Personal reference in Thai conversations

Theeraporn Ratitamkul

Chulalongkorn University, Thailand

WS132: Cultural Values and Language Behaviour: Focus on Asia

Reference to person has been a matter of great interest in linguistic studies, especially in a language like Thai where there exist multiple possibilities to denote a speaker and an addressee. Previous research has found that a linguistic form used in referring to an entity depends on the status of the entity in the mind of the interlocutors (e.g., Chafe 1976) as well as continuity in discourse (e.g., Li & Thompson 1979), while work on the Thai referential system has focused on socio-cultural aspects of referential expressions (e.g., Cooke 1968). Are linguistic representations of personal reference influenced by sociolinguistic factors? The aim of the present work is to simultaneously examine cognitive, grammatical, discourse and sociolinguistic factors that play a role in the selection of person-referring forms in Thai and find out why particular forms are chosen at certain points in discourse.

Data came from two sessions of a 30-minute dinner table conversation among three Thai speakers. Expressions designating 1st and 2nd persons were coded for linguistic forms (lexical, pronominal or elliptical), and grammatical positions (subject or object). In order to see how personal reference fits into the larger system of referring expressions, reference to entities other than the interlocutors were included for comparison. Salience of referents was measured by Arnold’s (2003) levels of salience, with 1st- and 2nd-persons being the most salient. Also taken into consideration were age, gender and closeness of conversation participants.

Results showed that subject position was overwhelmingly occupied by person referring terms and that these terms were most of the time omitted. Comparing to other types of entities, it could be observed that subject was a preferred site for ellipses and that omission in fact correlated with level of salience. Furthermore, subject dropping was common when the discourse theme was continuing. This suggests that reference to persons in Thai does not pattern differently from other referring expressions; it is constrained by grammatical position, saliency and discourse continuity. Omission of person reference was also influenced by socio-pragmatic factors. Speakers tended to leave 1st and 2nd persons unexpressed when engaging in question-answer pairs, performing speech acts, and conveying uncertainty.

Interestingly enough, personal reference in Thai was dynamic in that referring expressions could change with the flow of discourse. When overtly indicated, 1st- and 2nd-personal forms had discourse functions. For example, they were used when speakers wanted to signal discontinuity, make an assertion, indicate a change in mood, or direct their speech to a certain conversation participant. Choices of referential terms were further determined by age, gender and closeness, factors that are hold important in Thai culture. As an illustration, female speakers tended to refer to themselves using their names when talking to someone older.

This study finds that choices of person-referring expressions in Thai conversations are controlled by cognitive salience of referents, grammatical position, discourse continuity, and socio-pragmatic factors. Personal reference can therefore be perceived as a linguistic tool that is tied to culture.

Session: Workshop (part 2)
Cultural Values and Language Behaviour: Focus on Asia
Saturday, April 5, 2008, 13:45-15:15
room: 18