A sociopragmatic study of surprise markers in Early Modern English

I have been invited to a panel about “The role of identity in discourse-pragmatic variation and change” to be held at the i-Mean@UWE conference in Bristol, 18-20 April 2013. My panel contribution allows me to dig a bit deeper in the area of historical discourse marker research from a gender perspective. In one of my previous studies on the discourse marker why and its functions, I found that this marker was mainly used by male characters to signal surprise on the part of the speaker in Early Modern English (EModE) drama comedy. Since then, I have been wondering whether surprise markers in this EModE text type may show a gender-specific distribution; that is to say whether some of them are more frequently attested in male characters’ speech, whereas others are more commonly used by female characters. This is the question that I will attempt to answer during my talk in Bristol, as you can also see from my abstract:

A sociopragmatic study of surprise markers in Early Modern English

In previous research, discourse markers were often related to the sociolinguistic variable gender. Thus, it was said that prototypical discourse markers are gender specific and more frequently used by women (e.g. Brinton 1996, Lakoff 1975). However, different studies arrived at contrasting results, including historical studies analysing dramatic discourse: while Akimoto (2000) found the discourse marker pray to predominate in male characters’ speech in Farquhar’s plays, Demmen (2009) showed that the construction I pray you was statistically more frequent in female characters’ speech in her Shakespearean data.

In this study, I will focus on one particular pragmatic function of discourse markers and that is signalling surprise on the part of the speaker. In particular, I will elaborate on a previous study (Lutzky forthcoming) in which I found the discourse marker why with a surprise function to be more frequently used by males than females in Early Modern English drama comedy. By studying other forms with this function, I aim to find out whether surprise markers show a gender specific distribution and which of them are attested predominantly in female characters’ speech.

This study will be based on the sociopragmatically annotated Drama Corpus of Early Modern English (EModE), which builds on the Sociopragmatic Corpus and comprises drama comedy samples by a range of different authors from the period 1500 to 1760. I will draw on the sociopragmatic annotation of this corpus to study the surprise function of discourse markers in relation to the variables gender and social roles, both of which are reflected in the turn-by-turn annotation of the corpus for both the speaker and the addressee. The aim of this study is, consequently, to discover whether gender or social role specific tendencies can be identified for the fictional representation of a particular discourse marker function in EModE drama comedy.



Akimoto, M. 2000. “The grammaticalization of the verb ‘pray’”. In Fischer O., Rosenbach A., and Stein D. (eds.) Pathways of Change. Grammaticalization in English. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Brinton, L. 1996. Pragmatic Markers in English. Grammaticalization and Discourse Functions. Berlin: de Gruyter.

Demmen, J.E.J. 2009. “Charmed and Chattering Tongues: Investigating the Functions and Effects of Key Word Clusters in the Dialogue of Shakespeare’s Female Characters”. Unpublished MA dissertation, Lancaster University, U.K.

Lakoff, R. 1975. Language and Woman’s Place: Text and Commentaries. London: Harper and Row.

Lutzky, Ursula. Forthcoming. “Early Modern English discourse markers – a feature of female speech?” In Mazzon G. and Fodde L. (eds.). Perspectives on Early English Dialogue. Case Studies in Historical Pragmatics. Naples: Franco AngeliEditore.

Sociopragmatic Corpus. 2007. Annotated Under the Supervision of Jonathan Culpeper (Lancaster University). A Derivative of A Corpus of English Dialogues 1560–1760, Compiled Under the Supervision of Merja Kytö (Uppsala University) and Jonathan Culpeper (Lancaster University).