LINGUIST List 14.87

Fri Jan 10 2003

Review: Corpus Linguistics: Aijmer (2002)

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  1. Anna Maria De Cesare, Aijmer (2002), English Discourse Particles

Message 1: Aijmer (2002), English Discourse Particles

Date: Thu, 09 Jan 2003 17:55:38 +0000
From: Anna Maria De Cesare <>
Subject: Aijmer (2002), English Discourse Particles

Aijmer, Karin (2002) English Discourse Particles, Evidence from a
Corpus. Benjamins, xvi, 298 pp., Hardback ISBN 90 272 2280 0 (95.00
Eur.), 1 58811 284 5 (86.00 USD) This book is vol. 10 in the
collection Studies in Corpus Linguistics, edited by Elena
Tognini-Bonelli and Wolfgang Teubert

Book Announcement on Linguist:

Anna-Maria De Cesare, University of Chicago

Purpose of the book

The purpose of the book ''English Discourse Particles'' by Karin
Aijmer (a specialist in discourse particles working in Sweden) is, as
she states, to ''contribute to the study of discourse particles by
showing how the methods of corpus linguistics can sharpen the
description of discourse particles and increase our understanding of
what they are doing in discourse'' (p. 277). This book thus is a
''contribution to the ongoing debate in particle research about the
contexts and functions of discourse particles'' (p. 56). Specifically,
the analysis proposed focuses on ''the functions of discourse
particles on two macrolevels'' (p. 13): the textual level and the
phatic or interpersonal level.

Aijmer's book presents a bottom-up approach to discourse particles
(henceforth DPs): the different functions recognized are the result of
the study of DPs in their contexts. Aijmer provides a new description
of discourse particles (which include 'now', 'oh', 'sort of',
'actually') based on a corpus of English spoken texts. The use of
corpora in the study of DPs is relatively new, and consequently
Aijmer's book is an important example of this emerging method.

Aijmer bases her study primarily on the London-Lund Corpus of Spoken
English (LLC), a corpus consisting of about half a million English
words at the time of the analysis. The particularity of the LLC is its
prosodic transcription (based on Crystal 1969) and the fact that it
lends itself to the analysis of long stretches of texts. In addition
to the LLC, Aijmer occasionally employs the Lancaster-Oslo/Bergen
Corpus (LOB) and the Corpus of London Teenager (COLT) for comparative

As Aijmer argues, the use of corpora to study DPs is advantageous not
only because corpora represent the actual performance of language but
also because corpora ''provide the opportunity to study the
distribution and function of particles in extensive text extracts
representing different registers'' (p. 3). The use of corpora further
allows one to ''analyse the functions of discourse particles in their
social and situational context'' (p. 277).

In addition to providing a theoretical analysis of DPs, Aijmer also
points out some practical benefits of her study, claiming that it will
''be useful for learners and would furnish a grounding to scholars
dealing with discourse particles in different languages'' (p. 3) (see
for instance Bazzanella 1990; Bazzanella and Morra 2000, interested in
the contrast between English and Italian DPs).


The main body of the book consists of a long introductory chapter
about DPs (chap. 1, pp. 1-56), six chapters on selected particles
(chap. 2-7, pp. 57-275), and a brief conclusion (chap. 8,
pp. 277-279).

The purpose of chapter 1 is to ''focus on how the methods and tools of
corpus linguistics can sharpen the definition and description of
discourse particles and contribute to our understanding of what they
are doing in discourse'' (p. 3). By discussing among other things the
theoretical frameworks in which DPs have been analysed in the past
decade, chapter 1 provides a long introduction to the study of
DPs. Chapter 1 serves as the basis for the empirical studies of
different (groups) of DPs in chapters 2-7. In addition to providing a
theoretical basis for the following chapters, chapter 1 also
anticipates some of the study's results, allowing for a comparison and
a correction of the data of previous studies (cf. for instance the
data related to 'now' in different text types, p. 34).

Chapter 2 describes the 'topic-changer' 'now' (pp. 57-95); chapter 3
the interjections 'oh' and 'ah' (pp. 97-151); chapter 4 the
interpersonal particles 'just' (pp. 153-174); chapter 5 the 'adjuster'
'sort of' (pp. 175-209); chapter 6 the particles with vague reference
'and that sort of thing' (pp. 211-249); chapter 7 the 'expectation
marker' 'actually' (pp. 251-275). It should be noted that the name of
certain chapters does not always reflect their content. Chapter 3
deals primarily with the interjection 'oh' and only occasionally with
'ah'. On the other hand, some chapters deal with more DPs than
suggested by the title: chapter 5 not only deals with 'sort of' but
also compares 'sort of' with 'type of' and 'you know' (pp. 203ff);
chapter 6 deals with the utterance-final tags introduced by 'and' as
well as 'or'; chapter 7 not only describes 'actually' but also
discusses some differences between 'actually', 'in fact' and 'really'
(pp. 255f). Finally, throughout the book, Aijmer compares the DPs
selected with other DPs that are not the focus of the book. One of the
most frequent DPs used in such comparisons is the often-studied

