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.


  1. speedwell says

    My father, a native Hungarian speaker, gets a great deal of amusement out of driving people crazy when they insert this sort of tag into their speech.
    He may respond to “eh” by beginning his response with “B.” “Right?” will elicit, “If you say so.” And “ya know” will get, “I don’t know anything of the sort” each and every time (you should have heard him when my brother was awkwardly fifteen and used “ya know” between every other word). Habitual overuse of “um” will get Daddy to humming tunefully right along with you. Tag questions of the general form “Such-and-so is the case, isn’t it?” will usually result in, “I don’t know; you tell me.” He will grin widely when indulging in these playground games.
    I don’t know if he does this because this sort of thing is unknown in Hungarian and sounds funny to him, or because he’s just irritating, or whether those two things equal each other. 🙂

  2. Interesting. In Taiwan I was told that the final particle ne was a girl’s word, as in Japanese. Supposedly it’s used mostly for wheedling, complaining haplessly, and making humble suggestions.

  3. . Italics off?

  4. Here in Brazil the use of the ‘neh?’tag is widespread, but is not so in Portugal. I haven’t been to Angola or Moçambique so I wouldn’t know if they have the same sort of interjection there. i always found it irritating when I heard it, but then discovered that I was using it frequently in my Portuguese and also in my native English.

  5. I have generally heard tag questions used as a dominance stragtey rather than what Lakoff claims. It’s a way of arm-twisting your listener into agreeing with you.

  6. i would modify jim’s pov and say that in the cases studied (professionals) the insertion of tag questions serves to bond the authority figure more closely with the group. The group can identify the authority as a ‘good guy’ and not a ‘pompous ass,’ and the tag questions serve to draw them in closer to his point of view, to accept him. He or she becomes a ‘regular guy’ with familiar speech patterns. There’s been a very great difference in the style of authority figures during the past century. Look at our commander in chief, for example.
    I also agree that further study needs to happen, and that theorizing is not enough.

  7. If the same tag is used in Chinese, Japanese, and Brazilian Portuguese, isn’t that news?
    I’ve heard the “OK?” tag used in Chinese, and in Vietnamese too, I think.

  8. Jimmy Ho says

    Interesting. In Taiwan I was told that the final particle ne was a girl’s word, as in Japanese.
    Was it the standard ‘guoyu’ ne 呢 (a bit like French ‘noeud’), or more like the Japanese pronouciation (closer to French ‘nez’ or Greek ‘nai’)?
    The latter I have heard only by Taiwanese women or sajiaoing Mainland women (who may be imitating entertainment stars).
    I will be surprised if you tell me it was the former (the same double prounounciation exists for le, but, in my experience, it is the open ‘o’ in final lo, wo, etc. that many Mainlanders find characteristic (whether “cute” or “annoying”) of allegedly “effeminate” Taiwanese accent.

  9. Jimmy Ho says

    Note to self: a) It’s “pronounciation”; b) learn basic phonology some day.

  10. It was the standard Taiwan Mandarin pronunciation, I think, but I was a beginner in the language.

  11. Jimmy Ho says

    In this case, I do find it curious.

  12. paulmiki says

    Note also the widespread use of “la” as a tag by locals in Singapore/Malaysia, regardless of the language spoken — Chinese, Bahasa Malaysia, Tamil, English.

  13. Couple of things..
    I have heard these echo questions used both in that rapport-building way and in the more dominating style I mentioned. I don’t think the tactic is essentially one way or the other.
    “Ne” in Mandarin has a different function that just an echo question particle. It has a durative or contrstive sense most often. It happens to be sentence final and that is about the only similarity with the Japanese or Portuguese examples.
    It makes sense that both Japanese and Portuguese might develop a similar sounding particle with similar functions, since negative morphemes tend to start with ‘n’ in both languages already.

  14. Bob and Doug McKenzie led the rest of the world to believe that ‘eh’ is much more common on the (frozen) ground than it actually is. My millworker pals in the Narthland use it, sometimes, sure, but it’s not really heard as much as you’d think, eh. At least it wasn’t back when actually I lived there.

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