Academic journal article Scottish Cultural Review of Language and Literature

'Thingmy an AA the Rest O It': Vague Language in Spoken Scottish English

Academic journal article Scottish Cultural Review of Language and Literature

'Thingmy an AA the Rest O It': Vague Language in Spoken Scottish English

Article excerpt

This SCOTS corpus study of vague language (VL), or forms that are intentionally imprecise and heavily dependent on shared contextual knowledge for their meaning, suggests that VL is more a Scottish Standard English than Scots phenomenon. The most frequent types are general nouns (people, things), adding to involvement, and epistemic modifiers sort of and kind of, protecting face.

Keywords: vague language, SCOTS corpus, Scots, Scottish Standard English, general nouns, epistemic modifiers

All language contains vagueness to a greater or lesser degree.1 The vague language (VL) explored in this chapter is at the less explicit end of the cline: forms that are intentionally fuzzy, general, and imprecise, have low semantic content, and are heavily dependent on shared contextual knowledge for their meaning. In this chapter, an expression is considered vague if it can be contrasted with another more contentive expression which appears to render the same proposition, if it is purposely and unabashedly vague, or if the meaning arises from intrinsic uncertainty.2

Since VL is a feature more of spoken language than of written,3 the study described in this chapter examined VL in the spoken part of the Scottish Corpus of Texts & Speech (SCOTS), which was 20% of the total four million words, at the time of writing.4 The study took a broad-brush approach, covering semantically empty nouns (general nouns such as thing, colloquial general nouns such as thingummy, and general nominal clusters such as what-d'ya-call-it), vague modifiers (vague quantifiers as in lots of and vague epistemic modifiers as in sort of), and general extenders (as in or something and and things). It did not limit its focus to one of these parts of speech, as previous studies have done, since it set out to paint a general picture of the main VL forms and how they relate to each other. The aim was to understand the distribution and usage of Scottish Standard English and Scots VL, and to discover the co-textual and socio-functional features of each in the SCOTS corpus.

Background - Scottish English

Douglas suggests that many Scottish people use both Scottish Standard English (SSE) and Scots, employing SSE in formal interaction and official writing, and Scots in informal contexts and the spoken mode.5 The Scottish Government survey finds that 'Scots is primarily a spoken language rather than one that is read or written'.6 Anderson finds the opposite to be true in the SCOTS corpus: she examined intensifiers and discovered that intensifiers at the SSE end of the continuum (totally, definitely, and utterly) tended to occur in spontaneous spoken interactions, and those at the Scots end (gey and unco) mostly occurred in literary texts. She explains this as:

partly due to the make-up of the corpus, in which most of the participants in conversations or interviews use a variety of language somewhere around the middle of the Scots/English continuum rather than Broad Scots. [...] but also partly [...] because of the tendency for 'dense' Scots (language with a high incidence of specifically Scots lexical and grammatical features) to be found in literary writing rather than colloquial (and spoken) language.7

Vague language - Forms

There seems to be a universal English VL. Cutting has collated the features of VL that have been discovered in studies of British, Canadian, Hong Kong, Irish, and New Zealand English: they are semantically empty nouns, vague modifiers and general extenders.8 Definitions for these are given below, as the study described in this chapter used these categories. Throughout this chapter, I refer to the examples quoted within each category here as SSE VL, to distinguish them from Scots VL.

There are three types of semantically empty noun. The prototypical one is the general noun, or superordinate noun, which is heavily dependent on the context for meaning.9 Thing, place, and person are dummy nouns,10 that can have as much semantic content as pro-forms it or they," and can be an ad hoc category which does not have well-established category representations or a clear boundary. …

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