Alonso i Alemany, Laura & Henk Zeevat

01 (2006)
Discourse particles form an important borderline case in semantics, pragmatics and syntax and can be the source of new insights in these areas. Formal descriptions of their meaning and use are diffi cult and controversial and seem to involve more dimensions than are usually taken into account in semantics and pragmatics. Under the assumption that the main function of particles is to enlarge the space of possible speech acts, their formal treatment involves creating presuppositions, introducing implicatures, overriding implicatures of the matrix speech act and changing the epistemic and bouletic modalities typically associated with speech acts.
Historical linguistics and linguistic typology provide insightful data and may contribute signifi cantly to the understanding of discourse particles. Studies of semantic maps and grammaticalisation paths in the area of modality, tense and contrast have helped understanding particle meanings. A central and diffi cult question is to understand what it is about normal human communication that causes the recruitment of adverbials in their new role of discourse particles.
The study of particles promises to contribute to two area in computational linguistics. The generation of high quality natural language texts and achieving natural interaction styles in natural language interfaces cannot do without the use of particles and thus needs far more insight in the triggering conditions of the particles than is currently available. In discourse understanding, elusive concepts like rhetorical relations and discourse structure do not seem to be feasible without a proper grasp of the function of the particles in these areas.
The papers in this volume were part of a workshop held in the University of Barcelona in April 2005, in succession to the workshop at the ESSLLI Summer School in Vienna in 2002. The aim of the workshop was contribute to a common understanding of the current possibilities for the formal explanation of the nature of these linguistic items in indicating speech acts and discourse structure. To that aim, different perspectives on the theory and implementation of discourse particles and similar devices (tag questions, modal auxiliaries, etc.) are presented.
The papers cover a wide range of formal approaches to discourse particles, from dealing with previously undescribed particles to discussing various alternatives for the explanation of particles with an extensive record of studies, with some empirical studies of actual behaviour in real corpora.

CORCU, PAILLARD and TSOULAS & ALEXIADOU provide a description of the usage of some particles in Turkish, Russian and Greek, respectively, and propose a formal explanation of their semantics and pragmatics.
On the other hand, GUTIERREZ-REXACH, MCCREADY and ROMERO present extensive formal accounts of discourse particles in Spanish, Japanese and English, discussing various alternatives.
GONZALEZ and LAM present corpus studies of discourse particles, adopting and to some extent refining some of the premises of well-established theories of discourse.
Finally, NYAN explains the function of discourse particles in language as constraints within a general theory of decision-making in human interaction.
ROMERO proposes an analysis of information-seeking yes/no questions through an operator that explains the epistemic bias on the speaker’s side, introduced by particles like “really” or preposed negation. She argues that this explanation is more adequate than previous proposals (esp. Van Rooy 2003) discussed in the paper. MCCREADY attempts a formal explanation of the Japanese sentence-final particle “yo” within the framework of dynamic semantic analysis, incorporating the widely accepted intuitions that this kind of particle marks new information and emphasizes the sentence they appear in. He goes on further to explain modal uses of “yo” compositionally, by making use of underspecification at the discourse level.
GUTIERREZ-REXACH also develops a compositional analysis for a class of contrastive / reformulative discourse particles of Spanish, of the form “de + quantifier + noun”, and predicts how their binding relationships vary depending on their syntactic position.
TSOULAS and ALEXIADOU present a description of the particle “re” in Greek, which had never studied from a formal perspective. They provide a detailed description of the distribution of the particle and its effects in the meaning of its matrix sentence. They show that it has complicated interactions at different levels of grammatical organisation, and propose an initial account of its behaviour within a minimalist framework.
CORCU also presents a descriptive study of the Turkish discourse particles “zaten” and “ya”, and proposes a two-layered description of their function. The effects of these two particles are explained as an interaction with sentential information structure (VallduvÌ 1992). PAILLARD describes two discourse particles in Russian (voobšče and v obščem), and proposes to reduce the explanation of their multiple usages by factorising their meaning to a core meaning and four levels of variation, grounding on formal criteria (scope, prosodic break up of the particle, position).
GONZALEZ presents the analysis in an oral corpus of two Catalan discourse markers –“eh” and “no” – that are used in tag questions, relying on Sander’s (1997) notion of source of coherence – semantic vs. pragmatic – as the basic distinction for the description of the pragmatic functions of the markers. LAM tries to describe the usage of the English particle “well” by non-native speakers, namely Hong Kong Chinese speakers with English as a second language. She describes the uses of this particle in a large oral corpus of a TV current affairs talk show. Results show that “well” fulfils a wide range of functions, in contrast with the prevalent view in the Hong Kong educational setting that discourse particles are a sign of non-fluent speech. Important conclusions for the status of discourse particles in second language learning are put forward.
Finally, NYAN explains certain French discourse markers (toujours, mais, justement, maintenant) within the processing of argumentative discourse considered as a goaloriented activity. Discourse markers are regarded as instructions or constraints that increase the efficiency of the decision-making process leading to the identification of a given proposal for action.


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  • van Rooy, Robert (2003): Negative polarity items in questions: Strength as relevance. In: Journal of Semantics 20: 239–273.