Communicative competence in a language demands more than the knowledge of how words are put together to form sentences. Language is both delicate and sensitive, and it is tied to contextual and pragmatic influences. Discourse markers are, therefore, some kind of gear with which conversations are modulated.
Discourse markers cannot be easily pinned down as a concept, as it manifests in different forms and lengths across languages. Schiffrin (1987) defines discourse markers as “sequentially dependent elements that bracket units of talk, i.e. non-obligatory initial items that function in relation to ongoing talk and text”.
Discourse markers are universal features of language use that manifest in different forms and perform different functions in different cultural environments. That said, one may ask what is significant about the knowledge of such markers. As an answer, Schiffrin (1987) hints that the analysis of discourse markers is part of the more general analysis of discourse coherence – how speakers and hearers jointly integrate forms, meanings, and actions to make overall sense out of what is said.
Discourse markers are small verbal utterances used to perform the kind of function that silence, laughter, coughing, gaze, etc. are used for in communication. According to Parrot (2002), discourse markers perform the following functions:
1) To “signpost” logical relationships and sequences; in other words, discourse markers point out how bits of what we say and write relate to each other.
2) To “manage” conversations; that is, to negotiate who speaks and when in order to monitor and express involvement in the topic.
3) To influence how the listeners or readers react.
4) To express our attitude to what we say and write.
The rest of this piece will discuss two major classifications of discourse markers and their usages.
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The first class of discourse markers is the ones used to weave words, phrases and utterances together. Many of the discourse markers in this category are also called conjunctions. Six types of discourse markers in this category, as given by scholars, will be presented with examples.
Additive markers are the first in this class. Additive discourse markers or conjunctions are used to add one part of a proposition to another. Some additive markers are: and, yet, also, in addition, that is, similarly, on the other hand. These markers can be used within a sentence as exemplified by “and” and “yet” in the sentences below:
He requested it, and it was given to him.
She was being abused, yet she remained in the marriage.
They are also used as linkers to show the connection between two sentences as exemplified by “in addition”: He bought her a house. In addition, he furnished the house for her.
The second type is adversative markers, e.g. but, however, rather. They are used to show opposition or contrast between two statements or within a statement:
He did all he could, but she did not marry him.
Nigeria is rich in mineral resources. However, these resources are not judiciously utilised.
The third type is causal markers, and examples are “therefore”, “as a result”, “because”. The usages are shown in the examples below:
He did not listen to me. Therefore, I will let him face the consequences of his actions.
The fourth class is temporal markers, consisting of words such as then, next, finally, first(ly), and second(ly):
I lived in Ibadan for six years. Then, I was a postgraduate student.
The fifth type is comparison, e.g. in the same way, likewise:
We painted our house white, and our neighbour did likewise.
Purpose is the fifth type of markers, and its examples include “for this purpose”, and “with this in mind”: I am ready to fight this cause. With this in mind, you can tell me if you want to be part of this movement or not.
Further, exemplification is the sixth type, with examples such as “for instance”, “for example”, “thus”:
Mr David Aina is a composer. For instance, he composed the anthems of Lagos State University and Lagos State University of Education.
While this first class of discourse markers mainly performs grammatical functions, the second class essentially reflects attitude. Schiffrin (2006) further categorises this second class of discourse markers into those which carry propositional meanings (e.g. I mean, y’know) and those that do not (such as “oh”). Instructively, discourse markers are either societal or individual markers. Every society has its markers such as the ones given in English.
Fakoya (2006) cited one of such markers among the Yoruba, which is Àkíìkà. It can take several pragmatic correlates, e.g. that’s a good point; well, you’re right about that; there’s some truth in that; I never thought of that, etc. Among Nigerian youth, utterances such as “dey play” and “e choke” are examples of discourse markers. Individuals also deploy and become known for personalised discourse markers. It should be mentioned that the use of propositional discourse markers can serve as a speaker’s distinctive quality.
A renowned Nigerian English phonologist and former commissioner for education in Ogun State, Nigeria, is known to usually spice his public talks with the marker “surprise surprise”. Many other teachers and public speakers use propositional markers such as “Are you following me?” and “Are you getting it?” While these markers are useful, their empty equivalents such as “oh”, “errm”, “so” weaken oral delivery and should be avoided. However, they are useful when they serve as reactions from listeners, as they help to express a listener’s attitude to an ongoing talk.
Discourse markers are veritable communicative tools. As a result, proper mastery of them boosts both written and spoken communication; although an excessive use of the markers can make speech or writing monotonous.
© 2023 Ganiu Bamgbose writes from the Department of English, Lagos State University.