Hedging your bets - the use of yo in face-to-face interaction

Miranda Stewart

Strathclyde University

E-mail: m.m.stewart@strath.ac.uk

Revised 31.08.99.

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First published in Web Journal of Modern Language Linguistics. © 2000 Miranda Stewart
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1. Introduction
2. Presence and absence of the pronoun
3. Politeness Theory and pronominal reference
4. The data and methodology
5. Analysis of the data
6. Conclusion


1. Introduction

The presence or absence of the subject personal pronoun in Spanish [note1] has long attracted the attention of linguists (see, for example, Fernández, 1951, Barrenechea and Alonso, 1973, Rosengren, 1974, Silva-Corvalán, 1982, Haverkate, 1984, Enríquez, 1984, Bentivoglio, 1980 & 1987, Cameron, 1993, Davidson, 1996). While some earlier studies investigated pronominal use in written data, more recently there has been a recognition of the fact that terms used for speaker/hearer reference may function very differently in face-to-face interaction. Thus, one of the most complete investigations of this area, Enríquez's (1984) study of the subject personal pronoun in the educated speech of Madrid, is based on an extensive corpus of naturally-occurring data. However, her study, located within the variationist approach, is mainly concerned with social and linguistic factors as she seeks to establish a correlation between pronominal use and, on the one hand, variables such as sex and age, and, on the other, linguistic factors such as the semantic value of the verb and the position of the pronoun within a turn. She, like other writers (e.g. Fernández, 1951 and Rosengren, 1974), has detected a particularly high occurrence of the first person subject clitic yo with verbs of cognition. The aim of this article, is to investigate the interactional factors which may motivate the presence or absence of yo in this linguistic context through the framework of Brown and Levinson's (1978, 1987) 'politeness theory'. For an overarching motivation in certain contexts for both the presence and absence of yo, and more generally the reference to self, may be found in the need by speakers to negotiate and maintain interpersonal relations. Indeed, it may be that culturally-determined notions of  'face' (Goffman, 1967) contribute to an explanation for divergent rates of subject expression between different speech communities such as those noted by Cameron (1993) between the Spanish of Madrid (Spain) and San Juan (Puerto Rico) and those noted by Carbonero (1982: 55) in the Spanish of Seville (Spain) [note 2].

After a review of the literature relating to pronominal presence, an introduction to 'politeness theory' and a description of the data and methods used for the study, I shall argue that interactional factors, and in particular the desire to 'hedge' one's opinions and protect one's own 'face', are important in motivating the use or otherwise of of the subject pronoun yo.

2. Presence and absence of the pronoun

In the case of the first person singular pronoun in Spanish, traditional explanations for its presence such as disambiguation, contrast and emphasis (see, for example, Alarcos 1994: 72-73) have not provided particularly powerful insights into usage. Disambiguation does not appear to be a major factor [note 3] in accounting for the presence of the pronoun given that the verb form is generally morphologically unambiguous and, where it is not, context frequently disambiguates effectively as in (2) in extract 1 below, where the speaker, a radio reporter (F), is telling his senior (J) the arrangements he has made to keep abreast of developments in an industrial strike:
(1)  (J)  ¿te llaman o los llamas tú?
(F)  Yo (1) he quedado en llamarles pero en el caso de que no llame (2), ellos me llamarán también

While the morpheme -e in llame can encode both first and third person reference, in the absence of reference to a third party, the hearer will assume that the referent of llame is co-referential with that of  yo (1).

The presence of the pronoun yo (1) can be explained in terms of the other frequently adduced explanation for pronominal occurrence, that of contrast, insofar as yo is juxtaposed with the specific referent ellos and also with an unspecified referent ('someone else' implicated by (J)'s use of to inquire whether (F) will make the call rather than, say, another journalist).

However in the data analysed in this article (Stewart et al. 1987), contrast with another specified individual or individuals alone appears to account for very few occurrences of the pronoun.

