Mark Liberman of Language Log is posting a great series of entries on the function of the well-known Canadian tag “eh”: The meaning of eh (describing the findings of a 2004 paper [pdf] by Elaine Gold, “Canadian Eh?: A Survey of Contemporary Use”), Open access eh (the results of a search of Canadian Hansards), Um, em, uh, ah, aah, er, eh (other “filled pauses”), and most recently Canadian “eh” and Japanese “ne” (comparison with a similar Japanese particle). An interesting quote from the last:
Robin Lakoff’s 1975 account of English tag questions, based on her introspective judgments, was that such tags “are associated with a desire for confirmation or approval which signals a lack of self-confidence in the speaker.” But when Cameron et al. 1988 looked at the distribution of tag questions in nine hours of unscripted broadcast talk, they found that such tags were used only by the participants that they characterized as “powerful” — in other words, those “institutionally responsible for the conduct of the talk”. These were doctors as opposed to patients, teachers as opposed to students, talk show hosts as opposed to guests.
This is why it’s important to do research rather than depending on introspection and theorizing.
Update. There’s further interesting discussion at piloklok, Bob Kennedy’s new linguistics blog, which I discovered via HeiDeas.