Pragmatic roles in central Somali narrative discourse


  • Douglas Biber


Somali, questions, information structure, discourse, focus


This paper compares the marking of pragmatic roles in Central Somali oral narrative discourse and elicited question-answer pairs to illustrate the claim that information structure must be studied within the context of particular discourse genres. The study of pragmatic roles in Central Somali is especially interesting because clause-level focus is explicitly marked through the particle yaa. The functions of this particle in elicitation question-answer pairs and narrative discourse are compared, and it is shown that elicitation data exhibit only a few of the possible functions of yaa, viz. as a marker of assertive and contrastive focus. In contrast, narrative discourse provides examples of yaa as a marker of both event-clause focus and discourse topic. This result is discussed within the context of discourse coherence and is shown to be not as surprising as it first appears. In addition, narrative focus constructions (defined as the most salient section of new information in a narrative text) are shown to be formally well-defined and functionally important in giving coherence to a narrative, although no counterpart has been found in elicitation data. In conclusion, it is noted that pragmatic roles should be studied in a broad range of discourse genres in addition to elicited question-answer data, since each genre may illustrate different functions of the same constructions.