Discourse Particles in Language Analysis

Subject: Linguistics
Pages: 5
Words: 1443
Reading time:
6 min
Study level: PhD

Summary of the Article

The article of Rieschild (2011) is dedicated to the analysis of the connections between the notion of discourse particles and the socio-cultural context of language usage. The present article also refers to the difficulties in translating discourse markers in semantically different languages; in case of Rieschild (2011), the comparison was made between English and Arabic languages. The author claimed that due to the fundamental differences between the semantic fields usually paralleled and cross-referenced for the sake of consistency of translation, there is some additional need to dwell closer with the origin and nature of discourse particles in both English and Arabic.

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The example that Rieschild (2011) used for the illustration of his argument is the Arabic discourse particle ‘yacni’ resembling to English discourse particles ‘I mean’ and ‘sorta’. The author used the natural semantic meta-language analysis and conversation analysis for the assessment of translatability of discourse particles. The main assumption of Rieschild (2011) was that yacni possessed both universal and language/ culture-specific features of discourse particles. The material used by Rieschild (2011) was very extensive; the researcher collected 14 ethnographic interviews with the representatives of the Lebanese, Palestinian, Jordanian, Egyptian Arabic language groups, and 50 Lebanese-Arabic interactions in family and school settings to provide the sufficient amount of materials for the meta-language and content analysis.

As it comes from the present research, the discourse particles were analyzed on the basis of speech acts occurring in natural circumstances, and the comparison between these speech acts and English contextual synonyms also occurs on the basis of the message intended for communication by the speaker. Thus, one can see the support for the chosen method of Rieschild (2011) – it is the Natural Semantic Meta-Language technique selected for the sake of adopting an integrated approach to cultural studies. Therefore, the conversation analytic standpoint gave the author an opportunity to identify the path of development of discourse particles’ idiomatic semantic extensions with the discourse functions.

The process of this development is called pragmaticalization; it differs from the classical grammaticalization by means of adding the meaning of discourse markers to the words undergoing the change (Rieschild, 2011). As the author noted, there were certain peculiarities in the way discourse particles were constructed in Eastern Arabic dialects, and one of the peculiarities was, for example, that many of them developed from the word equivalent to ‘good’. However, the particle ‘yacni’ is also a very widespread discourse marker that resembles to a range of contextual equivalents in English.

As for the discussion of senses and functions of ‘yacni’, Rieschild (2011) claimed that it is met both in classical texts and in colloquial dialects, meaning one of the three communicated messages: “someone said something”, “I want to say more about it”, “after I say it, something will happen”. Therefore, after conducting the content analysis and meta-language analysis efforts, Rieschild (2011) managed to infer that the functional levels of ‘yacni’ are as follows: it can act as the speech act, discourse, turn management, rhetorical level tool used for parallelism and narrative suspense, and a propositional truth tool used for hedging. These functions imposed varying considerations about the translation variants for the discourse particle ‘yacni’.

Coming to translation considerations of the discussed discourse particle, Rieschild (2011) noted the semantics of potential translation pairs; the author stated that in case of using the equivalent of “I mean”, the translator comes closer in the meaning of ‘yacni’, but there are still certain constraints in the translation potential. In case of using “this means” as the translation pair for ‘yacni’, the translation result will be more aligned, and it will be an adequate connective in terms of building the same semantic structure of turn construction units in both Arabic and English (Rieschild, 2011). When using the variant “sorta” (as the colloquial shortened version of ‘sort of’), the translator will assume the limited semantic similarity between the equivalents because of the occurrence of this discourse particle without a determiner and its invariability in noun phrases (Rieschild, 2011). There are also certain provisions regarding the usage of the approximative ‘sorta’ when translating ‘yacni’.

Finally, the end of the article by Rieschild (2011) is dedicated to the issues of translatability touching upon a wider range of discourse particles met in both Arabic and English. Thus, Rieschild (2011) speaks about translation equivalence first, stating that discourse particles are more typical in the ordinary everyday life, thus being embedded in the social and cultural context of native speakers. The present characteristic indicates that they develop semantic, pragmatic, and connotation features necessary to be identified in the process of translation. As for the translation constraints, there is a clear need to identify shared semantic between languages, absence of which challenges functional equivalence of translation items. Finally, Rieschild (2011) assumes that there is a clear relation of the choice of discourse particles to the contextual aspects of the situation; thus, people choose discourse particles depending on the image they want to create about themselves, the level f accountability for their words they want to bear, and the framing they want to make for their speech acts.

