May 02, 2005

Canadian "eh" and Japanese "ne"

In response to recent posts here on Canadian eh, Russell Lee-Goldman emailed

Looking at your recent post regarding "eh," in particular the table of types of eh, I immediately thought of the Japanese sentence-final particle.  Like eh, ne has been given many characterizations by both Japanese and foreign linguists and especially L2 educators.  Just by referencing the list in your 1 May post, it seems that uses 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, and 10 are among the most common uses of Japanese "ne."  The broadest characterization of ne that I've come across is that it is a marker of "affective common ground," that is, it foregrounds interspeaker interaction rather than informational content.  Whether this can be said of eh, though, I'm not sure.

(Also, I have heard that there have been cases of Japanese people traveling to Canada and noticing a strong resemblance between the two words)

The "affective common ground" theory of ne is (I think) due to H.M. Cook, and is described in these on-line notes from a seminar at Berkeley.

Here's a discussion of ne from Peter Payne at the j-list side blog:

If you've paid attention while watching Japanese anime or JAV, you've probably picked up on the word "ne." This is an interesting Japanese grammatical particle that usually goes on the ends of sentences and serves several purposes, mostly related to asking for confirmation of information or agreement with an opinion. Here are two examples:

"Aisu kohii futatsu desu ne?" You'd like two glasses of ice coffee, is that right?
"Kyou wa atsui desu ne." It's hot today, isn't it?

Other functions of the all-purpose Japanese particle "ne" include softening a sentence so its meaning it less harsh ("Chotto furotimashita ne." You've gained a little weight, haven't you?); emphasizing what you want to say ("Kondo chanto kiite kudasai, ne." Please listen closely next time, alright?); working as a pause in sentences, like "um" in English; and to get the attention of the listener before saying something. Girls use "ne" more often than men and with a higher intonation, so males should use the word with caution lest they appear effeminate.

Apparently there is a "narrative ne" in Japanese that is often deprecated, just as the Canadian "narrative eh" and the repeated intonational rises of English "uptalk" are. Thus a page for English learners on Japanese particles has a section called "Terribly overused ne":

The correct place for ne is at the end of a sentence, where it is used to check or request the agreement of the listener:

  • Ashita watashitachi to issho ni ikimasu ne. (You're going with us tomorrow, right?)
  • Ii otenki desu ne. (Nice weather, isn't it. [with dropping intonation])

However, like "y'know" in English, too many people grossly overuse ne. I've even heard speeches where it was put between almost every word. Don't let it become a bad habit.

If the "terribly overused ne" is a female-associated usage, then that is apparently a difference from the "narrative eh, which was diagnosed as male-associated by Elaine Gold's survey of Toronto students.

Fernando Pereira emailed an anecdote about intensive use of eh:

Heli-skiing in British Columbia this February, our main guide was a young(ish) guy who grew up in the prairies (Saskatchewan if I recall correctly) and moved a while ago to interior BC (Golden). He had the highest "eh?" density I've ever heard in Canada. He had to talk to the group a lot, to give safety instruction, to direct us about where to go, etc. Pretty much every clause what punctuated by "eh?". It felt as if he used it as a way of asking implicitly whether we were paying attention, and creating opportunities for questions. This doesn't seem to quite fit the categories in Gold's paper, eh?

I'd assume that this was a variant of what Gold calls the "narrative eh", though she defines this category only by example, and doesn't speculate about what its function really is. The ski guide was not telling stories, but he was certainly foregrounding the interaction, perhaps asking for attention and evoking signs of uptake, and so on.

One of the interesting questions about both ne and eh is whether their various uses are socially symmetrical or not. For instance, if a schoolteacher is talking with a young student, would these tags mainly be used by the teacher, by the student, or equally by both? Would it be different for different uses of these tags?

Robin Lakoff's 1975 account of English tag questions, based on her introspective judgments, was that such tags "are associated with a desire for confirmation or approval which signals a lack of self-confidence in the speaker." But when Cameron et al. 1988 looked at the distribution of tag questions in nine hours of unscripted broadcast talk, they found that such tags were used only by the participants that they characterized as "powerful" -- in other words, those "institutionally responsible for the conduct of the talk". These were doctors as opposed to patients, teachers as opposed to students, talk show hosts as opposed to guests. [See this post on Gender and Tags for more details.]

Similarly, although "uptalk" (frequent use of final rises on statements in English) is often perceived as a sign of uncertainty, Cynthia McLemore's 1991 dissertation documented the use of such rises to signal the presentation of significant new information by institutionally powerful individuals. In her study, the speakers were the leaders of a sorority (as opposed to the pledges), and the rises marked announcements of new items in chapter meetings. Fernando's ski guide was also in an institutionally powerful position, and he may have been using eh in a somewhat similar way, to command attention and involvement on the part of his listeners.

I don't know whether there have been any empirical studies of the distribution of eh (or ne) that have looked at this aspect of their patterns of usage.

Posted by Mark Liberman at May 2, 2005 06:49 PM