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The Functions Of Discourse Particles English Language Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Language
Wordcount: 2332 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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According to Loraine K. Obler and Kris Gjerlow (Language and the Brain,1999, pp. 131-132), many bilinguals, in addition to speaking two or more languages fluently, have ability to employ elements of both languages when speaking with another bilingual and this is known as code-switching and it is governed by internalized rules. Code-switching is a very normal phenomenon in many parts of the world and one has always to take into account the distinction between, on the one hand, community (or national) and the other individual bilingualism and multilingualism and they are not necessary closely related. (Pride, The Social Meaning of Language, 1971, p. 26) There are many types of code-switching such as tag switching, intrasentential switching and intersentential switching.

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Kamisah Ariffin and Shameem Rafik Galea (Code Switching as a Communication Device in Conversation) found that their subjects employ code switching as a personal communication strategy. The strategies they employed are signalling social relationships and language preferences, obviating difficulties, framing discourse, contrasting personalisation and objectification, conveying cultural-expressive message, dramatising key words, lowering language barriers, maintaining appropriateness of context, showing membership and affiliation with others and reinterring messages.

What is Malaysian English?

Malaysian English or more commonly known as Manglish, is the colloquial version of English spoken in Malaysia and it is similar to Singlish, which is Singapore English. While Bahasa Malaysia is the national language, English is still widely used and is the second language in Malaysia. Many Malay words are being introduced into Manglish. The most common example is suffixing a sentence with the -lah particle which does not have any specific meaning on the sentence. Besides the influence of Bahasa Malaysia, there are also influence from other languages and dialects like Mandarin, Hokkien, Cantonese and Tamil in Malaysian English.

Language as Social Semiotic

Halliday (1973, 1985) proposed a “systemic, functional” view of language which sees it in the social function it serves. He believes that language is a systematic resource for expressing meaning in context, not the set of all possible grammatical sentences. (Jordan, Theory Construction in Second Language Acquisition, 2004, p.6) He believes that there are two main functions of language which are ‘ideational function’ and ‘the interpersonal function’. ‘Ideational function’ allows people to deal with their ideas, perspectives and feelings on a particular subject whereas ‘interpersonal function’ allows people to deal with each other. He believes that the social function of the languages is more important than the grammatical aspects of the languages. For example, a person may not be able to construct a grammatically correct sentence but he/she is able to convey their idea effectively and is understandable by others.

Communication Accommodation Theory

According to Howard Giles and Peter F. Powesland, “accommodation through speech can be regarded as an attempt on the part of a speaker to modify or disguise his persona in order to make it more acceptable to the person addressed”. (Speech Style and Social Evaluation, 1975, p. 158) When we speak to people from different age, status, culture, etc, we tend to switch to a mode which the person we are speaking to is comfortable in. For example, when speaking to babies, we tend to use simpler words and shorter sentences and this is called ‘baby talk’. On the other hand, when speaking to a professor, we tend to switch to a formal language and use jargons in the field that we specialise in.

Maya Khemlani David (Tolerance and Communication in Multi-ethnic Malaysia) found that the particles ‘lah’ and ‘meh’ are used in informal settings to signify emphasis on something or to soften a speech act like requests. The data collected from her research found that even though the Chinese students in that particular school are proficient in English, they tend to code switch for many reasons such as to emphasis, to quote someone else, for distancing or making a formal complaint and to signify solidarity with members of their group. Hence, she concluded that her findings show that people from other ethnic groups accommodate and switch to a language they are comfortable in when communicating with each other.

It is very common for us to use the particles ‘lah’, ‘ah’, ‘mah’, etc in our daily life because we are so used to them and we often use them in our daily conversation. These particles only exist in Malaysian English and Singapore English. However, what are the functions of these particles? Hence, this paper is going to examine the functions of these particles in a conversation.


A 15 minute conversation was recorded and transcribed. The conversation was among four ladies aged 24 and they are all university graduates. They are proficient in English and Bahasa Malaysia. Besides that, they are also proficient in their mother tongue. The reason this conversation is used is because it was a casual conversation among them. Casual conversation is chosen over formal interviews because we tend to switch to a formal language when we are in a formal setting. Hence, the result of the study will not be accurate because in standard English, we do not use the particles. These particles only exist in casual conversations because there is a need for the speakers to accommodate with each other.

The transcription was analysed for the discourse particles used throughout the 15 minute conversation.

Results and Discussion


Number of times




You apply where ah?

Your father drive ah?

Three or four ah.






Haiya, just now we talked about Patricia’s video, we should record mah.



Yea lah, haiyo.

Haiyo, that one another big story lah.



Just now he came hor…

Then hor, he eat a lot you know…



Just say lah.

I think is last minute work lah.

It’s always like that one lah.



I don’t know leh.

The clutch is like, don’t know leh…



Two lor got subtitle.

The second day one ok lor, senyap lor.



Lagi syok mah.

Orang Teluk Intan mah ok lah.

They should mention mah they give one week…



What are you doing wei?



Eh, so nice wor Pangkor.

Cantik wor tempat tu.

I forgotten already wor.

