Metapragmatic and metadiscursive linguistic expressions

Metapragmatic expressions in emergent social practice can be understood as linguistic expressions that lie beyond the level of the propositional structure of utterances and are used in a number of ways to position the speaker and the hearer with respect to those utterances. Discourse markers in English such as anyway, like, well, you know, I mean, and so on or meta-pragmatic particles in German such as doch, aber, mal, eben, etc. are all said to be inserted non-propositionally into an utterance to give the interlocutor(s) important clues in interpreting the speaker’s position or in positioning the interlocutor(s) with respect to what is said, or in linking the utterance in specific ways to previous or upcoming utterances in the interaction. As such they are often considered to have a procedural rather than a propositional function (cf. Blakemore 1992, 2002). In Watts (2003: chap. 7) I use the term “expressions of procedural meaning” (EPMs) to highlight this type of metapragmatic expression, examples of which are given below:

  • (1) . . . and he didn’t ring me up at all. Anyway, I was only half expecting him to.
  • (2) A: Excuse me. Can you tell me how to get to the station from here?

B: Well, I think so...

(3) . . . and I didn’t get it finished in time. I mean, I did try.

Other metapragmatic expressions may have the effect of positioning the speaker or the interlocutor outside the “world” of the discourse by commenting on it in the here-and-now of the interaction. They are thus similar to Labov and Waletsky’s functional category of “evaluation” in narrative discourse ([1967] 1997), as in the following examples:

  • (4) . . . so he told me to turn round and put my hands on my head. Now, I knew the gun didn’t have any bullets in it . . .
  • (5) The difference between the bark of the ash and that of the elm, which we

don’t see all that often anymore, is____

Since this latter category of expression positions the speaker/writer and the interlocutor/reader with respect to the overall discourse structure and orders of discourse outside the here-and-now of the ongoing discourse, I propose to call metapragmatic inserts of this kind metadiscursive expressions.

As we might expect, there is no clear boundary between metapragmatic and metadiscursive expressions, but I make this distinction for three reasons. First, in studying historical data, we had no access to overt orality until the advent of audiorecording technology at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, so it is not easy to classify which expressions function metapragmatically unless the discourse structure appears to simulate oral interaction or, as I intend to show, unless we have markers of what I call “inscribed orality”. Second, I wish to discuss a form of discourse that lies outside our modern-day discursive practices, in which written text was, at one and the same time, oral text to be committed to memory and transferred orally to others.

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