This study investigates Mandarin discourse markers from both functional and prosodic perspectives. Discourse markers are defined as sequentially dependent elements which bracket units of talk (Schiffrin 1987). In this study, I focus on three discourse markers, ranhou ‘then’, wo juede ‘I think/feel’, and meiyou ‘no, not’. Using video-taped everyday conversation, I examine their functional categories and prosodic features, including duration, pitch range, and stress.
My qualitative and quantitative analyses show that, first, the discourse functions of these markers are prosodically stronger than their lexical functions. Newly developed discourse functions, such as the topic-shifting function of ranhou and floor-claiming function of meiyou, take on a special prosodic design that distinguishes them from other functions.
Second, different prosodic features can have distinct functional and interactional relevance and thus prosody should not be treated as a unitary dimension in conversation. Discourse markers can have incongruent prosodic features, with one prosodic dimension strong and other dimension(s) weak. The ostensible ‘inconsistency’ is in fact designed so as to fulfil particular interactional needs.
Lastly, given the prosodic difference between lexical and discourse functions discussed, this study supports the view that the development of discourse markers should be considered an independent diachronic process, i.e. pragmaticalization, rather than a subtype of grammaticalization.
Additionally, the present study has methodological contributions in that it has demonstrated the feasibility of integrating a quantitative approach and statistical tests into the study of discourse markers, which are traditionally studied qualitatively. As a complement to the qualitative approach, quantitative methods are able to provide a more objective angle to evaluate the relationships between prosody and function.