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Hedges in Linguistics Essay

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Updated: May 21st, 2019

The definitions of Hedges by various Linguists

According to Nikula (1997, p.188), hedging is a technique in communication which speakers employ in their utterances to ‘soften’ their magnitude of their speeches. The approach aims at enhancing agreement between the speaker and the listeners. In short, he suggests that it helps to bring the hearers and the speakers to the same levels and enhance understanding and acceptability.

Hedging applies most in situations that deal with criticism. The approach therefore, acts as a tool to cool down the tempers of the hearers by making them accept the speaker’s views. Hedging can act a substitute to politeness or a means in which the speaker uses his utterances consciously in order to find acceptability thereby avoiding any negative perception from his/her listeners.

Lakoff (1972, p.195) refers the strategy as ‘face’ which he uses to mean, “Making things less fuzzy.” The original application of the word hedging meant “expressions, which show some words modifying others like ‘sort of’, ‘kind of’” (Markkanen & Schroder 1997, p.4) among others. A good example is “a cat is kind of a cheetah family species”.

The illustration shows how the use of hedge changes the affiliation that exists between a cat and a cheetah. Clemen (1997, p.238) criticizes Lakoff of basing on logical relationships in his use of words and some semantic hedging facets by not putting in mind the context as one of the most imperative aspect in giving hedges their outright meaning rather than viewing them as self-determining lexical.

Other people have seconded the idea of Lakoff asserting that the techniques employed in almost all languages seems often used by various speakers in their conversations.

Furthermore, other linguists have used the foundation of Lakoff to build on the idea of hedging for instance, Mauranen (2004, p.173) who views hedging “… as pragmatic apart from its semantic phenomenon.” He asserts that hedges not only convey semantic phenomenon but also contribute to pragmatic strategies like alleviation and courtesy in a communication process.

Hedges also refer to elements in relations that link the slit between the writer’s versions and the information found in the text. Hedges therefore “…contribute in terms of semantics to statements they feature” (Lyons 1977, p.196).

On the other hand, hedges act as devices in linguistics that alter the archetypal words or items for example, “a lion is a kind of animal” (Coates 1987, p.21). Hedges play a very crucial role for instance enhancing relationships.

Functions of Hedges

Hedges Soften Face-Threatening Acts

Hedging serves a variety of functions in the linguistic aspects of the day-to-day interactions. Markkanen and Schroder (1989, p.89), provides a lengthy discussion of some of the functions hedges plays. One of the functions of hedges is that they soften face threatening acts when it comes to disparagement, complains or suggestions. For instance, a speaker may use them in his/her speech to suggest an idea in a different manner thereby fostering consensus and avoiding any kind of disagreement between him/her and the listeners. For instance, the speaker will employ words like ‘i’m sorry to have hurt you’ or ‘forgive me for disturbing you’ among others. Therefore, through the employment of hedges, the speaker will create these relationships of mutual by making his or her utterances less strong.

Hedges Specify the Speaker’s Communication Approach

Furthermore, the use of hedges functions to make the speaker’s communication approach specific for instance, a statement like ‘would you mind coming tomorrow?’

A speaker may address about an event or a topic, which he/she does not agree. As a result, he/she might employ hedges to hide his/her true position. Therefore, he/she will employ these hedges to fit into the shoes of the listeners to hide his/her feeling and opinions about the topic. Therefore, the strategy assists him to avoid contradictions and doubt among his listeners.

Hedges play an ‘Illocutionary Force’ Function

“…hedges play a function of ‘illocutionary force’ encoded in some particles which constitute to frequently used words but which do not appear in dictionaries and given little attention in their use or study or language” (Brown & Levinson 1987, p.89).

These words feature in the spoken words of speakers and therefore adapt to level his/her words thereby avoiding the aforementioned face threatening acts. Statements like ‘I’m kind of busy’ or ‘I feel some sort of sick’ illustrate this function.

Hedges specify quality and relevance

Other hedges specifically address relevance, prices, quality, manner maxims, and quantity among others. They also postulate that hedges achieve politeness function for example words like, ‘honest enough’, ‘frankly’ among others. Likewise, Clemen (1997, p.32) comment on hedge “as captivating and refreshing. To him, hedges are phrases or words that weaken or soften the force in the way of saying a certain idea”.

Example is words like “any chance”, “sort of” among other. According to Carter, hedges are used to present different impressions like uncertainty or used to qualify the already spoken words like, “well,” “sorted,” “kind of”. Other uses include different description of maxim of quality and enhancing communication like use of words like “I feel,” “I guess”.

They also used to bring the speaker and the listener to a common mind set of sharing or point of view through use of terms like “you know”, “is it true?”

