Is formality relevant? Japanese tokens hai, ee and un

Lidia Tanaka


The use of particular lexical, semantic and pragmatic elements to determine the degree of formality is well recognised. In Japanese, formality in a communicative interaction is achieved not only by the use of the appropriate speech style but also of backchannels and short responses. Three such short affirmative responses that also have different pragmatic functions in Japanese are hai, ee (also variants e and eh) and un. Hai is considered to be the most polite while ee and un decrease in degree of formality. However, when looking at real data their use is not that clearly defined. While hai is found only in formal settings, ee and un are used just as frequently in those interactions. Hence, formality or politeness alone cannot account for their use. This paper looks at the use of hai, ee and un in formal interviews, and shows that all three tokens are used frequently as answers, backchannels and discourse markers. However, their distribution is determined by the speakers’ roles suggesting that they project a particular stance and have a distinct emotive value. It appears that hai puts the content in the foreground and is therefore mostly used by interviewees while un is hearer-centered and is more frequently used by interviewers as a backchannel. On the other hand, the ee token is used by both interviewers and interviewees but has other very different functions to hai and un. The fact that these tokens originally used as affirmative tokens are now multifunctional suggests that they are going through a process of intersubjectification.

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