Tag questions across Englishes: A corpus pragmatic analysis

English today is a heterogeneous global language comprising a wide array of standard and non-standard varieties. The coexistence of several standard varieties of English makes English a pluricentric language. This heterogeneity of Standard English is captured most notably in Kachru’s (1985) model of World Englishes, where he distinguishes between independent national varieties of English along three circles: (1) inner circle ENL Englishes, such as British or American English, (2) outer circle ESL or New Englishes, such as Nigerian or Philippine English, and (3) EFL Englishes of the expanding circle, such as German or Chinese English. The International Corpus of English (ICE), with its growing number of matching national components, provides a rich tool for the analysis of Englishes in the inner and outer circle. In very general terms research on World Englishes has repeatedly shown that “accent divides, and syntax unites” (Mair 2007: 97), while the question of pragmatic variation in World Englishes has largely been ignored.

    This post-doc project adds a pragmatic perspective to World Englishes research by investigating the use of tag questions in four varieties of English: Irish English, Trinidadian English, Nigerian English, and Philippine English. The analysis is based on corpus data from the four respective components of the ICE. In contrast to previous research on tag questions in different varieties of English (e.g. Columbus 2009; Tottie & Hoffmann 2006) the study analyzes both variant/canonical, such as did I or are you, as well as invariant tag questions, such as right or eh. The analysis also includes the position of tag questions in a speaker’s turn and utterance. Besides form and position I investigate the pragmatic meaning of tag questions as these discourse-pragmatic features fulfill diverse functions in linguistic interactions: for example, speakers use tag questions in a confirmatory way to elicit agreement from an interlocutor or in a facilitative way to encourage responses from other speakers and thus involve them actively in the conversation. In line with Biber’s (1995) observation that “linguistic differences among registers within a language are far more noteworthy” than “linguistic differences among geographic and social dialects” (pp. 1-2), I take into account the internal heterogeneity of the four Englishes by analyzing the variation of tag questions along four different text types of the ICE: face-to-face conversations, telephone calls, classroom lessons, and legal cross-examinations. These text types represent very different communicative settings, for example with regard to speaker roles or the aims of communication, and it is the specific communicative needs in each situation rather than just the level of formality which influence the form and function of tag questions. All variables mentioned with their different categorical levels potentially interact in complex ways. In order to show how form, position, pragmatic function, and text type interact the analysis uses multinomial logistic regression models (Levshina 2015:277-300).

    Schneider & Barron (2008) have defined such a quantitative variationist approach to pragmatic variation as variational pragmatics. This new and growing field of research addresses the effects of macro- (gender, social class, ethnicity, and region) as well as micro-social factors (power and social distance) on pragmatic variation. Most research in this area has focused on British (e.g. Aijmer 2013; Beeching 2016; Pichler 2013) and Irish English (e.g. Barron et al. 2015; Schweinberger 2015) while variational pragmatic studies on New Englishes are rare. For instance there are only few studies on tag questions in New Englishes: Columbus (2009) has studied invariant tag questions in the ICE components of Great Britain, New Zealand, Hong Kong, India, and Singapore, Borlongan (2008) has compared the use of variant tag questions in ICE Philippines to British, American, and Hong Kong English, and most recently Parviainen (2016) has analyzed invariant isn’t it in ICE India, Singapore, Hong Kong, and the Philippines in comparison to British and American English. In addition to this research gap with regard to region, text type has been largely neglected as a factor in variational pragmatics: most research on discourse pragmatic features has focused exclusively on informal conversations. In contrast, Aijmer (2013) studies pragmatic markers in different spoken text types of ICE Great Britain and illustrates that there are salient “text type specific functions resulting from the ‘stretching’ or ‘modification’ of an already existing meaning” (pp. 148). Fuchs & Gut (2016) analyze intensifier usage in different text types of ICE India, Singapore, Philippines, and Great Britain, showing that text type has a stronger influence on the distribution of intensifiers than variety.

    This study addresses these existing research gaps in World Englishes and variational pragmatics. By focusing on text type variation I want to advance a more nuanced view on New Englishes which challenges existing assumptions of the homogeneity of newly emerging Standard Englishes (e.g. Kachru 1985; Schneider 2007: 51). The project uses text type and thus the ICE design to a fuller potential than most existing ICE-based research on New Englishes, which often pools all text types together or reduces text type variation to a formal/informal dichotomy, and also than variational pragmatics, which mostly focuses on informal conversations. Variational pragmatics with the focus on text type variation has the potential to provide a fresh view on the similarities and differences between World Englishes.

link to codebook

link to question tag survey - Nigeria (pdf)

link to question tag survey - Trinidad (pdf)


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