ENGL 507 Discourse Markers Now and Then

Studies in the History of English:

Discourse markers now and then

Course Description
Pervasive in colloquial speech are what linguists call “discourse markers” or “pragmatic markers” such as now, then, well, okay, right, like, oh, and anyway, as well as clausal forms (called “comment clauses”) such as y’know, I mean, I think, I guess, and it seems. While traditionally stigmatized as meaningless fillers, they have, in the last thirty-five years, been studied as part of discourse structure (approached from a variety of perspectives such as conversational analysis or Relevance Theory or functional grammar). Such studies have shown discourse markers to be essential elements in the pragmatic functioning of discourse. Not only do they serve textual functions (in organizing discourse, in marking boundaries, or in assisting in turn-taking), but they also have a number of subjective and intersubjective uses in expressing speaker attitude and in achieving common ground and intimacy between speaker and hearer.

Beginning in the mid-1980s, scholars began to explore the possibility of studying the existence of pragmatic markers in earlier stages of language and their origins and development over time. This type of study encounters a serious “data problem” as we have no direct access to spoken language from earlier periods. However, we now speech-based data has become much more readily available (such as the Corpus of English Dialogues 1560-1760, which includes both authentic dialogue [trial proceedings and witness depositions] and constructed dialogue [drama, prose fiction, didactic works]). Moreover, it is now recognized that pragmatic markers are a feature of written as well as spoken language and that written language is a subject for study in its own right. The field of “historical pragmatics” or “historical discourse analysis” is now flourishing, with much of the work focusing on English.

This course begins with a number of articles defining pragmatic markers. It then introduces issues involved in the historical study of pragmatic markers. The course examines two main approaches to pragmatic markers that have emerged:

  1. studies of pragmatic markers in (literary) texts and authors in the historical periods of English; and
  2. historical studies of pragmatic markers from a linguistic perspective, with a focus on how they develop over time.

Course Requirements
The requirements of the course will include:

  • a class discussion on one of the assigned readings,
  • five discussion postings on Connect,
  • a 20 minute oral presentation based on the research paper, and
  • a research paper paper

For research projects you may choose one of three options:
1)   a study of a pragmatic marker over time (in which case the use of available historical corpora of English could be used) (the rise of you know in Middle English and its occurrence in Early Modern English)
2)   a study of the use of a pragmatic marker in a literary or non-literary text from any period before Present-Day English (e.g. use of I gesse in Chaucer);
3)   a more theoretical comparison of the approach(es) toward pragmatic markers as embodied in the readings in the course (e.g. whether the development of discourse markers is best seen as grammaticalization or pragmaticalization).

Papers should be approximately 15 pages in length.

Class discussion of reading:
When leading a class discussion (30 minutes) of a reading you should provide a  powerpoint (or handout) summarizing the major points in the paper. This needs to be handed in.

Seminar presentation:
These will occur in the last two weeks of class. They should consist of a synopsis (20 minutes) of your paper. I recognize that this is a preliminary version of your research, not the polished final product (so, e.g., questions addressed to your classmates about the direction of your research are permitted, even encouraged)

Discussion postings:
You must post a short response (in advance of class) (less than 200 words) relating to FIVE of the readings in the class. These will be marked complete/not completed. Your response may consist of a response to a classmate’s posting.

Grade break-down:
Discussion of reading          20%
Discussion postings             10%
Seminar presentation          20%
Paper                                 50%

All materials of this course (course handouts, lecture slides, assessments, course readings, etc.) are the intellectual property of the Course Instructor or licensed to be used in this course by the copyright owner. Redistribution of these materials by any means without permission of the copyright holder(s) constitutes a breach of copyright and may lead to academic discipline.