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Vague Language That Is Rarely VagueP: A Case Study of “Thing” in L1 and L2 Discourse *

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This paper investigates the use of “vague language” (Channell, 1994) in English L1 and L2 speaker discourse. In particular, the item “thing”, which is used about 2.5 times more often by the L1 than the L2 speakers, is analysed in job interviews in Australia. Since “thing” has been termed “vague language” this paper will first provide a theoretical discussion of the notion of vagueness with a special focus on “thing”. The discussion of vagueness is mainly based on the “underdeterminacy thesis” (Carston, 1988, 2002; Atlas, 2005) and is, thus, closely linked to explicature construction and the notion of saturation. The theoretical discussion will lead to a definition of vagueness as a pragmatic hearer based phenomenon (vaguenessP) which will be applied to an analysis of “thing” in the L1 and L2 employment interview data collected. The analysis will show that “thing” is used differently by the two populations with regards to the notion of vaguenessP but also with respect to the saturation requirement of this item. While the analysis shows that “thing” is not inherently vagueP, some instances of “thing” in the L2 data do seem to introduce the phenomenon of vaguenessP. Furthermore, the preference of L1 and L2 speakers for different saturation processes has an influence on the effect achieved by “thing”.

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49. fn14 * I would like to thank Didier Maillat for insightful comments and proofreading of this paper. I would further like to thank Lynda Yates for interesting discussions on the notion of vagueness and for providing me with native speaker input in the analysis of “thing” in the employment interview data recorded. All remaining errors are mine.
50. fn1 1 I distinguish, for example, epistemic vagueness Pin regards to items such as I thinkand referential vagueness Pregarding the item thing. I will, however only discuss the latter in this paper.
51. fn2 2 I use the term uniquenessaccording to Roberts’s definition of “informational uniqueness” (2003: 306f) that I will elaborate on further in section 3.2.1. below.
52. fn3 3 See also Levinson (2000)and his concept of the “bottleneck of communication” in relation to his discussion of implicatures which reminds of Carston’s Underdeterminacy thesis.
53. fn4 4 Saturation “involves finding the intended content (or value) for a linguistically indicated variable or slot” ( Carston, 2009: 49).
54. fn5 5 See Jucker et al. (2003)for a contrary view as they suggest that uses of vague language are loose uses of language while I suggest that uses of vague language are semantically highly loose and can only be tightened in context but do not show instances of loose talk.
55. fn6 6 However, the field of possible references of “thing” is in itself vaster than in the case of “it” since in addition to all referents that “it” can refer to, “thing” can also denote people reference whereas “it” cannot.
56. fn7 7 This discussion is linked to Russell’s (1905) “uniqueness” claim. However, I use the notion of uniqueness more in line with Roberts “informational uniqueness” which is “uniqueness relative to the discourse situation” (Abbott, 2004: 130). See Abbott (2004: 122-151) for an overview of on definiteness and indefiniteness in respect to noun phrases.
57. fn8 8  Chen (2009)refers to Fodor and Sag (1982), Partee (1970) and Lyons (1977) when making this claim.
58. fn9 9  Chen (2009: 1658)notes that: “expressions that are generally taken to be semantically referential, such as demonstratives and personal pronouns, may have nonreferential uses, as in the following examples, ‘HE who has a thousand friends has not a friend to spare, and HE who has one enemy will meet him everywhere’”. Thus, Chen’s example shows a conventionalised use of language (see also Abbott, 2004).
59. fn10 10  Quirk et al. (1985: 266)call these exophorics, situational reference.
60. fn11 11 The use of, for example, the thing that I dois a less restricted than a use of the thingwhich occurs without a modifier. Chen (2009: 1659)also refers to such a continuum: “the specificity of an entity is often a function of accompanying modifiers, increasing in degree with the elaboration of the details of its identifying attributes (Fodor and Sag, 1982; Givón, 1982, 2001; inter alia)”.
61. fn12 12 The notion of naturally occurring data is in itself problematic given that this type of data is also not entirely “natural” because research participants will be aware that a study is taking place as consent forms have to be signed or recording devices will have to be installed which influences the data’s naturalness ( Speer, 2002; see also Labov, 1972on the Observer’s Paradox). Moreover, naturally occurring employment interviews are special encounters as they are highly scripted contrary to, for example, naturally occurring conversations among friends.
62. fn13 13 Her study investigates, what she calls, “the lexis of the in-group” ( Cutting, 2002) which includes items such as general nouns that she analyses in casual conversations between university students.

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Affiliations: 1: Macquarie University, Australia


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