Skip to main content Accessibility help

Deconstructing variation in pragmatic function: A transdisciplinary case study

  • Martina Wiltschko (a1), Derek Denis (a2) and Alexandra D'Arcy (a3)


Despite recent advances (e.g. Cheshire 2007; Pichler 2010; Denis 2015), discourse-pragmatic variables continue to challenge variationist theory and methods. An overarching dilemma concerns multifunctionality, raising difficulties for semantic equivalency and the circumscription of the variable context. In this article we present a case study to illustrate that deconstructing a discourse-pragmatic marker into its composite parts reveals clear criteria for disambiguating its principal function and its contextually derived functions. The discussion centres on the pragmatic marker eh in Canadian English. We illustrate that its multifunctionality is derivable from four parts: principal function, syntactic context, prosodic context, and discourse context. Our deconstruction uses a two-pronged methodology, drawing on storyboard elicitation and sociolinguistic interview data, which mutually reinforce our theoretical arguments. Under this transdisciplinary lens, the exponents of form and function become predictable, constrainable, and systematically derivable for probabilistic modelling within and across speech communities. (Confirmationals, multifunctionality, pragmatic markers, eh, speech acts)*

  • View HTML
    • Send article to Kindle

      To send this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about sending to your Kindle. Find out more about sending to your Kindle.

      Note you can select to send to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be sent to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

      Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

      Deconstructing variation in pragmatic function: A transdisciplinary case study
      Available formats

      Send article to Dropbox

      To send this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Dropbox.

      Deconstructing variation in pragmatic function: A transdisciplinary case study
      Available formats

      Send article to Google Drive

      To send this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Google Drive.

      Deconstructing variation in pragmatic function: A transdisciplinary case study
      Available formats


This is an Open Access article, distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution licence (, which permits unrestricted re-use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

Corresponding author

Address for correspondence: Martina Wiltschko Department of Linguistics, University of British Columbia, Totem Field Studios 2613, West Mall, Vancouver BC V6 T 1Z4,


Hide All

We acknowledge the Salish and Coast Salish peoples on whose traditional territories the Universities of British Columbia and Victoria stand and the Anishinaabeg, Haudenosaunee, and Wendat peoples on whose historical and current territories the University of Toronto Mississauga stands, paying special recognition to the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation. This work was supported by SSHRC grants to Wiltschko (2013–2018) and D'Arcy (2011–2014), and a SSHRC Post-Doctoral Fellowship to Denis (2015–2017). We thank Sali Tagliamonte for access to the Toronto English Archive and audience members at NWAV 44 and DiPVaC 3 for valuable questions and feedback. We also wish to thank Jenny Cheshire for her incisive editorial comments and suggestions, and two anonymous referees for their critical and constructive reviews.