According to Clemen (1997, p.47), hedges perform the function of caution, engagement, background, requesting, reproving as well as stating. Use of hedges serves to avoid making unnecessary conclusions and assertions thereby providing a solution by filling gaps that may result if an earlier intended task goes contrary to the projected plans.

Hedges indicate some level of uncertainty

Hedges also play a function of indicating some doubt when speakers use them especially in addressing technical issues (Lyons 1977, p.797) or to soften their utterances to ensure acceptance (Nikula 1997, p.188) viewed as personal politeness functions of hedging.

Therefore, hedging has found prominence in most of the third world countries as leaders use it to tone down their positions and view as people continue to witness bad leadership. Since they seem aware of how the people doubt their powers, they often employ words like ‘well’, ‘kind of’ and ‘sorter’ among others to accommodate the doubt.

Hedging acts as a way of achieving preciseness where as speakers do not wish the hearers to know the true or their real positions. Hedging does not provide cover to an assertion but need to be treated as a rational for interpersonal strategy whereby it should seek to ensure that relationship between the writer and reader is established.

Some statements arouse different meaning to their readers for instance; “it is important to think before making a decision…appropriate insights into the benefits should have been looked up before making up the decision” (Brown and Levinson 1987, p.94). This could imply ingenuity and uncertainty on the part of the speaker or reflect polite and diplomatic disagreement.

Hedging therefore, falls on the category of negative politeness through its disconnection of speaker by distancing them away from the contents they make; it makes the conversation fuzzier. On the other hand, hedging softens a criticism making the listeners take in whatever the speaker says easily.

As we have seen, functions of hedging can often overlap (Mauranen 2004, p.176) an approach adopted by Markkanen and Luukka (1997, p.168) who in their point of view, see hedging as a mega strategy with sub strategies. Various linguists have suggested a number of hedges.

Various types of Hedges

As the researchers continue to engage in their work, attempts to reclassify the traditional meaning of hedges into various approaches have emerged. Prince (1982, p.2) has suggested subdivision of hedges into various categories. One of the categories is the approximators, which hold a semantic purpose, shields as those serving a pragmatic role.

In addition, diffusers serve as another class of hedges. Diffusers play a function of providing a broader view of an aspect by making it look even more appealing. He further suggests understatements and hedges while others like Hyland (1998, p. 23) analyzed in detail the functions of hedges and later distinguished between alleviation and equivocation.

Other categories of hedging include the employment of ‘modal auxiliary verbs’, which seem the most widely used in the contemporary English based on their modernity. It includes expressions such as could, can, would and many others. Modal lexical verbs commonly known as speech act verbs are also a way of hedging. They serve in performing actions involving doubts, and evaluation as opposed to description.

They include words like “to seem,” “to tend” among others. Adjective, adverb and nominal modal phrases like possible, nouns like claim adverbs like “likely” among others too function as hedges. Other categories include approximators of quantity, frequency; degree and time like ‘often’, occasionally, ‘lot of’ among others. Introductory phrases used include; “we acknowledge,” “we feel that”.

All these show a sense of belonging and association and therefore bring the speaker and the listener closer. “If clauses” are also an example of or a type of hedges mostly used. They include statements like, if anything, among others. Speakers also use compound hedges.

This type of hedges take up several hedges including those consisting of modal auxiliary in conjunction with lexical verb combined with hedge content. Example is “it could appear”. Other types of compound hedge includes those of lexical verb like ‘then’ and the hedging adverb or adjective, like, “It looks probable” among many others.

Reference List

Brown, P., & Levinson, C., 1987. Politeness: Some Universals in Language Usage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Clemen, G., 1997. The Concept of Hedging: Origins, Approaches and Definitions. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.

Coates, J., 1987. Epistemic Modality and Spoken Discourse. Transactions of the Philological Society, 85 (2): pp. 100 – 131.

Hyland, K., 1998. Hedging in Scientific Research Articles. Amsterdam: John Benjamin’s Publishing Company.

Lakoff, G., 1972. Hedges: A Study of Meaning Criteria and the Logic of Fuzzy Concepts. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Lyons, J., 1977. Semantics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Markkanen, R. & Schroder, H., 1989. Hedging as a Translation Problem in Scientific Texts. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Markkanen, R. & Schroder, H., 1997. Hedging and Discourse: Approaches to the Analysis of a Pragmatic Phenomenon in Academic Texts. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Markkanen, R., & Luukka, M., 1997. Impersonalization as a Form of Hedging. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter. 168 – 187.

Mauranen, A., 1997. Hedging in Language Revisers’ Hands. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Nikula, T., 1997. Inter-Language View on Hedging. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.

Prince, E., 1982. On Hedging in Physician-Physician Discourse. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.

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