Metalanguage – it’s the bread and butter of VCE English Language. There’s no doubt that knowing heaps of metalinguistic terms (that's why we create this metalanguage bank) is one of the keys to doing well in this subject, but what’s also important is being able to provide super specific and specialised commentary on their functions and effects. That’s why when you’re learning a piece of metalanguage, it’s crucial that you stop and ask yourself what roles it can play in a discourse. Now, to help get you on the right track, I’ve picked apart two commonly overlooked and underappreciated metalinguistic terms – discourse particles and modal auxiliary verbs – to show you how to take your analyses of these to the next level.
You undoubtedly use these all the time in informal situations without even thinking about it. Lexemes such as ‘like’, ‘yeah-no’, ‘kinda’, and ‘goes’ crop up in our speech all the time, and for a good reason too. Despite being despised by prescriptivists, these discourse particles serve many functions – and by being able to identify these specific functions, you’ll show the examiner you know exactly what you’re talking about.
Function 1: Hedging
First up, the discourse particles ‘like’, ‘kinda’, ‘sorta’, and ‘yeah-no’ can be used in a hedging manner to express uncertainty, caution, or doubt. Take the following example: “I think it cost like 5 dollars or something.” By preceding the cost of the item with ‘like’, the interlocutor can be non-committal about the price and indicate that it is only an approximation.
In addition, hedging can be used as a politeness marker and to appeal to a person’s negative face needs. Consider the following example: “Do you want to meet up at maybe, like, 6:00 pm?” Here, the presence of the discourse particle ‘like’ places uncertainty around the time of 6:00 pm, giving the other interlocutor the freedom to suggest another time if this time does not suit.
The discourse particle ‘yeah-no’ is especially interesting. What may be surprising is that it can be used for politeness and appeal to negative face too! Imagine the following situation: you walk into a cafe and order a medium long black; the barista then asks you if you would like sugar, to which you reply, “Yeah-no, thanks”. A simple “No, thanks” would’ve sufficed, so why use the ‘yeah’? Well, what you are doing here is acknowledging what the barista said before declining their offer – it’s like a shortened version of, “Kudos for raising the point about sugar, but no thanks, I’m good”.
Function 2: Introductory discourse particle
Think back to a conversation you’ve recently had – how did you and the other people introduce new topics? Most likely, you would’ve used discourse particles such as ‘so’ and ‘well’. For example, after sitting down next to a friend at school and exchanging adjacency pairs, such as “How are you?” and “Good, you?”, you’d probably say something like, “So, how was your weekend?”. Here, the ‘so’ is functioning as an introductory discourse particle, which signals the start of a new topic to the other interlocutor. This helps with the overall cohesion and flow of the conversation, helping to grease the transition from one topic to the next.
Similarly, the discourse particle ‘well’ acts as a segue between a question and an answer. For instance, in response to someone asking “So, what’re your plans for the weekend?”, you might say, “Well, we do have that SAC on Monday, so I’ll probably just study”. As you can see, the ‘well’ acts as a bridge between the question and answer, and also buys the speaker some time to actually think about how to respond.
Function 3: Emphatic effect
As the name implies, discourse particles can be used to add emphasis to whatever follows them. For example, in the declarative, “He’s actually, like, the cutest guy ever”, the discourse particle ‘like’ lends emphasis to the noun phrase “the cutest guy ever”. How, you ask? Well, when you insert the lexeme ‘like’, what you are doing is adding suspense by delaying mention of the noun phrase that follows. Say the following two phrases aloud and see for yourself what effect the emphatic discourse particle is having! “The party was amazing!” and “The party was, like, amazing!”
Function 4: Quotative
This function and the next are often confused with each other. When a discourse particle has a quotative function, this means it is functioning to literally quote what another person has said. Let’s look at an example: “I asked my mum if I could go to the party, and she was like, ‘No way, mister, you’ve got study to do’”. In this case, the discourse particle ‘like’ introduces direct speech (‘No way, mister, you’ve got study to do’), so has a quotative function.
Function 5: Describing reactions
In contrast to the quotative function, this final function is when a discourse particle has the role of introducing someone’s or something’s reaction. Consider the following example: “I got to work two minutes late and my boss was like all up in my grill”. Here, the discourse particle ‘like’ isn’t introducing any direct speech; rather, it enables the speaker to introduce a description of how the boss reacted to the situation.
Before we jump into what modal auxiliary verbs are, let’s first re-jog our memory of what auxiliary verbs and main verbs are. Main verbs, as the name suggests, are the fundamental ‘doing’ words in our language; lexemes such as ‘study’, ‘practise’, and ‘write’ are all main verbs. Auxiliary verbs are ‘helper’ words, which mainly exist for grammar purposes; for example, you wouldn’t say “I running” – instead, you’d say “I am running”.
So what are modal auxiliary verbs for? Well, these guys serve to convey different mood or varying degrees of certainty. This is best understood through examples… take the following two simple sentences:
Example 1: “You ought to go see a doctor.”
Example 2: “You must go see a doctor.”
What’s different about the two declarative statements is the choice of modal verb, and as you can see it creates a strikingly different tone. In the first case, the tone is suggestive and non-imposing – the speaker is merely urging the listener to seek medical advice without affronting their negative face needs. In the second example, the tone is authoritative and urgent – either the listener’s health is desperately in need of attention, or the speaker is in a position of authority over the listener (e.g. an employer or supervisor).
Those were just two examples – there are in fact many more modal verbs, all with different functions, which I’ve summarised below:
A word of advice is that these modal verbs often appear in formal texts, such as in legal documents or terms and conditions. They serve to remove ambiguity by making the degree of obligation/permission/accountability more explicit.
Rote-learning metalanguage isn’t enough in VCE English Language. What gets you the marks is analysing the specific function metalanguage has in a given discourse. Make sure whenever you identify an example of metalanguage in a text, you ask yourself: “But why did the author/speaker decide to use it?” If you’re ever unsure about the function, try imagine how the text might suffer if it wasn’t there. One more tip: once you’ve identified the specific function of the metalanguage, linking that function back to the general function of the discourse or the wider social purpose is something that’ll seriously impress your teacher or VCAA assessor.