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Review of  'Ja toch?' Linguistic style, discourse markers and construction of identity by adolescents in Amsterdam

Reviewer: Joshua Raclaw
Book Title: 'Ja toch?' Linguistic style, discourse markers and construction of identity by adolescents in Amsterdam
Book Author: Gerda H. Schokkin
Publisher: Lincom GmbH
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Subject Language(s): Dutch
Issue Number: 23.3144

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AUTHOR: Gerda H. Schokkin
TITLE: ‘Ja toch?’ Linguistic style, discourse markers and construction of
identity by adolescents in Amsterdam
SERIES TITLE: LINCOM Studies in Sociolinguistics 11
YEAR: 2011

Joshua Raclaw, Department of Linguistics, University of Colorado at Boulder


This book provides a multimodal analysis of two Dutch discourse markers, “maar”
and “toch”, investigating their use among multi-ethnic youth in Amsterdam. Based
on Schokkin’s MA thesis at the University of Amsterdam, the text is a relatively
short seventy pages (excluding the table of contents and references) spread
across seven chapters. Despite its length, the book contributes to two diverse
areas of research, as noted by the author: sociolinguistic analyses of
linguistic style and identity, and pragmatics-oriented analyses of discourse
particles. To the former, Schokkin’s work provides an impetus for future work to
explore the sociolinguistic functions served by discourse particles, which have
often been overlooked in favor of other (e.g. phonological and morphosyntactic)
variables. To the latter, the book illustrates how analyses of interactional and
pragmatic functions of discourse particles can be well supplemented by examining
their use in performing acts of identity.

The book’s first chapter, formally titled as its Introduction, is more
accurately an abstract of the overall study. At only a page long, it outlines
the scope of the book in general terms, and frames the study as contributing
primarily to work on linguistic style and multi-ethnic youth language.

The second chapter provides the theoretical background for the study. The
chapter is divided into multiple sections that introduce the reader to key
concepts in sociolinguistic analysis (e.g. “style”, “crossing”, and “audience
design”) and provide a literature review of previous work on ethnolects and
discourse particles. The chapter also provides an overview of Moroccan Flavoured
Dutch, an ethnicized variety that is later discussed in the qualitative analysis
of the data. The final sub-sections of this chapter introduce the two particles
that are investigated in the study, “maar” and “toch”. As with most discourse
particles, providing a gloss of the terms is difficult. “Maar” is alternately
translatable as ‘but’ when used as a conjunction and ‘only’ when deployed in its
adverbial sense, and is largely untranslatable in its role as a modal particle.
Schokkin notes that “maar” can be used to accomplish a range of social actions
in its use as a conjunction, such as beginning topics or returning to a prior
one. The author’s description of these interactional functions is brief,
however, with far more of the chapter providing discussion of those functions of
the particles related to stance and identity. The chapter provides a similar
analysis of the second particle to be examined, “toch”, the meaning of which is
much harder to pin down than “maar”. In stressed instances of use, the particle
highlights the opposition between two propositions, while in unstressed
instances it may be used as a tag question or to project a particular stance.

The third chapter, at just over a page in length, outlines the research
questions posed by the study. Though the author provides a short list of five
sub-questions that she goes on to answer in the concluding chapter of the book,
the study is primarily geared towards two larger research questions. First, at
the more local level of analysis, how does the use of the particles “maar” and
“toch” differ across ethnic groups? Second, at a broader, more macro-level, how
does variation in pragmatic or discourse particles relate to identity
construction? While the second chapter highlights the use of both quantitative
and qualitative sociolinguistics as research methodologies, the author frames
the larger goal of the book during the third chapter in distinctly variationist
terms: to illustrate how quantitative variation in the use of pragmatic or
discourse particles is related to identity construction.

The fourth chapter provides an overview of the data and introduces the speakers
whose interactions were analyzed. The speakers were split into two groups during
recordings, a younger (ages 10-12) and an older group (ages 18-20). For analytic
purposes, the age-based groups were further divided into two types of ethnic
groups: speakers that were ethnically Dutch and spoke Dutch as a mother tongue,
and speakers that were either of Moroccan or Turkish descent and spoke Moroccan
Arabic, Berber, or Turkish as a mother tongue.

