Sentence-final particles in Singapore English: Are they pragmatic or phonological?

Author(s): James Sneed German and Laurent Prévot

Abstract

While the use of sentence-final discourse particles (SFPs) is ostensibly linked to specific pragmatic or social functions, their realization is also associated with particular positional and intonational requirements. This raises the question of whether the use of SFPs may be partly driven by the phonological characteristics of sentence-final contexts. In German & Prévot (2014), we showed that Singapore English lah is overrepresented in contexts involving sentence-final stress and underrepresented elsewhere. This is surprising if the use of lah is motivated by purely pragmatic considerations, but can be explained if (i) lah is recruited where it can relieve tonal crowding, or (ii) lah is avoided when it would result in a long sequence of non-prominent syllables. Such behavior is expected to be more prevalent for SFPs (like lah) whose pragmatic function is very general, but less prevalent for SFPs with a more specialized function. In this study, we consider the distributions of a wider range of Singapore English SFPs, including leh, lor, ah and hor. Overall, these particles were more evenly distributed across prosodic contexts compared to lah, suggesting that prosodic context conditions the use of SFPs, but only when this does not interfere with the speaker’s intended message.

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