Hide All
Aijmer, Karin (2002). English discourse particles: Evidence from a corpus. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Allan, Keith (2006). Clause-type, primary illocution, and mood-like operators in English. Language Sciences 28:15.
Allen, Harold B. (1959). Canadian American speech differences along the middle border. Journal of the Canadian Linguistic Association 5:1724.
Andersen, Gisle (2001). Pragmatic markers and sociolinguistic variation. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Avis, Walter S. (1972). So eh? is Canadian, eh? Canadian Journal of Linguistics 17:89104.
Bartels, Christine (1997). Towards a compositional interpretation of English statement and question intonation. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts dissertation.
Burton, Strang, & Matthewson, Lisa (2015). Targeted construction storyboards in semantic fieldwork. In Bochnak, M. Ryan & Matthewson, Lisa (eds.), Methodologies in semantic fieldwork, 135–56. New York: Oxford University Press.
Cheshire, Jenny (2007). Discourse variation, grammaticalisation and stuff like that. Journal of Sociolinguistics 11:155–93.
Cheshire, Jenny (2016). Epilogue: The future of discourse-pragmatic variation and change research. In Pichler, Heike (ed.), Discourse-pragmatic variation and change in English, 252–66. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Columbus, Georgie (2010). A comparative analysis of invariant tags in three varieties of English. English World-Wide 31:288310.
Cooper, Robin, & Ranta, Aarne (2008). Natural languages as collections of resources. In Cooper, Robin & Kempson, Ruth (eds.), Language in flux: Relating dialogue coordination to language variation, change and evolution, 109–20. London: College Publications.
D'Arcy, Alexandra (2005). Like: Syntax and development. Toronto: University of Toronto dissertation.
D'Arcy, Alexandra (2017). Discourse-pragmatic variation in context: Eight hundred years of like. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Denis, Derek (2013). The social meaning of eh in Canadian English. Proceedings of the Canadian Linguistics Association. Online:
Denis, Derek (2015). The development of pragmatic markers in Canadian English. Toronto: University of Toronto dissertation.
Denis, Derek, & Tagliamonte, Sali A. (2016). Innovation, right? Change, you know? Utterance final tags in Canadian English. In Pichler, Heike (ed.), Discourse-pragmatic variation and change in English: New methods and insights, 86112. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Dines, Elizabeth (1980). Variation in discourse ‘and stuff like that’. Language in Society 9:1331.
Dollinger, Stefan (chief editor), & Fee, Margery (associate editor) (2017). Hoser. DCHP-2: The dictionary of Canadianisms on historical principles. 2nd edn. Online:
Eckert, Penelope (2008). Variation and the indexical field. Journal of Sociolinguistics 12:453–76.
Gibson, Deborah J. (1977). Eight types of ‘eh’. Sociolinguistics Newsletter 8:3031.
Ginzburg, Jonathan (2012). The interactive stance. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Gold, Elaine (2008). Canadian eh? From eh to zed. Anglistik: International Journal of English Studies 19:141–56.
Gold, Elaine, & Tremblay, Mireille (2006). Eh? and hein?: Discourse particles or national icons? Canadian Journal of Linguistics 51:247–63.
Grice, Paul (1975). Logic and conversation. In Cole, Peter & Morgan, Jerry L. (eds.), Syntax and semantics, vol. 3: Speech acts, 4158. New York: Academic Press.
Gunlogson, Christine (2003). True to form: Rising and falling declaratives as questions in English. New York: Routledge.
Guy, Gregory, & Vonwiller, Julia (1984). The meaning of an intonation in Australian English. Australian Journal of Linguistics 4(1):117.
Heim, Johannes; Keupdjio, Hermann; Lam, Zoe Wai-Man; Osa-Gómez, Adriana; Thoma;, Sonja & Wiltschko, Martina (2016). Intonation and particles as speech act modifiers: A syntactic analysis. Studies in Chinese Linguistics 37:109–29.
Holmes, Janet (1983). The functions of tag questions. English Language Research Journal 3:4065.
Holmes, Janet (1995). Women, men and politeness. New York: Longman.
Johnson, Marion (1976). Canadian Eh. Ohio State University Working Papers in Linguistics 21:153–60.
Labov, William (1966). The linguistic variable as a structural unit. Washington Linguistic Review 3:422.
Labov, William (1969). Contraction, deletion, and inherent variability of the English copula. Language 45:715–62.
Labov, William (1972). Sociolinguistic patterns. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Labov, William (1978). Where does the sociolinguistic variable stop? Language in Society 7:171–82.
