LingLang Lunch (4/1/2015): Junwen Lee (Brown University)

Lah revisited – A modal analysis

The linguistic function of the Colloquial Singapore English (CSE) particle lah has been characterized variously as a marker to convey solidarity, warmth and informality; an attenuation or emphasis marker; an assertion marker; and an accommodation marker. As the particle can be pronounced using several pitch contours, the particle has generally been analyzed as either a set of homonymic variants that are distinguished by pitch and function, or a unitary particle that has the same meaning despite tonal differences. However, I argue against both approaches – the former conflates pragmatic function and semantic meaning, while the latter ignores the systematic differences in function that correlate with tonal differences. Instead, I propose that lah is a modal particle that conveys the not-at-issue comment that the lah-marked proposition is entailed by the conjunction of all factors that make a difference to its truth, which is then interpreted by the addressee as justification for the speaker’s lah-marked assertion. In other words, if we consider all the factors that affect the likelihood of the lah-marked proposition p being true to be the set of evidence that together underwrite the speaker’s assertion of p, then lah indicates that this set of evidence is completely reliable in predicting p. However, unlike previous unitary analyses, I propose that this single particle meaning then interacts with a separate effect of intonation to produce the different pragmatic functions that have been observed in the literature.