"And how was your year?" "Well, like ... you know ..." Sometimes a string of meaningless words say more than a clear argument or a Shakespearean monologue. Interjections such as "you know", "like" and "I mean" frequently pop up in English-language conversations. Linguists at KU Leuven took a closer look at these types of words and investigated their use among native and non-native speakers of English.
Unless you have a linguistic background, you’ve probably never heard of "pragmatic markers", and no one would think less of you for it. Yet everyone knows and uses them. Indeed, they pop up all the time when we talk to each other.
“Pragmatic markers are words or phrases that don’t change the meaning of a message, but that we use to express ourselves more easily or to emphasise something,” says professor of English linguistics Lieven Buysse. “Think of English markers such as ‘you know?’, ‘I mean’ or ‘like’. You can leave those markers out without any problems and still have a perfectly understandable and grammatically correct sentence. And yet they’re important for spoken language.”
Pragmatic markers have a pronounced “signalling function”, says Buysse. For example, they can contribute to the coherence of a story or keep up the rapport with our conversation partner. Primarily, however, they animate a conversation.
“There are different types of markers, each of which contributes in its own way to the social aspect of language. For example, some provide structure and indicate where exactly we are in the conversation. Think of a word like ‘so’ that we use to draw a conclusion, to complete a story, or to grab someone’s attention before we begin our explanation. On the other hand, you also have markers that are more ‘interpersonal’, which are used to directly address your conversation partner. A phrase like ‘you know’, for example, that you use to seek approval or to check whether your audience is still following your story. Or ‘I mean’, to impart a bit of nuance, or vice versa, to articulate something more strongly. ‘I mean: seriously?’”
“Markers can carry out multiple functions, depending on the conversation you’re having. You can use ‘like’ to indicate that a clarifying example will follow, but you can also make it clear that what you say is not one hundred percent correct, that it is an approximation of what you mean. ‘There were, like, four or five people in the room.’ Or you can use it to buy time when the conversation falters. You insert a pause and indicate that you’re still thinking about what you want to say, but that your turn isn’t over yet.”
Professor Buysse and his team researched the use of pragmatic markers in English-language conversations. They did this for three clearly defined speaker groups: native speakers of English, non-native speakers who have learned the language at a high level, such as Flemish language and literature students, and non-native speakers who use English as a “lingua franca”. “For the latter group, think of people who speak English with their colleagues at work,” explains Buysse. “Or international students, who speak English with their fellow students and take all lessons in that language.”
The researchers assumed that pragmatic markers would mainly occur in the language use of native speakers, and to a lesser extent in the “lingua franca” speakers, while the Flemish students would use them little or not at all. “But that turns out to be completely wrong,” says Buysse. “All three groups make extensive use of pragmatic markers. This even applies to ‘you know’ and ‘I mean’, markers that are very strongly regarded as part of the informal language.”
The fact that Flemish students also resort to these pragmatic markers astonished the researchers. After all, the markers are not taught within an educational context, and some are even discouraged by teachers or professors of English. “Young people undoubtedly pick up those markers from films, Netflix series or YouTube films, but just because you know they exist doesn’t mean that you’ll use them yourself. Precisely because their use is often disapproved of in class or for assignments, we assumed that young people would feel less at ease with them.”
“The latter was something seen in an earlier study,” says Buysse. “In a setting where young people had conversations in English with researchers, it turned out that non-native speakers barely used 'like'. Whilst our study shows that they do use it among peers, in a conversation with friends or fellow students. In a natural, relaxed atmosphere, you could say. So much depends on the context. Whilst native speakers use pragmatic markers in almost every situation – perhaps because they’ve been doing so from an early age – Flemish students nevertheless make a stronger distinction between the registers. They adapt their language depending on the interlocutor and the environment they’re in.”
Using questionnaires, the researchers also examined the participants’ familiarity with pragmatic markers and whether they know exactly what they mean. They also asked how the speakers themselves feel about the use of those markers. Does it bother them? Or not really?
“We’re still working on that part of the research, but the preliminary results show that more structuring markers such as ‘well’ or ‘so’ don’t evoke strong opinions. This isn’t unusual: as mentioned, they can contribute to the structure of your story, they’re very flexible because you can use them just about anywhere in a sentence, and we also know them from more formal language. ‘Like’ and ‘you know’, on the other hand, do evoke strong reactions, both negative and positive.”
Still, “like” and “you know” were frequently used in conversations, including by participants who found them annoying. “There’s no correlation between the perception of the markers and their use. Those who have a negative attitude towards ‘you know’ won’t use any less often than someone who has positive feelings about it, and vice versa. Simply because you hear them so often, they subconsciously take over. Chameleon behaviour, in other words.”
Buysse and his team want to explore opinions around specific markers and their use in even more detail. “We’re now thoroughly analysing all the data we have,” says Buysse. “We check in with each speaker as to whether they have strong feelings towards one or more markers, or which markers that person uses or not, why they use them ...."
In the future, Buysse also wants to test English markers against similar words or phrases in Dutch.
“We’d like to find out which Dutch-language markers are used the most, what their function is and which links there are with their English-language counterparts. And once we have that information, we can also research non-verbal communication, such as gestures or eye movements. They also contribute to the course of a conversation. We want to map out all of those linguistic and non-linguistic elements and see how they interact. All of this will undoubtedly produce interesting material that will give us an even better insight into how we enrich our interactions with information, without explicitly putting it into words.”