Chapters 2-7 are organized uniformly. After a general introduction,
each chapter presents and discusses the core meaning and function of
the particle(s) under discussion, their grammaticalisation, the clues
to their interpretation, their different discourse functions (textual
and phatic or interpersonal) and a conclusion serving as a summary for
the entire chapter. The clues to the interpretation of a DP include 1)
their collocation (mainly with other particles), 2) prosodic
properties, 3) the text type in which they appear, 4) some social cues
(sex and age of the speaker, etc.) and 5) their distribution. These
clues allow not only for a better description of the functions of DPs
but also for a distinction between the use of a certain item as a DP
and a conjunction, adverb, etc. (cf. for instance 'now' and


Overall I found Aijmer's book ''English Discourse Particles'' to be
very manageable, accessible and pleasant to read. In what follows, I
present only some of the many observations that came to me while
reading this thought-provoking book.

Aijmer presents an original description of a collection of words or
phrases formerly called 'fillers'. Through its extensive analysis and
rich content, this book very convincingly demonstrates the functional
complexity of DPs such as 'oh'. Despite the abstract nature of the
meaning of DPs, and hence the difficulty of circumscribing their
content, this book offers an clear and detailed explanation of the
functions of several DPs. As Aijmer puts it in her important
introduction, DPs ''seem to be dispensable elements functioning as
signposts in the communication facilitating the hearer's
interpretation of the utterance on the basis of various contextual
clues'' (p. 2). Of central importance for Aijmer's description of DPs
is the notion of indexicality. As she writes, ''The most important
property of discourse particles is their indexicality. This property
explains that they are linked to attitudes, evaluation, types of
speakers and other dimensions of the communication situation'' (p. 5).

In addition to providing an original account of DPs, Aijmer's book
also benefits from its illuminating account of past and present
research on English DPs. In particular, Aijmer discusses several
different pragmatic frameworks in which DPs have been analysed so
far. Aijmer not only describes DPs from a pragmatic point of view, but
she also provides a semantic explanation (their core meaning),
syntactic and prosodic information, and a brief account of the
diachronic evolution of every DP or group of DPs
analysed. Interestingly, grammaticalisation (or as she puts it once
'pragmaticalisation' p. 19) is her way of accounting for the
polyfunctionality and what she considers the polysemy of DPs (cf. the
paragraph called ''homonymy or polysemy'').

Prosody is of particular importance for Aijmer. As she writes,
''Prosody is a neglected area in connection with individual words and
phrases although prosodic cues are important clues to their
interpretation'' (p. 262). Thanks to the prosodic transcription of
the LLC, Aijmer is able to describe more adequately the functions of
several DPs and differentiate them from other functions, such as the
adverbial one. A very basic observation related to prosody is for
instance to examine ''whether the discourse particle is a separate
tone unit'' (p. 32). If 'now' is a separate tone unit, it functions as
a discourse element rather than a temporal adverb. Other prosodic
features taken into account throughout the book include stress and
nucleus position, tone and pausing before and after the DP (pp. 67ff).

I found Aijmer's empirical chapters analysing DPs to be very clear and
thus easy to read, and the descriptions of the different functions of
these DPs are convincing. I particularly appreciated Aijmer's account
of the interjection 'oh', the adjuster 'sort of' and the particles
with vague references such as 'and that sort of thing'. Furthermore,
these chapters (but also the others) demonstrate very well how the use
of corpora helps us understand in what contexts these particular DPs
occur. For example, through the use of the LLC, Aijmer demonstrates
that 'oh' only rarely occurs alone as a separate tone unit
(freestanding 'oh' occurs only in 5% of the tokens,
p. 113). Additionally, Aijmer found that 'oh' is ''more frequent after
wh-questions than after yes-no questions or after a sentence with a
tag question'' (pp. 120-9). Moreover, in analysing the particles with
vague reference, Aijmer found that 'and' and 'or' tags differ
''dramatically with regard to their collocations'' (p. 223). 'And'
tags collocate with the universal quantifiers 'all' and 'everything',
while 'or' tags collocate with the existential quantifier 'some'.

Throughout the book, Aijmer uses a wide array of concepts from
different works and theoretical backgrounds to describe the DPs
selected. Of particular importance for the book are the works of Brown
& Levinson (1987), Oestman (1981), Schiffrin (1987) and Stenstroem
(1994). The inclusion of different descriptions of and perspectives on
DPs makes the book very rich and most interesting from both a
theoretical and empirical point of view. It also allows Aijmer to
compare her findings with the results of previous research as well as
to account more fully for the polysemy of DPs by highlighting their
various aspects. Moreover, in citing these works, Aijmer helpfully
includes the original definitions of several key concepts often taken
for granted in the literature. In particular, I enjoyed reading an
account of the concepts of 'negative' and 'positive politeness'
strategies by Brown & Levinson (1987) (pp. 164, 168). These key
linguistic concepts are further illuminated by the numerous examples
of DPs in which they are at work.

