Japanese Studies Seminar Series: the –te form in Japanese conversation

This week's presenter will be Sally Jones, Honours candidate, ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.


 The -te form is widely known in its function as a clause conjunctive that connects two or more clauses together (e.g. Hasegawa, 1996; Ono, 1990; Tamori, 1976; Watanabe, 1994), as in the following example:

(1)        Tae:     sore o tabete jinmashin ga deta kamoshirenai.

                       ‘((I)) eat ((anglerfish liver)) and ((I)) might get a rash’

In conversation however, the -te form can also serve as a point of speaker change, rather the continuation of the speaker’s turn with another clause (e.g. Kawakatsu, 2010: 196-217; Maynard, 1989: 38; Maynard, 1990: 247, 263; Saegusa, 2006; Shirakawa, 1991). This is shown in the following example:

(2)        Yuri:     suupaa kabuki mo mi ni iku koto ni natte,

                       ‘((I will)) also go to see ‘Super Kabuki’ it has been decided and’

            Maki:   e sore tte ennosuke no : ?

                      ‘Eh, is that Ennosuke’s ((‘Super Kabuki’))?’

The focus of this study is the functions of the -te form in conversation, with particular focus on its functions turn-finally as in (2). Numerous studies have examined the functions of the turn-final -te form in conversation. One approach has been through its role in turn-taking (Kawakatsu, 2010: 196-217; Maynard, 1989: 38). Maynard (1989: 38) points out that the use of the form is related to the conversation organisation, i.e. turn-final -te form may indicate either the continuation or the discontinuation of the speaker’s turn, depending on pitch and stress. Conversely, Kawakatsu (2010: 196-217) found that rather than prosodic cues, turn-final -te forms occurred after interactionally achieved speaker change. These studies highlight the importance of the form in conversational organisation, but fail to account for its underlying functions in conversation and its pragmatic effects.

Another approach has been through its role in interaction (e.g. Maynard, 1989: 38; Maynard, 1990: 247, 263; Saegusa, 2006; Shirakawa, 1991), where it has been mainly treated as a hedging strategy to leave an utterance with a feeling of incompleteness. These studies highlight the interactive nature of the form, but have shortcomings as well because they do not provide an extensive overview of its functions.

In this research, I will apply the frameworks of Conversation Analysis to locate the -te form in conversation flow and Discourse Analysis will provide the framework to observe the socio-cultural aspects of the -te form through discourse. The analysis is based on a 150-minute corpus of 6 two-way spontaneous conversations between native Japanese speakers.

Results indicate that in its turn-taking function, the -te form is a non-problematic and non-competitive place for speaker change. With regards to its pragmatic effects, it serves as an interactional resource for the collaborative involvement of participants in conversation. It functions to draw the co-participant’s attention to their understanding of the talk-in-progress and at the same time, it serves an invitation for their involvement. Co-participants can utilise the -te form as an opportunity to show their involvement by using non-flooring response tokens (or in Japanese, aizuchi), but may also show their involvement in a more substantial way by becoming the speaker. By taking the speakership after the -te form, they may demonstrate their understanding of the talk-in-progress, but may also utilise it as an opportunity to clarify their understanding. Not only this, the form has other functions: in clausal inversion to create another opportunity for participants to enter into speakership, as a casual request form and in set expressions such as toka itte and toka omotte to frame an utterance.

I conclude that the -te form is more than a clause conjunctive – it has numerous functions in conversation and importantly, it can be used an interactional resource for participants to continue and maintain their involvement.

The Japanese Studies Seminar Series is a fortnightly seminar hosted by the ANU Japan Centre during Friday lunchtimes.  Each fortnight an ANU Japan-related scholar shares their research with the group for discussion.  All are welcome to attend the series and engage with our Japan scholars on their research.

Updated:  27 November 2018/Responsible Officer:  JI Management Group/Page Contact:  Japan Institute