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Critique of the Article

There is much attention paid to the formation and usage of discourse markers and discourse particles in languages at the present period; the interest is mainly explained by the fact that the foreign language acquisition occurs with differing levels of success, and proficiency in a foreign language is usually predetermined by knowledge of culturally and socially significant discourse particles not frequently met in the textbooks. The intricate and complex relationships between semantics and pragmatics indicate the need to take the socio-cultural context of language usage in the process of language learning and translation from one language to another, as noted by Rieschild (2011). Hence, the need to investigate the socio-cultural impact of the context of natural language usage on the proficiency of contextual synonyms’ choice is evident in the context of the present critique.

As Bayer and Obenauer (2011) noted in their article, discourse particles provide important clues to our understanding of syntax-to-discourse relation in a particular language. In addition, the authors claimed that the discourse particles are rather new notions in the formal linguistics research, so there is an apparent lack of information about their emergence, evolution in the semantic structure of the language, and the role they play in constructing the culturally loaded discourse of a certain linguistic act. Therefore, their role is clearly articulated in the current research, but the characteristic features of DPs are lacking clarity.

Lam (2009) also noted the significance of discourse particles in any language, especially in the spoken discourse. The author stated that there is a clear difference between the usage of discourse particles in real life and educational materials. Therefore, it is obvious that the extent to which the foreign language learners who appear detached from the traditionally occurring speech acts, and having limited access to hearing or participating in such acts, can master the usage of discourse particles (Lam, 2009). It appears necessary to continue the discourse particles-related research, as the question of foreign language acquisition success heavily relies on the understanding of the extent to which a language can be mastered using solely textbooks, and how much real-life communication with native speakers is needed to ensure adequate language mastery. Lam’s (2009) ideas are highly compliant with the claims of Rieschild (2011) about the prevalence of discourse particles in spoken speech.

There are many articles referring to the analysis of the processes of grammaticalization and pragmaticalization through which the discourse particles emerge in languages. For example, Diewald (2011) noted that grammaticalization is a functionally motivated type of language change, while pragmaticalization is a subclass of the latter process distinguished by specific traits. The statement of Beeching (2010) who found out that grammaticalization occurs in response to the functional needs of the language, while pragmaticalization processes cause the emergence of discourse markers, supports the present idea.

As it comes from the present critique, the emergence of discourse particles is a natural, continuous process in any language, and it usually occurs in the spoken language acts. According to the opinion of Lewis (2011), the frequency and usage of certain discourse particles lead to the emergence of discourse markers that express discourse-relational predications. Therefore, one can state that the emergence and usage of discourse particles is heavily dependent on the socio-cultural context of language usage. The findings of all researchers are consistent with the conclusions of Rieschild (2011) about the urgent need to consider the match of denotations, connotations, and functions of discourse particles in the course of translation or language acquisition for the sake of consistency of source and target messages.


  1. Bayer, J., & Obenauer, H.-G. (2011). Discourse particles, clause structure, and question types. The Linguistic Review, 28, pp. 449–491.
  2. Beeching, K. (2010). Semantic change: Evidence from false friends. Languages in Contrast, 10(2), pp. 139–165.
  3. Diewald, G. (2011). Pragmaticalization (defined) as grammaticalization of discourse functions. Linguistics, 49(2), pp. 365–390.
  4. Lam, W. Y. P. (2009). Discourse Particles in Corpus Data and Textbooks: The Case of Well. Applied Linguistics, 31(2), pp. 260–281.
  5. Lewis, D. M. (2011). A discourse-constructional approach to the emergence of discourse markers in English. Linguistics, 49(2), pp. 415–443.
  6. Rieschild, V. (2011). Arabic yacni: Issues of semantic, pragmatic, and indexical translation equivalence. Intercultural Pragmatics, 8(3), pp. 315–346.