From the transcription, 12 particles were identified, namely ‘ah’, ‘aiyah’, ‘haiya’, ‘haiyo’, ‘hor’, ‘lah’, ‘leh’, ‘lor’, ‘mah’, ‘wei’, and ‘wor’. Based on the result we can observe that the particle ‘lah’ is the most frequently used particle followed by ‘ah’, ‘mah’, ‘wor’, ‘loh’, ‘hor’, ‘leh’, ‘haiyo’, ‘aiyah’, ‘wei’ and ‘haiya’. Most of the particles derived from Chinese expressions like ‘mah’, ‘wor’, ‘lor’, ‘hor’, ‘leh’, ‘haiyo’, ‘aiyah’, ‘wei’ and ‘haiya’. On the other hand, particle ‘lah’ derived from Malay expression.

The results show that the particles can be divided into five categories according to their functions which are; asking a question, affirming a statement, expressing disappointment, explaining something and expressing uncertainty.



Asking a question

Ah, wei

Affirming a statement

Ah, lah, mah

Expressing disappointment

Aiyah, haiya, haiyo

Explaining something

Hor, wor

Stress the obvious


Expressing uncertainty


Particle ‘ah’ which is a common expression in Chinese, functions as filler or breaking points and it is used to bring out a question force like “No point helping friends who are not interested, do you agree with that, ah?” (Mohan K. Muniandy et al, 2010) The data collected shows that the subjects tend to attach the particle ‘ah’ and ‘wei’ in their questions like “Your father drive ah?” and ” What are you doing wei?” Besides that, the data also shows that particle ‘ah’ is used when the speaker affirms a statement like “Three or four ah.”

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Particle ‘lah’ derived from colloquial Malay and they have various functions. For example, they are used in declarative sentences whose functions may be termed ‘informational’, which is to say the speaker’s purpose is to let the addressee know something like “Aku ada appointment lah”. (Goddard, 1994) This particle ‘lah’ is now common feature of colloquial Malaysian or Singapore English and they are used widely in conversations. From the data collected, we can see that the speakers used the particle ‘lah’ when they are affirming a statement like “I think is last minute work lah”. The speaker was trying to tell her addressee that she feels that the problem caused was due to last minute work.

Particle ‘mah’ derived from Chinese and it has similar function with ‘lah’ that is to affirm a statement like “They should mention mah they give one week…” which means that if the person addressed in the conversation is given one week to settle something, she should be informed earlier by the relevant authorities.

Particles ‘aiyah’, ‘haiya’ and ‘haiyo’ have the same function, which is to express disappointment. For example, “Haiya, just now we talked about Patricia’s video, we should record mah” shows that the speaker is expressing disappointment because she did not record their conversation on her friend’s video clip. A browse into Urban Dictionary shows that the expression ‘aiyah’ originates from the Cantonese expression of disappointment or displeasure when something bad or wrong happens.

Wee (2002) noted that Cantonese has a particle ‘lo’ which shows some similarities with Singapore English ‘lor’. Hence, particle ‘lor’ might originate from Cantonese. There are numerous functions of particle ‘lor’ but according to the examples from the transcription, particle ‘lor’ was uttered when the speaker was trying to explaining something that is obvious to the other speakers. For example, “Two lor got subtitle.” Hence, ‘lor’ in this example is to ‘stress the obvious’. (Wee, 2002)

When explaining something, the subjects tend to use particles ‘hor’ and ‘wor’ like “I forgotten already wor”. The speaker is trying to explain that she has forgotten the important information when she was asked about something.

Particle ‘leh’ was used when the subjects was explaining uncertainty. It is also originate from Cantonese. For example, one of the subjects uttered “I don’t know leh” when she was asked about something because she was uncertain on what is happening or how to answer the question asked.


We can observe that most of the sentences uttered by the subjects were not grammatically correct. However, according to Halliday, the meanings conveyed in the utterances were more important than the grammatical aspect of it.

There are numerous reasons why the subjects code switch to the particles when conversing in an informal situation. The main reason lies in the Communication Accommodation Theory whereby the subjects accommodate with each other by using the particles in the sentences they utter and this is known as convergence accommodation. This is because, they are from different ethnicity and have different mother tongue, so they need a common language to communicate effectively and Malaysian English is chosen over Standard English because they are comfortable communicating in Malaysian English.

From the data collected, we can observe that most of the particles derived from Chinese, specifically the Cantonese dialect and also from Bahasa Malaysia. Two of the subjects are Indians but they do not use any particles that originated from Tamil. One possible reason is that these particles are widely used in their community hence they picked up these particles and use them in their conversation to add a better ‘feel’ towards the subject they are talking about.

There are limited research studies regarding to the use of the particles in Malaysian English. Not much research has been done to identify the functions of the particles in our Malaysian context. There is a need to have research studies that can identify origins and functions of the particles correctly. There are also questions left unanswered in this topic like how does a person know what particle to use when conversing? As mentioned above, most of the particles originate from the Cantonese dialect, so, how does a person from a different ethnicity understand and know what particle to use when he/she communicates with other people?


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