The clarity of the book derives from the numerous tables, well-chosen
examples and additional comments before each example. The description
of an example precedes in almost all of the cases the example itself
in the form of a paragraph. However, the organization of the
description and explanation of some examples is sometimes
confusing. The discussion related to a given example is occasionally
broken down into two paragraphs for no apparent reason, which can be
misleading to the reader (for some instances of this phenomenon,
cf. beginning p. 130; first paragraph p. 136, line 2 for a mistake
related to this question; paragraph three p. 207; first paragraph
p. 268; last paragraph p. 271).

In addition, while Aijmer's analysis is generally convincing and
helpful, I found the descriptions of 'now', 'just' and 'actually' a
little bit less satisfactory. I sometimes found the differences
between the various functions of 'now' difficult to understand. In
several cases it seemed that some paragraphs contained the same
description, and yet they were dealing with two different functions of
the DP. To give just one example, is devoted to 'now' as
''marking the steps in an argument or a narrative'', while to
'now' and listing. In the first one, Aijmer claims ''the lecturer uses
'now' to focus on certain points that are important'' (p. 82); in the
second, she writes that ''In sports commentaries, 'now' highlights the
points the reporter wants to comment on'' (p. 84). While I do not see
a clear cut difference here, I recognize that the functions of a DP
can be related, making it difficult - if not impossible - to fully
dissociate them (the use of 'now' between sub-topics for instance is
said to be ''not unrelated to other uses of 'now' to introduce a topic
change'' p. 79). As Aijmer herself puts it, DPs are ''polysemous items
whose meanings can be related to each other in a motivated way, for
example as extensions from a prototype'' (p. 22).

My reserve towards the description of 'just' and 'actually' is due to
the fact that the two chapters devoted to them are much less developed
than the others. Because of its relative brevity, the chapter devoted
to 'actually' does not include examples of cases in which a speaker
(B) contradicts another speaker (A) but uses 'actually' before that
move to soften its contradiction. All the examples given are instances
of one or two speakers that use 'actually' to contradict a statement
that concerns the same speaker. Thus, the examples provided are almost
all instances of self-correction, explanation or justification (maybe
with the exception of examples 29 and 35 in which I also see
'actually' as expressing a contrast). It seems to me, though, that the
contrastive function of 'actually' as well as its polite and
conciliatory uses would have been better illustrated by showing how
one can contradict its partner without threatening its face (As in: A:
I am glad Bush did not attack Iraq last December B: Actually, he
bombed it in December several times).

To conclude, Aijmer's book ''English Discourse Particles'' gives a
very thorough and fine-grained description of the functions of some
frequent English DPs. This book is a very rich source of information
about the studies that have been undertaken in English (as well as in
other languages, such as Italian, French, German and Swedish). This
book will therefore be useful to a large group of people, primarily
those interested in discourse analysis in general and in DPs in
particular. Because this book is very important for the insights it
provides about the principles and the mechanisms or routines that are
in place when we talk, this volume will certainly also be of much
interest to those dealing with more practical applications of
linguistic studies: language teachers and lexicographers. As Aijmer
writes, the analysis of the contexts in which DPs can occur and the
proposition of functional categories and descriptions ''can be used in
dictionaries and handbooks'' (p. 55).

I would like to conclude with Aijmer's observation that ''the area of
discourse particles is very large'' and therefore that
''subclassifications need to be carried out'' (p. 279). One possible
way of sharpening our descriptions and understanding of DPs will be
achieved through the contrastive study of DPs in two or more
languages. Aijmer's book provides a very useful basis for conducting
such research in the future.


Bazzanella, C. (1990), ''Phatic connectives as interactional cues in
contemporary spoken Italian'', Journal of Pragmatics 14: 639-47

Bazzanella, C. and L. Morra (2000), ''Discourse markers and the
indeterminacy of translation'', in I. Korzen and C. Marello (eds.),
Argomenti per una linguistica della traduzione, Ed. dell'Orso

Brown, P. and S. C. Levinson (1987), Politeness. Some Universals in
Language Usage. Cambridge University Press

Crystal, D. (1969), Prosodic systems and intonation in English,
Cambridge University Press

Oestman, J.-O. (1981), 'You know'. A Discourse-functional
Approach. John Benjamins
Schiffrin, D. (1987), Discourse markers. Cambridge University Press

Stenstroem, A.-B. (1994), An introduction to spoken-interaction. Longman.


Anna-Maria De Cesare holds a Ph.D. in linguistics from the University
of Geneva, Switzerland and is currently a Visiting Scholar in the
Department of Romance Languages and Literatures at the University of
Chicago. Her academic interests include lexical semantics (adverbs and
particles), lexicography, corpus linguistics, and contrastive
linguistics (Italian compared to French and English). She is currently
working on a specialized Italian-English dictionary of adverbs and
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