Gili y Gaya (1961: 228) give emphasis as the principal reason for the inclusion of the first and second person personal pronouns stating 'En primera y segunda persona el pronombre del sujeto es enfático y significa insistencia particular en resaltar el sujeto'.  It can be argued that emphasis is simply a weaker form of contrast: that the referent of yo, unlike others unspecified, is the protagonist of a given activity or state. The contrast remains implicit in the utterance. This view of yo would also consider it as an equivalent to the French disjunctive pronoun moi (see, for example, Grevisse 1986: 1012 and Byrne and Churchill 1987: 144), which like yo but unlike je does not have a fixed word order within the utterance. Davidson (1996: 547) suggests that in certain cases yo could be considered a syntactic adjunct rather than a subject pronoun. Consequently it may be necessary to move beyond traditional analyses of Spanish syntax. However, for the purposes of this article we shall retain the label 'subject pronoun' to refer to yo. As for the reasons for its use, the notion of emphasis is clearly relevant but is not, in itself, as we shall see, sufficient to account for its function in naturally-occurring discourse.

Silva-Corvalán (1982) has looked at the presence of a pre-verbal adverbs affecting both the presence and absence of the pronoun and its position when present. Fernández (in Rosengren, 1974), albeit on the basis of written data, suggests that the presence of the personal pronoun is more likely to be favoured at the beginning of the phonic group and indeed that there is one position initial adverb (ya + present tense) which usually eliminates the presence of yo. This category is also examined by Enríquez (1984: 157-8) who notes that, as well as and que (when they function as 'partículas anunciativas'), a number of adverbs typically occur position initially in an utterance and give a clear impression of implied continuity:

Efectivamente, partículas como entonces, también, igualmente, en fin, en realidad, así, así que, es decir (que), es que, es más, además, luego (sin matiz temporal ni consecutivo), desde luego, efectivamente, se presentan a menudo en el enunciado expresando meramente una continuación con una oración anterior, y pueden incluso presentarse al comienzo de una réplica sin que exista una referencia directa a lo dicho anteriormente pero estableciéndose con ello ese claro efecto de continuidad aludido.
Examples from our data include:

(2)   entonces creo que es una información interesante...
(3)   es que no creo que haya nada como para meterlo...
(4)   entonces yo creo que hoy...

Davidson (1996: 561) relocates this function within conversation analysis, with yo (or alternatively, it can be argued, the adverb) acting as a turn-taking device signalling the speaker's intention to take the floor. Dissatisfied with the traditional notions of contrast and emphasis he subsumes these under the theoretical label of 'pragmatic weight' which encompasses a variety of functions of the subject pronoun, such as the turn-taking role examined above, not covered by a traditional syntax more suited to the written language.

Rodríguez Izquierdo (1982) also seeks in the non-referential functions of language a pragmatic explanation in speaking of the need to foreground the speaker 'el protagonismo del hablante'. He further suggests that a high frequency of occurrence of this pronoun may be allied with other features including a preference for the use of the present tense, for the indicative over the subjunctive and for personalisation even to the extent of personalising truly impersonal constructions (aquí hay mucha gente becoming aquí habemos mucha gente). The use of social, spatial and temporal deixis in the establishment and maintenance of interpersonal relationships is central to Brown and Levinson's theory of politeness.

The disproportionately high frequency of the occurrence of yo in spoken discourse perceived by a number of scholars (for example, Rodríguez Izquierdo, 1982, Haverkate 1984) is attested by Enríquez who shows that out of a total of 4,324 pronominal speaker/hearer references (yo, nosotros/as, vosotros/as, usted, ustedes), 81% of these are to the speaker (yo and nosotros/as) of which 93% are to the speaker alone [note 4]. Enríquez's study, as mentioned above, is concerned primarily with linguistic and social factors (although she argues for further pragmatic study of this area). Like other researchers (e.g. Fernández, 1951 and Rosengren, 1974), she detects a higher occurrence of yo with certain verb types, namely verbs of cognition of which she distinguishes an important sub-group of verbs of evaluation (e.g. opinar, pensar) which attract an even higher occurrence of the pronoun. She proposes the following explanation for this phenomenon (1984: 245):

si aceptamos que el deseo de contraposición de personas puede ser el factor determinante de la presencia pronominal, podemos explicar, mediante este rasgo, el hecho de que sean los verbos estimativos los que más favorecen la presencia del pronombre, especialmente del yo, puesto que la expresión de una opinión lleva siempre implícita una toma de postura que favorece el que surja en el hablante la necesidad (o el deseo) de realizar lingüísticamente dicha contraposición, en especial cuando la referencia es el propio hablante.
Here a linguistic explanation intersects with a pragmatic one. For, on the one hand, we have the semantic value of the verb and, on the other, what verbs in this category enable speakers 'to do with words' (Austin, 1962) in face-to-face interaction, in this instance express an opinion about a proposition.

