Spoken Discourse: A Linguistic Dilemma Part 2

January 15, 2017

Previously, we examined textual functions and their uses in spoken discourse. By separating the “social” functions of words from the linguistic functions of words, we were able to see that even the most seemingly minute “filler words,” or pragmatic markers, serve vital roles in everyday spoken language. Textual functions provide us with social cues that we use to identify certain events such as opening or closing topics, when a speaker is contemplating their next words, or when someone is searching for a revision to they previously stated. Interpersonal functions serve just as crucial roles for different reasons.

 

If you are as introverted as I am, you may have noticed that you write well and speak awkwardly. You might even realize that your speech is even more awkward during confrontations and arguments. While that might be true, the other part is that it’s not true at all. Especially during a disagreement, interpersonal functions assist the hearer on a multitude of cognitive and social levels. When you find yourself in disagreement with someone, you might catch yourself using pragmatic markers in a similar way as “well, no, I actually never said that.” Once again, if you removed the markers “well,” “no,” and “actually,” the utterance “I never said that” still conveys the same meaning. This is a highly unfavorable response, however, as it is incredibly straight to the point, utilizes negative face, and is also a Face Threatening Act (FTA). By adding in the aforementioned markers, the utterance takes on an entirely different form as an interpersonal function. 

 

“Well” acts as a “cognitive damper” for the hearer. By saying this, the hearer can tell that whatever the speaker is about to say will contrast whatever the hearer just stated. The word “well” in this case also saves face and avoids the bluntness and directness of a FTA. “Actually,” depending on the particular tone and intonation when being spoken, can further develop the saving of face and make your utterance come across as polite even though you are blatantly disagreeing with another individual’s personal beliefs. Interpersonal functions in everyday speech can also be transitions. If you jump from one topic to another where there is no correlation between the two, most people would not understand where the relevance lies. “Well” is a fantastic marker to do this job by solely opening a new topic, not closing it. An example of this could be “You know how we went downtown last night? Well, you’ll never guess who I saw earlier today.” These are just some examples of the many ways in which this can be applied in spoken discourse.  

 

As many of us have seen, language is constantly changing. Cultural aspects are always being added into language, and the media even has an impact on language development. One aspect of language that has remained somewhat consistent in its rules and regulations has been academia. We have always been told not to use “filler words” and that they are deemed as unprofessional. The real challenge lies in using them effectively and to your advantage as you might in the art of rhetoric or poetry. So go out there and spew your “ums,” “wells,” and “hmms.” You might just get what you want or get the chance to school someone in some cognitive science. Who knows, that might be what you want anyways. 

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