The Pragmatic Functions of Dummy Terms in Two Austronesian Languages

Fuhui Hsieh & Michael Tanangkingsing

Date of publication:

December 31, 2021

The purpose of this study is to investigate the pragmatic functions of dummy terms in two Austronesian languages, i.e., ku’an in Cebuano and iza in Kavalan. Dummy terms, as defined, are linguistic units that are semantically empty, but complete a sentence to make it grammatical. Nevertheless, the dummy terms to be investigated in this study are not just of grammatical significance, but, more important, of pragmatic functions. Syntactically, these dummy terms can be fitted into almost any syntactic slot and inflected or derived with appropriate morphologically affixations accordingly. Pragmatically, they function as various scaffolding tools that can help social interactants achieve successful interactional tasks in transient social interaction, or ‘joint action’ (Clark 1996).

By carefully investigating the distribution and functions of the dummy term in the languages, we aim to show that lexical meanings are negotiated and thus emerge from social interaction. As pointed out by Evans (2016), language does not emerge “automatically and effortlessly”, but rather “reflects human pro-social inclinations for intersubjective communication” (3). In interaction contexts, linguistic structures have to meet with the demands of rapid, open-textual, and sometimes risky social situations. In this study, we will show that the use of the dummy terms by Cebuano and Kavalan speakers is also an interaction-motivated phenomenon: like a ready-for-wear filler, the dummy term enables Cebuano and Kavalan speakers to fulfill their goals and go on with their project even under interactional pressures and when they do not have any candidate in mind. Ultimately, we hope to show (i) that social interactants use grammatical forms to coordinate the production of the social actions, and (ii) that language is a scaffolding tool that helps language users to meet the demanding needs in transient social interaction.