In this article we shall argue that it is not the category of verb, in itself, which attracts a higher occurrence of pronominal reference but rather that it is certain types of verbal activity which motivate a speaker to exploit the use of the pronoun, and that an overarching motivation for pronominal use can be found in 'politeness'.

3. Politeness Theory and pronominal reference

The aim of Brown and Levinson's (1978, 87) influential work in interactional sociolinguistics was to provide an explanatory model for the motivations which led speakers to diverge from Gricean (1975) 'maximal efficiency' in conversation [note 5]. According to Grice's maxim of quantity a speaker's contribution should be as informative as required, not less or more so. Thus, the so-called pleonastic use of yo, i.e. used with a morphologically unambiguous verbal form, would formally equate to the contravention of Gricean conversational norms and invite the hearer to infer unexpressed meaning.

Brown and Levinson's explanation of a number of such deviations is rooted in Goffman's (1967) notion of  'face', that is 'the public self-image that every member wants to claim for himself' (1987: 61). They observe that such speakers have two 'face wants': a desire for freedom of action and freedom from imposition, which they term 'negative face'; and a desire for the speaker's self-image to be appreciated and approved of, which they call 'positive face'. They add to this the notion of 'face-threatening acts' (FTAs) which they classify according to the kind of face threatened and according to the role of the participant (speaker (S) or hearer (H)) [note 6].

Based on this model, Brown and Levinson have identified a whole series of linguistic strategies available to speakers to enable them, if they so wish, to minimise threat to face [note 7]. If a speaker chooses to commit a FTA, they can go 'off-record' and, say, drop a hint to the hearer. Alternatively they may decide to go 'on-record' in which case, they may choose to pay attention to face through redressive action. Thus, they may choose positive politeness to enable S to pay attention to H's positive face by, say, the use of in-group identity markers such as the T form or the inclusive nosotros or negative politeness which includes the marking of deference through, for example, use of the V pronoun, or, for example, the elimination of all reference to both S and H through the use of se.

Personal pronouns and related forms of address are prominent in Brown and Levinson's analysis. For not only do they locate personal reference within the strategies they claim to be universal (for example, negative politeness substrategy 7 - Impersonalise S and H: avoid the pronouns 'I' and 'you'), but they also adduce politeness as a motivation for some of the pronominal forms encoded in different languages (for example, the use of pluralisation, as in French vous and the use of third-person forms to refer to addressees as in Vd. (see Brown and Levinson, 1987: 198-204)). Nevertheless, much of their analysis centres on those pronominal forms which enable speakers and hearers to use indirectness through exploiting their inherent indeterminacy (e.g. impersonals, plural forms, etc); in contrast, in this analysis, we are concerned with the most determinate and therefore most direct pronominal form, yo.

4. The data and methodology

The primary concern was to collect naturally-occurring spoken Spanish where there would be a clear potential for threat to the face of speakers and hearers. Despite the multiple advantages of data from the media - ready availability, quality of sound and vision, wide variety of speakers amongst many others - after an initial analysis it was decided not to use such material on the grounds of the skewing of participant roles (see Bell 1984), and its consequent effect on language use, the addressee (i.e. the viewing public) not being present at the context of utterance.

The data are taken therefore from a series of video recordings made in Valladolid in 1987 both for the purposes of sociolinguistic research and as the basis of an advanced communicative course in Spanish, Camino a Castilla (Stewart et al,1991). The participants are all professional people of between 20 and 40 years of age. They know each other well (i.e. there is little distance between them) but they do have different roles within the institutions they work for (allowing for differences in power and status). Given that the principal aim of the project was to record people 'doing things with words' (Austin, 1962), we set out to record professional people using language in a work situation to negotiate outcomes and influence the behaviour of others. Such situations are extremely likely to contain face-threatening acts given that the very nature of the activity implicates that the actions and desires of some participants will impinge on the personal space of others. An additional advantage of this kind of situation is that it allows the analyst to minimise potential problems caused by 'the observer's paradox' (Labov, 1972) to the extent that participants rapidly become immersed in their own interactional goals and are increasingly unaware of the fact of being observed. The particular communicative situation chosen of sectional editorial meetings of the local newspaper and radio station where the participants (normally two or three to minimise problems of overlap) had to decide which items were to be included for the following day, what priority was to be given to each and which tasks each had to carry out to ensure that deadlines were met.

