Ojibwe Discourse Markers

Ojibwe Discourse Markers

Ojibwe Discourse Markers

Ojibwe Discourse Markers


Published through the Recovering Languages and Literacies of the Americas initiative, supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation
Brendan Fairbanks examines the challenging subject of discourse markers in Ojibwe, one of the many indigenous languages in the Algonquian family. Mille Lacs elder Jim Clark once described the discourse markers as "little bugs that are holding on for dear life." For example, discourse markers such as mii and gosha exist only on the periphery of sentences to provide either cohesion or nuance to utterances. Fairbanks focuses on the discourse markers that are the most ubiquitous and that exist most commonly within Ojibwe texts.

Much of the research on Algonquian languages has concentrated primarily on the core morphological and syntactical characteristics of their sentence structure. Fairbanks restricts his study to markers that are far more elusive and difficult in terms of semantic ambiguity and their contribution to sentences and Ojibwe discourse.

Ojibwe Discourse Markers is a remarkable study that interprets and describes the Ojibwe language in its broader theoretical concerns in the field of linguistics. With a scholarly and pedagogical introductory chapter and a glossary of technical terms, this book will be useful to instructors and students of Ojibwe as a second language in language revival and maintenance programs.


In this book I describe the functions of a variety of discourse markers in the Ojibwe language, a language belonging to the Algonquian family of languages of North America.

Discourse markers have been defined by Schiffrin as “sequentially dependent elements which bracket units of talk” (1987a, 31) and as elements that, among other things, are syntactically detachable from a sentence (i.e., independent of sentential structure) and commonly used in initial position (1987a, 32, 328). This book shows that her initial characterization must be broadened in order to account for languages such as Ojibwe that show discourse markers occurring in both initial and second position, and for other languages that show discourse markers occurring in medial and final positions within utterances. Also, since many languages like Ojibwe and the Amazonian languages examined in this book make regular use of clitics and affixes as discourse markers, I show that not all discourse markers are “detachable” from their containing sentences. Based upon this and other cross-linguistic evidence, I offer a definition of discourse markers that essentially refines Schiffrin’s characterization.

This book ultimately reveals the exploitive nature of language (and ultimately of its speakers) in regard to discourse. While languages show that individual words, particles, lexicalized phrases, clitics, and affixes may be “exploited” for their sentence-level functions for work at the discourse level, Ojibwe shows that entire inflectional systems may also be targets for discourse work. For example, Ojibwe exploits the sentence-level cohesive function of conjunct verbs in order to mark the eventline structure of a narrative. This accounts for the seemingly contradictive ability of conjunct verbs to serve as subordinate clauses at the sentence level but as independent clauses at the discourse level. Such behavior, termed “discourse marking” in this book, shows that the use of morphological forms must also be included within a viable definition of discourse markers.

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