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You Bastard!

For an assignment in my experimental pragmatics seminar last spring, we had to take a close look at the function(s) of a particular pragmatic marker. Being the potty-mouth that I am, I was pretty happy to have selected a slip of paper with the word bastard on it. To make things more interesting, I looked specifically at you bastard . The samples I use are from the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA). In sentences like (1) and (2), Fraser (1990) would argue that you bastard is functioning as a parallel pragmatic marker:

(1)         I hope you’re happy, you bastard.

(2)         Get away from her, you bastard!

In both sentences you bastard does not change the respective truth functions – a requisite feature of pragmatic markers. With or without you bastard, the same propositional content is encoded. You bastard, does, however encode information at the pragmatic level in sentences like (1) and (2). Fraser (1990) would argue that you bastard behaves as a parallel pragmatic marker; it encodes a message separate from the propositional content (pg. 387). For example, in sentence (2) the speaker wishes to express something in addition to I hope you’re happy by saying you bastard. From the other examples available on COCA, you bastard seems to emphasize that the message is intended directly for the person being addressed as you bastard. Supporting this notion, many of the sentences are in fact imperatival in nature as in (2).

While it is clear that you bastard is a parallel pragmatic marker, bastard alone is more difficult to interpret. Judging from examples available on COCA, in most cases it appears to act as a part of an NP which in turn leads it to influence the propositional content of the utterance. See sentences (3) and (4), for instance:

(3)         She could hardly move her legs, wanting only to turn and throttle the bastard for interrupting her evening.

(4)         You probably still think this bastard saved your life.

In (3) and (4), bastard does not appear in sentence-initial position which also indicates that it is unlikely to be a pragmatic marker. For these reasons, bastard does not appear to function as a pragmatic marker at all in these examples.

So what are the functions of you bastard as a parallel pragmatic marker? Though it may seem obvious, the addition of you bastard in sentences like (1) and (2) shows the speaker’s opinion about their listener – namely, it expresses the speaker’s belief, separate from the main message, that the listener is a bastard. Interestingly, this finding contradicts what Fraser (1990) claims about pragmatic markers; he argues that pragmatic markers do not retain content meaning (1990, pg. 393). However, Schiffrin (1987) and Potts and Schwarz (2010) maintain that pragmatic markers do keep their core meaning even after having been grammaticalized.

In the case of you bastard, I think it is very clear that, though it is supposedly functioning as a pragmatic marker, it does exercise its original core meaning. After all, if parallel pragmatic markers communicate some complete message in addition to the one found in the propositional content of the utterance, the simplest explanation is that the complete message contained within the pragmatic marker is likely to be derived from its core meaning.

However, there are some pieces of evidence that might run contrary to the assumption that you bastard as a parallel pragmatic marker has some core meaning. For example, you bastard is used pejoratively in most cases, of course, but in others it is used in an almost affectionate or endearing way. See for example sentence (5) from COCA:

(5)         You bastard! Of course you had to hire the prettiest one! I laugh.

From the extended context of sentence (5), it is obvious that the speaker does not consider the listener to be a bastard in its usual sense. Here, you bastard is being used to communicate sentiments that contradict those predicted by its core meaning. I would argue that, by being grammaticalized as a pragmatic marker, you bastard has lost its precise meaning, but retains its strong sense of emotional force. In the same way that affective this is found in the most positive and the most negative online product reviews and less frequently in neutral ones (Potts and Schwarz, 2010), you bastard can be used in opposite but equally affectively impactful ways.

What do you think, you bastards?

Megan L. Risdal


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