Recently, Dr Morita has been examining
conversationalist’s use of the interactional particle ne in Japanese – a particle that one can observe occurring frequently
in Japanese native speakers’ conversation. Traditional linguists’ problem with
particles like ne (and sa and yo) is that such particles seem
to have so many different possible meanings and functions in conversation, and are
also thought to be in some way related to social registers. Yet, the underlying
semantics involved are still unclear. But by observing the actual use of
particles like ne by Japanese
speakers, it was found that such particles are not at all random, but rather,
are used by conversationalists in a systematic way as a resource for organizing
the moment-to-moment co-construction of talk.
(sound file + intonation pattern)
In fact, what was discovered in the course of Dr Morita’s research was that the insertion and tone of ne was very salient to the participants who were engaging one another in talk. Moreover, if one wants to explain the meaning and functions of ne, one would have to include all the utterance internal uses of ne – and not just, as traditional linguists have done, focus attention only on the utterance final instances. Dr Morita’s research on the prosodic segmentation of speech indicates that ne does not contribute to the overall sentence meaning, but rather, is indicative of speakers’ conversational move which is shaped by moment-by-moment interaction.
The casual use of the particle ne by young children who are at the “1.5 word” stage was what piqued Dr Morita’s interest in giving this subject further thought. It was intriguing that a child – one who couldn’t yet construct a complete sentence – could systematically use a particle that adult second language learners of the same language would have to continually struggle with. This was evidence that ne was intrinsically important in Japanese communication, or it would not have been picked up at such an early age.
It was found that ne contextualizes participants’ mutual interactional alignment as a relevant concern. Alignment here refers to a coaxial state which is established by the result of a conversational move displayed by the all participants in conversation. It can appear as a participant’s publicly supportive move toward some previous action or an explicit indication of their reliance on the actions of the other participants.
(view PDF file)
In this conversation between two people at the dinner table, the person to the right tells the other how he always leaves his house and then returns home again only when it is dark. When the other person responds to this statement by repeating what he has just heard, he finds that there is no uptake, as everyone is concentrating on their meal; thus, there is no clear indication that the utterance was actually directed to the other party. It is only after a micro-pause (i.e., a pause of less than 1 second), that he looks to his conversation partner, and extends his turn by adding the particle ne. And this, in turn, immediately elicited a response.
The above scenario is just one example of how the use of ne is regulated by the actual conversational interaction taking place on a moment-to-moment basis between people. Its use was triggered by the micro-pause, and then extended afterwards – which indicates that the speaker did not construct his original sentence with the use of the particle in mind as a part of the so-called “meaning construction.”
In contrast to a more “static” and “theoretical” linguistic interpretation, Dr Morita’s work with actual conversational data suggests to her that ne here functions as a way to align the listeners in a way that they can together “build” the framework of their mutual interactional activity. For example, when a 3 year old child comments to his mother on how an excellent carpet has been made, he adds ne at the end to express that his action of expressing satisfaction is something the mother can also align to. His mother in turn states her agreement, and also uses ne at the end to signify that her action is indeed aligned with that of her son. (video of child-mother interaction)
As shown above, the use of ne has a critically important function in everyday conversation, and is something that is picked up at very early stage of Japanese children’s development. Such an observation of course begs the question as to how and when a child starts to learn the usage of particles, which will be the natural extension of – and the next step in – Dr Morita's ongoing research project. Additionally, there are several other interactional particles in Japanese – including sa and yo – that is the subject of Dr Morita's current research.
Morita, Emi. (2005). Negotiation of contingent talk: The Japanese interactional particles ne and sa. Philadelphia, PA: John Benjamins Publishing.