The quantitative approach to grammatical variation (e.g. Laberge and Sankoff, 1979 and Enríquez, 1984) operates with the concept of grammatical variables and their variants, i.e. different forms which are taken to be functionally equivalent in a given context, in this instance the presence or absence of the subject clitic. However, the difficulties in applying quantitative approaches to syntactic data have been amply documented (see, for example, García, 1983 & 1985). The variationist/ quantitative approach rarely takes into account the roles of speakers and hearers in a speech situation in constructing and deciphering meaning or in engaging in 'interactional work' itself. For example, in our data (Stewart et al., 1987), there was evidence of the repeated use, in Spanish, of the first person subject clitic in turn-initial positions in a bid to gain the floor. A quantitative study which failed to take into account the insights afforded by conversational analysis (see, for example, Sacks, Schegloff and Jefferson, 1974), might record an inflated frequency of occurrence of the personal pronoun in certain contexts.

Indeed, as Lavandera (1982) argues, a major defect of the quantitative approach is to treat all occurrences of a given variable equally and thus ignore the pragmatic dimension of language in use. She says:

 ...that a single expressively effective use of a linguistic form which finds its place in a meaningful configuration of the text in which it occurs, can show more about the semantic contribution that such a form is potentially able to make to discourse and about the system to which it belongs, than the description of the contexts in which it is more frequent and therefore less marked. (1982: 8)
What is more, if politeness theory does contribute to an explanation of pronominal presence and absence, and indeed to the presence or absence of verbs of cognition or even speaker reference at all, then the nature of the data (in terms of speech event) is likely to influence the language obtained. Much of the naturally-occurring data examined so far by researchers has been of a standard interview format where the role of the interviewee is either to provide information or comment (or both) and where there is little threat to face because the interviewee is cooperating with the objectives of the interviewer. Furthermore, in terms of interactional work, the interviewer exercises control over the speech event by allocating turns and speakers rarely need to compete for the floor. For example, in extract 5 below (Stewart et al., 1987), the aim of the interview is to elicit personal information and later a description of how to throw a pot from an expert in the field (R):
(5) (E)  ¿Cuántos años has estado haciendo esto tú Roberto?
(R)  Pues, empecé de diez, hice ayer setenta, así que total, sesenta.

Thus, R's right to talk about himself is sanctioned by the interviewer (from Davidsonâs (1996: 564) perspective the use of the subject pronoun and first name may be a turn-taking device signalling a willingness to cede the floor) and the topic is circumscribed. The interviewee is invited to provide information rather than comment. It is therefore more likely that in these circumstances the interviewee will talk about himself in terms of main clause verbs. Self-reference is unambiguous and there is no motivation to depart from Gricean norms by including the pronoun yo. Furthermore, the interviewer allocates the floor to the interviewee who, under such circumstances, is unlikely to use repetition of personal reference to gain the floor.

In circumstances where there is a potential threat to face, as in extract (6) below where a senior reporter is telling his junior what to do, it may be strategically desirable to put on record the importance of the identities of the participants, in this case to enable the speaker to emphasise the fact that he will also be participating in the joint task and that the matter at issue is who will do what rather than a face-threatening directive. Similarly in extract (7) where a university lecturer is prefacing a divergence of opinion with a colleague, it may equally important to stress, by implicature, that each individual is entitled to their own opinion, a face-saving strategy enabling the speaker the commit the face-threatening act of expressing disagreement. While traditional explanations of contrast and emphasis are clearly relevant here, within an interactional framework it is more interesting to examine how use of the optional pronoun allows speakers to achieve their communicative goals while negotiating face.

(6)   te marchas tú a cubrir la información ... me quedo yo....

(7)   yo no sé si tú habrás apreciado, yo al menos sí lo... lo he visto

In this analysis, it is the negotiation of face which is of primary interest. Given the evident multifunctionality of the subject pronoun in face-to-face interaction, we shall not attempt a quantitative analysis but rather subject the data which we have characterised above to a qualitative analysis alone, while suggesting some directions in which quantitative research could, we believe, take place.