Labov, William (2006). The social stratification of English in New York City. 2nd edn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Lavandera, Beatriz R. (1978). Where does the sociolinguistic variable stop? Language in Society 7:171–83.
Love, Tracey (1973). An examination of EH as question particle. Edmonton: University of Alberta B.A. thesis.
Pichler, Heike (2010). Methods in discourse variation analysis: Reflections on the way forward. Journal of Sociolinguistics 14:581608.
Pichler, Heike (2013). The structure of discourse-pragmatic variation. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Pierrehumbert, Janet, & Hirschberg, Julia (1990). The meaning of intonational contours in the interpretation of discourse. In Cohen, Philip, Morgan, Jerry, & Pollack, Martha (eds.), Intentions in communication, 271311. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Rickford, John R. (1975). Carrying the new wave into syntax: The case of Black English BÍN. In Fasold, Ralph & Shuy, Roger (eds.), Analyzing variation in language, 162–83. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.
Roberts, Craige (2018). Speech acts in discourse context. In Fogal, Daniel, Harris, Daniel, & Moss, Matt (eds.), New work on speech acts. Oxford: Oxford University Press, to appear.
Romaine, Suzanne (1984). On the problem of syntactic variation and pragmatic meaning in sociolinguistic theory. Folia Linguistica 18:409–39.
Rosengren, Inger (1992). Zur Grammatik und Pragmatik der Exklamation. In Rosengren, Inger (ed.), Satz und Illokution, vol. 1, 263306. Tübingen: Niemeyer.
Sacks, Harvey; Schegloff, Emanuel A.; & Jefferson, Gail (1974). A simplest systematics for the organization of turn-taking for conversation. Language 50:696735.
Sankoff, Gillian (1973). Above and beyond phonology in variable rules. In Bailey, Charles-James N. & Shuy, Roger W. (eds.), New ways of analyzing variation in English, 4462. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.
Sankoff, David, & Thibault, Pierette (1981). Weak complementarity: Tense and aspect in Montreal French. In Johns, Brenda B. & Strong, David R. (eds.), Syntactic change, 206216. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan.
Schecter, Sandra (1979). Eh? revisited: Is it or is it not Canadian? The English Quarterly 12:3745.
Stubbe, Maria, & Holmes, Janet (1995). You know, eh and other ‘exasperating expressions’: An analysis of social and stylistic variation in the use of pragmatic devices in a sample of New Zealand English. Language and Communication 15:6388.
Tagliamonte, Sali A. (2003–2006). Linguistic changes in Canada entering the 21st century. Research Grant. Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC). #410-2003-0005.
Tagliamonte, Sali A. (2006). ‘So cool, right?’: Canadian English entering the 21st century. Canadian Journal of Linguistics 51:309–31.
Tagliamonte, Sali A. (2012). Variationist sociolinguistics: Change, observation, interpretation. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.
Tagliamonte, Sali A., & Denis, Derek (2010). The stuff of change: General extenders in Toronto, Canada. Journal of English Linguistics 38:335–68.
Tottie, Gunnel, & Hoffmann, Sebastian (2006). Question tags in British and American English. Journal of English Linguistics 34(4):283311.
Trinh, Tue, & Crnič, Luka (2011). On the rise and fall of declaratives. In Reich, Ingo, Horch, Eva, & Pauly, Dennis (eds.), Sinn und Bedeutung 15: Proceedings of the 2010 Annual Conference of the Gesellschaft fuer Semantik, 645–60. Saarbrücken: Saarland University Press.
Truckenbrodt, Hubert (2011). On rises and falls in interrogatives. In Yoo, Hi Yon & Delais-Roussarie, Elisabeth (eds.), Proceedings from IDP 2009, Paris, September 2009, 9–17. Online:
Tyler, Joseph C. (2015). Expanding and mapping the indexical field: Rising pitch, the uptalk stereotype, and perceptual variation. Journal of English Linguistics 43(4):284310.
Waters, Cathleen (2016). Practical strategies for elucidating discourse-pragmatic variation. In Heike Pichler (ed.), Discourse-pragmatic variation and change in English: New methods and insight, 2140. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Wiltschko, Martina (2014). The universal structure of categories: Toward a formal typology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Wiltschko, Martina, & Heim, Johannes (2016). The syntax of confirmationals: A neo-performative analysis. In Kaltenböck, Gunther, Keizer, Evelien, & Lohmann, Arne (eds.), Outside the clause: Form and function of extra-clausal constituent, 303–40. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Related content

Powered by UNSILO

Deconstructing variation in pragmatic function: A transdisciplinary case study

  • Martina Wiltschko (a1), Derek Denis (a2) and Alexandra D'Arcy (a3)


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed.