Speaking for the unspeakable: Expressive functions of nan(i) in Japanese discourse

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


This study explores expressive functions of the Japanese wh-phrase nan(i). Although in the linguistics literature nan(i) has been examined in the context of the interrogative, examination of Japanese discourse quickly reveals that nan(i) occurs frequently in non-interrogative contexts where an answer is not expected. After examining nan(i) in contemporary Japanese comics and fiction, I argue that the non-interrogative nan(i) is a Discourse Modality indicator and that it serves as an 'anti-sign' referring to unspeakable moments of language, while at the same time it affords significant expressive functions. More specifically, I propose expressive (cognitive and emotional) functions marking one's attitudes of anticipation, surprise, exclamation, confrontation, and so on, as well as interactional functions characterizing the conversational move by replacement, negative response, and vocative. The use of peremptory nan(i), in particular, gives rise to emphatic emotional readings. This study draws from discourse functionalism based on conversation analysis, the traditional Saussurean view on sign, and the concept of shared perspectives, and explores the theoretical issue of how a sign without a specific reference indexes the speaker's psychological processes and emotional expressivity.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1209-1239
Number of pages31
JournalJournal of Pragmatics
Issue number8
StatePublished - Jul 2000

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Artificial Intelligence


  • Expressive functions
  • Japanese discourse
  • Non-interrogative nan(i)
  • Wh-phrase


Dive into the research topics of 'Speaking for the unspeakable: Expressive functions of nan(i) in Japanese discourse'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this