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Discourse Marker ‘But’ in English and Standard Arabic Essay (Critical Writing)

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Updated: Jan 15th, 2022

The term but is a discourse marker that is common in both written and spoken English. However, the different application of but in English has raised a debate among linguistics. While some of them define the term as an ambiguous locution, others describe it as a general expression or procedure that’s has at least four applications in English. Miri Hussein compares the word but in both English and standard Arabic giving intuitive evidence why the discourse maker is not ambiguous as perceived. The next discussion not only summarizes but also critically analyzes Hussein’s article, the discourse marker but in English and standard Arabic: one procedure and different implements.

From the topic of the article, Hussein aims at analyzing the discourse marker but while alluding from two languages English and Arabic. According to the topic, the expression but may arise different meanings depending on the context or on its application. Although the procedure or method of application is similar, the understanding of the sentences may differ. For instance, the discourse marker may correct an earlier statement, contradict it or even cancel an earlier assumption among others. Therefore, the immediate understanding of the title is that the research aims at generate the various uses of the discourse marker but. In his introduction, he lists the names of different linguistics that have done critical research on the aforementioned discourse marker. Hussein’s method of study is comparative analysis of different markers to explain the exact functions of the discourse marked but. In his research, he uses examples and alludes from different theorist to prove his findings.

There are various application of but and depending on the type of the statement, it may create different meanings. For instance, according to Lakoff and Blakemore but in a statement may depict denial of expectation whereby whatever follows the first conjunct deviates from the norm (Hussein, 2008, p. 3). Therefore, Lakoff describes but as a discourse, which may change an assumption through giving contradicting information in a particular situation. In her example, “John is a republican but he is honest” (Hussein, 2008, p.1) she means that although most people in the republican are dishonest John is an exception. Secondly, but is for comparison reasons whereby the discourse marker highlights the difference between two contrasting objects.

However, according to Anscombre and Duncrot but may also apply to correct an earlier statement. In case a person assumes certain situation, the respondent can use but to give the exact meaning. For instance a person may say, Ruth is your sister (which is not true), to correct him/her, the respondent will say, Ruth is not my sister but rather my cousin. The fourth use of but is to cancel an earlier statement by introducing a new idea. According to Bell, this application of the discourse marker (but) not only appears as the first word in a sentence but also acts as a cancelling clause (Hussein, 2008, p. 2). Therefore, the first utterance of but in a statement may introduce a new idea, which contradicts from the earlier.

The various application of but in English has led to arguments from theorists who brands the discourse marker as a linguistically ambiguous (Hussein, 2008, p. 3). According to Anscombre, Ducrot and Abraham, depending on the statement, the discourse marker evokes more than one meaning. Furthermore, there is no adequate description to elicit a singular meaning. Similarly, Horns depicts the discourse as ambiguous by comparing its different application with other languages like Germany and Spanish (1989, p. 30). By translating but to these languages he found out that depending on the application, the discourse marker eludes different words in other languages. Therefore, his argument is that if the discourse marker was not ambiguous then it should translate to a single word and not many.

To verify the above argument, Hussein studies the discourse marker by translating it into Standard Arabic. In Arabic, the discourse marker may apply as lakinna, bainama, bal and lakin. In Arabic, lakinna is similar to but as a denial marker while bainama is for contradiction, bal is for assumption and lakin is for a cancelling clause. Due to the complexity of the discourse marker, Blakemore and Iten cites but as a concept of procedure and not ambiguous. It can also apply to enforce relevancy in a sentence and assist an individual to dig out or connect different clauses. Contradicting previous arguments, that but is an ambiguous expression in English; Iten argues that then all sentences, which apply the discourse markers but are meaningless (ambiguous). However, clauses connected by the marker are always meaningful. Hussein supports Iten by studying the syntactic behavior of the four Arabic discourse markers and according to him, they only correspond to but. They are not exact expressions (Hussein, 2008, p. 4). While lakinna may apply as a general procedure in Arabic thus translation to but in English, the other three expressions differ. In conclusion, Hussein rejects the perception that but is an ambiguous discourse marker; however, he terms it as a general procedure, which evokes specific/different meaning depending the context.

Hussein’s topic is unclear, because in his research he aims at finding the ambiguity of but as a discourse marker. On the contrary, the topic enlightens the reader on the functions of but in both English and Arabic and not ambiguity. Secondly, he only bases his conclusion from one language Arabic yet there are many languages in the world where the discourse marker also applies. His method limits him to the function of but in short sentences and not passages. He forgets about people who are non-expert in the language (English). Intuitively, he should have carried out his research on a wider scope whereby he derives the use of the discourse marker from a larger population. Therefore, he excludes field research in his method and only alludes from written documents (Lakoff, 1971, p. 15). For instance, Li Feng’s article Discourse markers in writing English not only outlines a hypothesis of the study but also gives a clear experimental procedure, which involves field research among students in China (2010, p.301). Nevertheless, a critical observation of his research findings shows that he ascertains that but is not ambiguous. Similarly, an earlier research by Horns concludes that but is not an ambiguous discourse marker (1989, p. 30). Besides, the above weaknesses in the article, Hussein’s article gives a clear analysis and conclusion about the discourse marker but.

In brief, Hussein discusses the application of the discourse marker but in both English and Arabic. Alluding from different theorists, he analyses their findings whereby he contradicts some of them by concluding that the use of but does not raise ambiguity. However, his article lacks the clear scientific/linguistic protocol, which is usually the norm (Turabian, 1987, p. 60). The only eligible subtitles are Abstract, introduction and the conclusion. The research, discussion and results fall in the same cadre and this is unclear to the reader or audience.

References

  1. Feng, L. (2010). Discourse markers in English. The journal of international social research, 3(11), 301-305
  2. Horn, L. (1989). A Natural History of Negation. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
  3. Hussein, M. (2008). The discourse marker but in English and standard Arabic: one procedure and different implementations.
  4. Lakoff, G. (1971). The role of deduction in grammar. In C. J. Filmore (Ed.), Studies in Linguistic Semantics. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston
  5. Turabian, K.L. (1987). A Manual for Writers of term Papers, Theses, and Dissertations. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press
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IvyPanda. (2022) 'Discourse Marker ‘But’ in English and Standard Arabic'. 15 January.

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