Pragmatics of discourse modality: A case of da and desu/masu forms in Japanese

Senko K. Maynard

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This study analyzes Japanese verb morphology, da and desu/masu endings in three genres of modern Japanese, i.e. conversation, prose and dialogue in fiction. Advancing a step beyond the view that the choice between da and desu/masu endings depends on 'styles', such as formal versus informal, written versus spoken, I argue that motivations for the mixture of da and desu/masu endings in a single paragraph or a single speaking turn can be pragmatically explained in terms of what I call discourse modality, especially in its three aspects - perspective, discourse organizational and interactional modality. I conclude that the da style is selected (1) when the speaker takes a perspective internal to the narrative setting and immediately responds within that framework, (2) when the speaker presents backgrounded information semantically subordinate within the discourse structure and (3) when the speaker finds the addressee close enough and the speaker uses a style similar to the style in which he or she self-addresses. The cognitive and social source for the verb morphology in Japanese is sought in the philosophy of Watsuji and Mori which advocates the 'betweeness' of self and other, and above all, the importance of 'thou'. While the concept of 'thou' - the addressee - is important in any communication, this paper argues that Japanese language requires the choice of verb morphology based on the level of 'thou' awareness, which in turn defines its discourse modality.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)551-582
Number of pages32
JournalJournal of Pragmatics
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 1991

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Artificial Intelligence
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Linguistics and Language

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