Are You with Me? Ponimaete as Pragmatic Expression in Colloquial Russian Speech

Jane Hacking, University of Kansas

Spontaneous colloquial speech is characterized by the use of pragmatic expressions which are virtually absent in more formal registers. In English these include forms such as 'you know' and 'I mean'. While expressions such as these have often been viewed as fillers, markers of hesitations, and/or signs of dysfluency, recent work shows that these forms are far from meaningless (see for example, Erman 1987; Holmes 1984; Ostman 1981). They may function on the textual and/or pragmatic level and thus perform an important role in both organizing speech production and facilitating comprehension. Russian grammarians delineate a category of neznamenitel'naja leksika (NL) that is used "not only to convey various nuances of meaning, but also for filling pauses necessitated by the rigors of spontaneous speech." (Sirotinina 1974:71). In this paper I examine the use of one example of NL - ponimaete - in a corpus of spoken Russian. Ponimaete, when it is mentioned in the Russian literature, tends to be viewed as a hallmark of poor speech habits. The brief discussion of ponimaete in Sirotinina (1974:72-73) is representative. An example of the use of ponimaete is given and evaluated as typical for speakers not accustomed to the "norms of public speaking". This assessment is inconsistent with the overall description of NL as forms capable of conveying nuances in meaning, not to mention implying that some elements of NL are used only by people who do not speak well. My aim in this paper is to move beyond this assessment by evaluating the use of ponimaete in a corpus of spoken Russian.

The data for this study are tapes and transcripts from interviews with nine Russian judges (196 single-spaced typed pages). Based on quantitative and qualitative analyses of these data I draw two conclusions about the use of ponimaete in Russian speech. First, ponimaete is not a meaningless filler, but has clearly defined textual and pragmatic functions which include checking on speaker comprehension and signaling a Turn Relevance Point (TRP), i.e., a point at which another speaker may take the floor. Second, while there is variation in the frequency with which ponimaete is used by individual speakers, it is simplistic to equate the use of ponimaete with poor speech habits. The data show that speakers use ponimaete with specific communicative functions and that frequency of use can be correlated with loquacity of the speaker, the level of informality of the speech situation, the type of discourse (narration versus simple answers for example) as well as other factors.


Erman, Britt. 1987. Pragmatic Expressions in English. Stockholm Studies in English. Stockholm: Almqvist and Wiksell.

Holmes, Janet. 1984. "Hedging Your Bets and Sitting on the Fence: Some Evidence for Hedges as Support Structures." Te Reo 27, 47-62.

Ostman, J. O. 1981. You Know: A Discourse Functional Approach. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Sirotinina, O. B. 1974. Sovremennaja razgovornaja rech' i ee osobennosti. Moscow: Prosveshchenie.