5. Analysis of the data

As we saw previously, Fernández, Rosengren and Enríquez have all identified the type of verb which will more commonly attract the inclusion of the personal pronoun, i.e. verbs of cognition. What they have not done is to suggest a convincing rationale for why this may be so. Haverkate (1984) suggests that the prime motivation is pragmatic in nature and appeals to Grice's maxim of quality, arguing that this is the only principle which is speaker-centred. He quotes Moliner (1967: 640) who states that the first person singular pronoun 'se emplea frecuentemente para atenuar un juicio, una censura o un reproche' and goes on to say (1984: 63) that 'egocentric reference is inherent in the development of certain persuasive strategies in verbal interaction. It is used by speakers to bring into prominence their role in a state of affairs. In not a few cases, this prominence reflects a superior social position of the speaker with respect to the hearer'. Thus he moves beyond purely linguistic concerns to examine speech acts, speech events and role and status of the speaker and hearer.

While studies of verbs of cognition have mainly concentrated on their lexical meaning (for example, Enríquez's study  (1984: 151-155) identifies two categories of verb of cognition; those which presuppose mental activity (objective), e.g. saber, querer, pensar, desear, etc.; those which presuppose mental activity (subjective), e.g. creer, encontrar (= considerar), suponer, etc.; Weber and Bentivoglio (1991: 202) establish a range of interpretable meanings for creer and pensar), it is possible to reclassify these verbs in terms of their pragmatic function within the utterance. For example, in extracts 8-10 below, verbs such as saber, creer and pensar  (which, for the researchers mentioned above, occupy different lexical categories) can act as hedges to the maxim of Quality:
(8) (M)   ...porque pienso que estamos organizando muchos finales...
(9) (M) yo creo que lo podemos dejar lo podemos dejar en un segundo plano
(10) (M) no pero ya sabemos cuál es el contenido de la primera de...
(F)  sí pero no sé no lo he leído

Indeed, what is striking about verbs of cognition used in the first person singular is not only that they are what Palmer (1965 in Weber and Bentivoglio, 1991) has called private verbs because they refer to activities available for perception by the speaker only, but that they are typically used as 'hedges'. Brown and Levinson (1987: 145) define 'hedges' as 'a particle, word or phrase that modifies the degree of membership of a predicate or noun phrase in a set; it says of that membership that it is partial, or true only in certain respects, or that it is more true and complete than might be expected'.  In extracts 8, 9 and 10 above, the function of the verbs pensar, creer and saber can therefore be classified as one of hedging. In extracts 8 and 9 pienso que and yo creo que modify the speaker's commitment to the respective propositions estamos organizando muchos finales and lo podemos dejar en segundo plano. In extract 10, no sé modifies (through negation) a proposition implicated by M's assertion sabemos cuál es el contenido de... i.e. that speaker and hearer are operating on the basis of shared knowledge [note 8].

Why should verbal hedges attract a particularly high frequency of pronominal presence and under what circumstances might pronominal presence be less frequent? As we have seen, yo has no propositional value insofar as it merely duplicates the information morphologically encoded within the verbal inflexion (thereby contravening the Gricean maxim of quality). Its presence therefore is one of contrast or emphasis. Considered in this light, the presence of the 'redundant' particle yo (for example, in extract 9 above) fits very closely with the description of a hedge given above. On the one hand, it can implicate that the speaker's commitment to the illocutionary force expressed by the cognitive verb is 'partial', that is that the speaker is expressing an opinion which is their own and is not presuming that this opinion is shared by the hearer or indeed by others. On the other hand, it can implicate that the commitment to the illocutionary force expressed by the cognitive verb is more true than it might otherwise have been because the speaker themself invests it with their authority ('I, with my experience, authority, etc., think...). It is the power of this 'redundant' yo to single out the speaker and to set him or her against another individual or group which makes it a useful resource for politeness.

