LingLang Lunch (11/19/2014): Scott AnderBois (Brown University)

The discourse particle wal in Yucatec Maya: a decompositional approach

Dating back to the philosopher David Lewis, it has been common to think of discourse in terms of a shared “scoreboard” comprising various information about who has said what, what things we know, what our goals are, etc. Discourse particles are elements in sentences which intuitively do not contribute to the content of sentences in which they occur, but rather make reference to the discourse scoreboard itself (e.g. English oh; German ja, doch; Japanese yo, ne). They thus provide a unique lens into understanding the structure of the discourse scoreboard and the ways in which speakers’ utterances interact with it. In this talk, I focus on one particular discourse particle, wal, in Yucatec Maya (an indigenous language of Mexico). Wal serves many seemingly quite different functions. In declaratives, it conveys uncertainty in some cases, but a warning or threat in others. In imperatives, it does two seemingly opposite things: “softening” an imperative to a permission or offer in some cases, and, again, conveying a warning or threat in others. I develop an analysis in which wal has a uniform meaning, serving to highlight a decision problem the hearer faces following the speaker’s turn. The various functions of wal, then, are argued to arise from the interaction of this meaning with intonation, aspects of the utterance in which it occurs, and reasoning based on world knowledge.