, ons raad moet sit en 'n besluit maak.
Firstly, our council should sit and take a decision.
b. Aan die ander kant, die natuur is nie klei in die mens se hande nie.
On the other hand, nature is not clay in the human hands.
c. Maar dis helder en goed neergeskryf.
But it's been written down clearly and well.
  • Dik, Simon C1978Functional grammarDordrechtForis Publications
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