[Lingtyp] Discourse markers

Christian Lehmann christian.lehmann at uni-erfurt.de
Mon Sep 17 05:31:09 EDT 2018

Not having read the volume mentioned by Vladimir, I am not in a position 
to provide a definition. However, here is a set of potentially relevant 

Semantic scope: The meaning of a discourse marker relates what is 
conveyed by the sentence containing it to utterances in the context - 
above all, the preceding context, but possibly the context following the 

Structural status: A discourse marker is typically a particle, but 
possibly an affix. Whether it is independent or clitic does not seem to 

Given this, there is a set of neighboring concepts against which the 
discourse marker should be delimited:

  * An interjection is a substitute for a simple sentence. E.g.: /Gosh!/
  * A sentence connective is a formative coding the interpropositional
    relation in a paratactic construction of sentences. I only know of
    sentence-initial connectives which relate to the preceding context.
    (Clause connectives may, of course, end their clause and connect
    them to the following clause.) E.g.: /(So) (then)/ ... and all the
    semantically more specific "coordinative conjunctions" of the type
    /therefore, nevertheless/ etc.
  * An illocutionary operator is a formative coding the basic
    illocutionary force of its sentence. E.g. Russian /li/
  * A modal particle is a formative coding the modality of its sentence.
    E.g. Russian /by/.
  * Information structure formatives, like topic and focus markers and
    emphasizers, indicate the role of segments of a sentence in
    information structure. (They may be subsumable under scope
    particles.) E.g. Japanese /wa/, Yucatec Maya /=e'/ TOPIC.
  * Furthermore, there are, of course, more kinds of formatives like
    modal adverbs, negators and scope particles (Engl. /only, even/),
    with which discourse markers are less likely to be confounded and
    which I therefore refrain from defining.

The purpose of the above enumeration is not to whip out definitions, but 
instead to identify a set of concepts of long standing in the discipline 
which appear to me to be relatively well delimited, so there would be no 
need to use the word (it is not yet a term) /discourse marker/ to cover 

There remain, then, at least two kinds of formatives not subsumed by any 
of the above concepts which may be named 'discourse marker':

  * Particles at the beginning of a sentence which afford nothing of the
    above but simply mark a transition point in the discourse. E.g.:
    English /well/, Russian /nu/, Spanish /pues/.
  * Formatives coding the relation of what is designated by their
    sentence to the universe of discourse. E.g.: Russian /ved'/, German
    /eben/. In Russian and German linguistics, these have traditionally
    been called modal particles. (The German ones have also been called
    /Abtönungspartikeln/, but that does not seem to be a word apt for a
    technical linguistic term.) However, unless I am mistaken, their
    function does not seem to be covered by our concept of modality.
    Thus, if we opt for a controlled change of terminology, we may wish
    to call these (a kind of) 'discourse markers'.

I would be interested to see if people share my intuitions so we can 
make some progress towards delimiting the concept for a term that has 
been often used as a waste basket.


Prof. em. Dr. Christian Lehmann
Rudolfstr. 4
99092 Erfurt

Tel.: 	+49/361/2113417
E-Post: 	christianw_lehmann at arcor.de
Web: 	https://www.christianlehmann.eu

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