The fifth chapter provides a quantitative analysis of how these speakers used
“maar” and “toch” in the recorded interactions. The data is presented primarily
in terms of frequency of use: how often each pragmatic function of the particle
is used across ethnic groups, across age groups, and according to combinations
of speaker and interlocutor ethnicity. For example, “zeg maar” (a
multifunctional formulaic phrase that can mark contemplation, maintain a turn at
talk, or accomplish other social actions) was used around three times as often
by the older Dutch participants as it was by the older Moroccan or Turkish
participants. Schokkin argues that the Turkish participants appear to orient to
this occurrence of “maar” as indexical of Dutch identity, as they make use of
the particle phrase far more often with Dutch speakers than with Turkish or
Moroccan speakers (indicating likely speaker accommodation).

The sixth chapter presents a qualitative analysis of the data, which largely
illustrates the larger discursive contexts in which particular functions of
particles are used by speakers. For example, the phrasal “ja weet toch” (an
epistemically-oriented tag question) can be used within Moroccan Flavoured Dutch
to strengthen a claim, particularly when co-occurring with other “ethnically
marked” language (such as Turkish/Danish code-mixing). When used with
interlocutors of the same ethnic background, these same uses of “toch” can be
used to seek solidarity with other speakers. The author also provides a brief
analysis of speakers’ metalinguistic awareness of how particle use is tied to
ethnically-linked social positions. For example, one Turkish speaker (Mehmet)
notes that Dutch speakers will put “strange words” in their speech, and we see
two Moroccan speakers perform a stylized “cool” identity with frequent use of
the phrasal “ja toch” (Eng. “yeah sure”).

The seventh chapter closes the analysis with a brief conclusion based primarily
on providing answers to the research “sub-questions” posed in the third chapter.
The author concludes by reiterating some of the cross-ethnic functions and
frequencies of particular uses of “maar” and “toch”, arguing the strong role
that particles play in her data as markers of ethnically-tied youth identities.
The book ends with suggestions for future research, such as including other
local immigrant groups (such as Surinamese and Antillean speakers), and
including gender as a variable of analysis (which was largely absent from the
present analysis).


Though Schokkin situates her text as a response to work in sociolinguistics,
linguistic pragmatics, and forms of socially-oriented discourse analysis, it
will likely also be of interest to sociologists and communication scholars
interested in issues related to ethnicity and identity. The book is readily
accessible to a general academic audience; the majority of terms and concepts
related to sociolinguistic analysis are found in the second chapter, which
provides the theoretical background to the study. In fact, only one of the
other chapters -- the sixth chapter, providing the qualitative analysis of the
data -- significantly draws on any type of sociolinguistic theory or key terms.
The second chapter provides a thorough introduction to both prior work and key
concepts in sociolinguistics, and parts of it would make for a valuable
introductory reading to graduate-level courses. However, the chapter feels
slightly out of fit with the rest of the text. A number of the concepts
presented in this section are rarely, if ever, drawn upon again in the remainder
of the book. Given that the second chapter takes up over a third of the book, it
occasionally felt like the space devoted to the background for the analysis
could have been better spent on the analysis itself.

The analysis of the data in the fifth and sixth chapters is convincing, and the
author makes a strong case for the complementarity of quantitative and
qualitative approaches. While arguing for mixed methods, the author appears to
favor quantitative approaches to the data throughout the text -- for example, by
framing the study’s research questions in variationist terms, noting the
“problem” that qualitative studies cannot be effectively reproduced, and by
framing qualitative work as providing supplementary insight into quantitative
analyses without also considering how the opposite may be true. Overall, the
book presents a smart, though concise, analysis of a largely undiscussed
sociolinguistic phenomenon: the role played by discourse particles in
ethnolectal styles. It is likely that the text will pave the way for similar,
further research within both sociolinguistics and socially-oriented discourse


Eckert, P. (2000). Linguistic variation as social practice. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: Learning, meaning and identity.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Joshua Raclaw is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Linguistics at the University of Colorado at Boulder. His dissertation is a conversation analytic study of two of the non-disagreeing functions of the English response particle ‘no’. His research interests include the broader functions of response particles and discourse markers in English, the use of prosody and gesture in interaction, the relationship between language, gender, and sexuality, the sociolinguistics of computer-mediated discourse, and qualitative research methods (especially conversation analysis and ethnography).