Negative politeness is predicated upon the need not to impinge on others or to assume that their actions or beliefs are necessarily the same as the speaker's own. Positive politeness seeks to build common ground between speaker and hearer. Brown and Levinson include hedges [note 9] as part of the strategies available for both positive politeness where 'intensifying modifiers fulfill the substrategy of exaggerating (interest, approval, sympathy with H)' (1987: 104) and more normally for negative politeness where they modify the expression of communicative intentions (1987: 145). Thus the effect of the addition of the particle yo to the hedge creo may simply serve to indicate further that this is the speaker's and only the speaker's opinion and that the hearer is not presumed to share it. Of course, an alternative interpretation would be that the speaker is exaggerating the interest of what she or he has to say with the intention of being positively polite or indeed, not engaging in any redressive action whatsoever; the use of yo may serve to put on record the authority of the speaker.

There is however a problem with the notion of 'hedges'. For Brown and Levinson (1987:146) hedges can be divided into two categories:

strengtheners (those that act mainly as emphatic 'hedges' (...)) and weakeners (those that soften or tentativise what they modify); no clear meaning exists for most of these, but in one way or another they all indicate something about the speaker's commitment towards what he is saying, and in so doing modify the illocutionary force.
For example, in extract 11 below a senior reporter (J) is considering how suitable an article on a strike at FASA is for inclusion in a prominent position on page five in the following day's newspaper. The junior reporter (F), whose article it is, is arguing for its inclusion:
(11) (J)  ... Yo no si el tema tuyo de FASA puede... podemos meterlo en la cinco, yo no la importancia que tiene y lo que ha pasado ahí 
(F)  yo creo que sería importante porque...

The knowledge that (J) as senior reporter enjoys the power to impose his will allows the categorisation of his use of yo as a strengthener with the illocutionary force of the expression of doubt (i.e. I am not convinced that the article is important enough to be included). At the same time, it can also function as a weakener; the senior reporter is acknowledging that the junior knows more than he does and is inviting reasons for inclusion. In the case of (F), extralinguistic factors (the fact that he does not enjoy the authority to impose his view) allied with linguistic factors (the tentativising force of the conditional tense sería) suggest that this occurrence of yo could be categorised as a weakener. However, in both cases, it is not the particle itself but rather the status of the speaker and their rights within a given communicative event which lead to one or other definition. It is our contention therefore, in what follows, that it is pragmatic factors (such as knowledge of participant roles and status) rather than those intrinsic to linguistic resources themselves (in this case the role of yo as a hedge and of verbs of cognition as a further category of hedges) which lead speakers to use these resources and hearers to interpret them in the ways that they do.

Let us examine a further extract from a meeting between a senior reporter (M) and a junior reporter (F), in which (F) raises the resignation of military judges in Argentina as a possible item for inclusion in the following dayâs newspaper.
(12) (F) hay otra cosa que es de la Argentina que han dimitido los jueces militares es una oposición clara al gobierno vamos es...
(M) bueno puede puede puede ser un contenido muy importante en la página latinoamérica pero yo creo que tampoco es para mucho más...
(F) no sé ya pues no sé están en constante desafío con el gobierno  no?
(M)  yo creo que lo podemos dejar lo podemos dejar en un segundo plano...
(F) entonces abrimos con Gorbachov?

(F) introduces the topic of the resignation of the miltary judges in Argentina as a statement of fact and does not use any hedging. (M) interprets the illocutionary force of the statement as one of suggestion and gives a mitigated dispreferred response, bueno, in itself a politeness device, before justifying his implicated rejection by yo creo que tampoco es... using the personal pronoun. If we accept that the function of the pronominal hedge depends on extralinguistic factors, it could be argued that yo uttered by a speaker who has the status to impose his views functions as a strengthener enabling the speaker to appeal to his own authority. And this he does again when he is committing the face-threatening act of refusing to foreground his colleagueâs proposed article (yo creo que lo podemos dejar...)

(F)'s disagreement is aimed at the truth value of (M)'s previous opinion and she repeats the unmarked form (no sé ya pues no sé), using the pseudo-agreement of ya pues to mitigate the repetition of her disagreement and drawing on the non-truth-functional implicature of no sé as an epistemic parenthetical (see footnote 8). She is using the verb saber which affords protection to his and her face as her disagreement is ostensibly based around a lack of knowledge rather than a dissenting view. Nonetheless, her disagreement is clearly implicated when she gives the reason why this item is worthier of inclusion than (M)'s preferred item on Gorbachev. Here too the absence of pronoun can be explained in terms of the perceived status of the speaker. If F had used yo no sé or, more crucially, yo no creo she might have been more likely to lay herself open to the challenge that either she is deficient in knowledge (she should know that Gorbachov is more worthy of inclusion) or that her opinion is of relatively little account (she does not have the status to determine which article is worthier of inclusion).

