Creating “Our Story”: Repetition in Japanese Conversation

Saeko Machi

Graduate School of Japan Women's University, Japan

WS132: Cultural Values and Language Behaviour: Focus on Asia

This study examines one of the prominent Japanese discourse forms, the practice of repeating what others say (words, phrases, and sentences) during conversations. It manifests how repetition of others’ utterances contributes to Japanese conversational style by examining the functions and objects of repetition. In Japanese, speakers collaboratively create “our story” by sharing stories, experiences, and feelings. This study also provides two grammatical features, the sentence-final particle ne and the non-occurrence of the subject in Japanese, which facilitate the occurrence of repetition and create the preferred conversational style in Japanese.

The data for this study was obtained via the free conversation of 13 Japanese pairs. Each conversation is between native pairs of Japanese speakers. All the informants were female college students. Each pair was given 5 minutes to talk in turn about the pre-selected topic, “What were you most surprised at?” The total time of conversations is 74 minutes.

For the analysis of functions of repetition, data was classified according to the speaker’s motive for repeating their partner’s utterance. All the repetitions in the data were classified into seven functions: agreement, confirmation, questioning, answering, savoring, linking, and sympathy. The results show that Japanese tend to seek connection and a sense of sharing with each other through repetition that links stories, shows sympathy, and shows agreement. Look at the following examples (translated into English).

(1) Linking

A: I went into a haunted house yesterday and it was so scary.

B: Well, [I] went into the haunted house in Disneyland and

(2) Sympathy

A: That was really dangerous.

B: Dangerous (ne).

(3) Agreement

A: When I saw him there, I was so surprised.

B: (no subject) surprised.

All the repetitions were also classified into five categories according to what kind of words, phrases, and sentences the object of repetition is. They are: objective facts; names of people and places; preceding speaker’s experience, assessments (as in (2)), and feelings (as in (3)). The obtained results tell us that the Japanese speakers choose the last two categories more often than the rest as the objects of repetition. By doing so, they try to show they are like-minded with others.

Contribution to participants’ like-mindedness is also supported by the sentence-final particle ne and the non-occurrence of the subject, frequently found in our data. As Cook (1992) and Masuoka (1991) suggest, particle ne, as in (2), marks the participants’ intention to identify with the knowledge, judgment, and feelings of others. Also, by not marking a clear subject of the sentence and making it ambiguous as in (3), Japanese speakers make situations and feelings sharable to both participants.

These findings suggest that the repetition of others’ utterances, often accompanied with the two grammatical features described above, greatly contributes to the creation of “our story” in Japanese conversation. By repeating others’ utterances, especially their words of assessments and feelings, Japanese try to show that they are like-minded sharing stories, experience, and feelings with each other.

Session: Workshop (part 1)
Cultural Values and Language Behaviour: Focus on Asia
Saturday, April 5, 2008, 11:00-12:30
room: 18