(Un)certain knowledge in language – University of Copenhagen

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(Un)certain knowledge in language

You can show how certain you are about what you say by adding words like maybe or absolutely. Such means are often used in order to be polite towards others. When you say that something maybe is the case, you make room for the possibility that your conversational partner may mean something different. Conversely, you can support others’ viewpoints by agreeing that that’s for sure. Adolescents appear to use significantly more uncertainty markers now than they did earlier.

In this research project we have compared language use in the 80s with language use in the 2000s by focusing on the distribution of certainty and uncertainty markers in spoken Danish. We have already studied adverbials måske ’maybe’, nok ’probably’, sandsynligvis ’most likely’, klart ’clearly’, bestemt ’definetely’, helt sikkert ’surely’ and found a marked difference in adolescents’ use of such words across the two time periods. The project is being expanded with clausal markers like the Danish equivalents of I think and It is clear that.

For the adverbials these things hold on a linguistic level

  • uncertainty markers occur twice as often as certainty markers
  • people use more uncertainty markers when they speak about people other than themselves

And on a social level we find that

  • adolescents in the 80s used more certainty markers than adults of the same period
  • adolescents in the 2000s on the contrary use more uncertainty markers than adults of the same period
  • but that there are no significant differences between genders (women and men) or social classes (working and middle class)

Nothing indicates that adolescents of today speak more about other people that adolescents did previously, so what might explain this difference? Possible explanations may involve a heightened sensitivity to conversational partners (politeness), or another conception of what it entails to be interviewed (perhaps less ‘serious’ now).  

Read more about the project
Christensen, T. K. 2013. Er nok nok? I: Duncker, Hansen & Skovgaard-Petersen (Eds). Betydning & forståelse: Festskrift til Hanne Ruus. København: Selskab for Nordisk Filologi, 149-160.

Christensen, T.K. 2012. Epistemiske sætningsadverbialer i dansk talesprog. Ny forskning i grammatik 19, 5-28.