The utility of hedges directed at the maxim of quality is that their very multi-functionality provides a resource for indirectness; it is up to the hearer, on the basis of extra-linguistic contextual knowledge, to assign, if necessary, a value to yo. Should a hearer, for example, assume that the use of of yo implicated authority and challenge this ('Who are you to...?), the speaker can always point to a non-powerful use of yo and claim that the implicature was one of  'partial belief'. Consequently, the use of yo can serve simultaneously to protect the speaker's face and to allow the construction of self.

In addition to hedges on the maxim of quality related to verbs of cognition there is a further category of hedges which appears to function in a similar fashion, that is performative hedges created from verbs such as tener, decir and plantear [note 10]. For example:

(12)    no te digo que sea el único
(13)    y te la planteo
(14)    Mira yo te voy a decir que para la cinco tengo previsto un reportaje de...

Austin (1962) defines performatives as a special class of utterances which are not used to make true/false statements but which 'do things', e.g. to state 'I object' is to carry out the action of objecting. Thus, in addition to consecrating certain actions, performatives could be said to serve the metalinguistic function of putting on record the illocutionary force of a speech act. It could be that they function as a hedge on the Gricean sub-maxim of manner by making clear the ostensible communicative intentions of the speaker.

Here, it will be argued that, unlike hedges on quality, performative hedges act almost exclusively as strengtheners. Within Austin's definition, a performative can only succeed if the speaker fulfils a series of felicity conditions (in the case of the example given above, that the speaker has the right to object, enjoyed in parliament, for example, by an MP but not by a member of the public). Consequently the use of the performative highlights these conditions. When a newspaper editor says yo te voy a decir que... tengo previsto, the implicature is that the editor is in the best position to make provisions for the following day's news. Thus the use of the performative hedge claims authority for himself. The use of performatives could be viewed as a high-risk strategy in terms of speaker face-protection; if the speaker is successfully challenged then she or he risks serious loss of face. However, the use of a performative, especially with the use of the, in this case, strengthening hedge yo, has a payoff for speakers; they can linguistically construct and maintain authority for themselves.

Despite the difficulties inherent for hearer and analyst alike [note 11] in interpreting the motivations for the use of a given linguistic form, nonetheless, the multifunctionality of hedges should be apparent. It is our argument that it is this multifunctionality, and consequent ambivalence, which enables speakers to use these forms in the interests of face protection. That these hedges should attract a higher frequency of occurrence of the pronominal hedge yo may have to do with their relative immunity from challenge; personal attitude and mental states are paradigmatically A events, that is events the truth or falsity of which can only be known by the speaker A. Thus markers of this nature can serve to protect propositions from challenge (thus protecting the face of the speaker), the authenticity of an individualâs inner feelings or beliefs not being available for scrutiny.

6. Conclusion

After reviewing syntactic and variationist research into the presence or absence of the subject personal pronoun in Spanish with a particular focus on studies which identify a higher frequency in pronominal occurrence with verbs of cognition, we argued in favour of using a pragmatic analysis and in particular one based on the framework provided by Grice and politeness theory to examine the use of the first person singular in Spanish and the presence or absence of the subject pronoun. Working from the hypothesis that politeness might constitute an explanatory factor for pronominal usage, we constituted a corpus where threat to face was built into the speech events recorded. The subsequent qualitative analysis of the data, which located the use of yo within the context of the contravention of the Gricean maxims of quantity and quality, argued that the 'redundant' yo served to single out the speaker and to set him or her against another individual or group, thus making it a useful resource for politeness. We argued that it is pragmatic rather than linguistic factors which make yo a multifunctional linguistic resource; it is its inherent ambivalence which leads speakers to use it and hearers to interpret it in the ways that they do.


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[1] Spanish is a pro-drop language where person and number are morphologically encoded in the verb form, e.g. canto 'I sing'. Thus use of the subject personal pronoun is optional. [back to text]

[2] Related to this is the construction of personhood and the anthropological distinction between the notion of self and that of person. See, for example, Harré and Mühlhaüsler (1990) in Foley 1997: 263. While it is possible that the presence or absence of yo is a critical factor in the linguistic construction of self, an investigation of this kind is beyond the scope of this article. [back to text]

[3] Barrenechea and Alonso (1973), in their study of Buenos Aires speech, reject ambiguity as a significant reason for pronominal inclusion as they found that most cases could be resolved by recourse to context. In their data they found that only 4.04% of ambiguous references could not be interpeted. Furthermore, while the pronoun was more likely to be encoded where the person was not already encoded in the verb ending, its presence was not more likely than its absence. Their finding has been corroborated in the case of Peninsular Spanish by Enríquez's (1984: 215) extensive study. A somewhat different view has been put forward by Silva-Corvalán (1982) who found that verb forms which were both morphologically and contextually ambiguous were significantly more likely to attract the presence of the pronoun. One difficulty with data of this nature for a study such as the present one is that they quantify first, second and third person pronouns together without consideration of their respective functions in speech. For while the first and second person pronouns serve a deictic function, the third person (which is more likely to be morphologically ambiguous) is more commonly used for anaphoric reference. [back to text]

[4] There have been a number of quantitative studies on the presence and absence of the pronoun (Barrenechea and Alonso, 1973, Cifuentes, 1981, Ejarque, 1977, Rosengren, 1974). There is a certain amount of variation in results which is unsurprising given the variety of approaches adopted in data collection. [back to text]

[5] H. P. Grice's (1975) theory of conversation is based upon what he terms the 'co-operative principle' which he classifies into four broad maxims; the maxim of quantity which states that a speaker's contribution should be as informative as required, not less or more so; the maxim of quality which states that speakers should not say what they believe to be false or anything for which they lack adequate evidence; the maxim of relation whereby speakers should make their contributions relevant to the purposes of the conversation; and the maxim of manner whereby the speaker's contribution should be orderly and brief avoiding ambiguity and obscurity. [back to text]

[6] Brown and Levinson provide the following schema for the strategies available to speakers to enable them to avoid face-threatening acts.

Brown and Levinson (1987:69) [back to text]
[7] The degree of threat contained in a FTA would depend on three main factors: the distance or solidarity between S and H (for example, a stranger is not normally addressed in the same way as a close friend); the power relationship between S and H (for example, an adult might address a child differently from a colleague); and the ranking of a given imposition in a given culture (for example, in a culture such as that of Spain where cigarettes are seen as a 'free good', a request for a cigarette may even be superfluous and certainly would not require any attention to face; in a country where it is a 'non-free good' such a request may be seen as face-threatening and the threat would require to be minimised). [back to text]

[8] Davidson (1996: 557) makes a distinction between 'epistemic parentheticals' such as no sé (similar to 'I dunno' in English) which are lexically 'frozen' collocations which may be in the process of being lexicalised, and the truth-functional (yo) no sé, which derives its meaning from the world of speaker's beliefs. There are cases where these two functions can be distinguished; in others both values may be present. [back to text]

[9] Brown and Levinson (1987: 145) do not suggest that politeness is the sole function of hedges; indeed they point to the 'formidable array of hedges designed to limit criminal culpability' in the Watergate transcripts. [back to text]

[10] These verbs are classified by Enríquez (1984) as verbs of activity which her study shows to attract a lower rate of pronominal occurrence than verbs of cognition. It would possibly be interesting to abstract verbs which can function as performative hedges from this category and to recalculate rates of occurrence. However, there is the problem of multifunctionality. Davidson (1996: 551) notes that, for example, decir has a particularly low rate of occurrence in the data he has analysed; he also notes that this verb, like saber, can function as an epistemic parenthetical (digo). [back to text]

[11] In our approach we adopt the central tenet of discourse and conversational analysis, that is that the analyst like the hearer does not have access to the speaker's intentions (even assuming that these are both conscious and unitary). Furthermore, that interaction is 'context-renewing' (Heritage 1987) and that speakers and hearers can modify the value assigned to given linguistic items over the course of the interaction. [back to text]


I should like to acknowledge the support of the Carnegie Fund which enabled me to engage in library research in Spain. I wish to thank Ian Mason for his helpful comments on this article and Lesley Milroy and Anthony Stanforth for their supervision of the thesis from which this article is derived. Errors of fact and interpretation are my own responsibility.

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