Vague Language in the Russian Classroom

Hymes’s (1970) suggestion that the Chomskian distinction between competence and performance is valid not only for grammar, but also for the rules of language use, is supported by most linguists dealing with the notion of communicative competence (Canale and Swain, 1980). However, the rules governing formation of grammatical structures have received more attention from both linguists and methodologists than the rules determining appropriate use of such structures. Pragmatic competence is seen as part of discourse competence, which, in turn, is an integral part of overall communicative competence. There is evidence that interlocutors deploy a range of pragmatic inferences before applying relevant grammar rules (McGregor 1986). These new approaches have led to the fact that linguistic phenomena that previously were ignored in both linguistics and FLT are now being reconsidered. One such phenomena is vague language, which only recently began to draw the attention of linguists (Burns 1991, Channell 1990, 1994). The necessity to describe Russian vague categories is dictated not only by the theoretical, but also by practical aspects of FLT as well. Vagueness must be seen as an integral part of language, which reflects the outside world, and the ability to cope with vague language is an important communicative skill.

In this paper I analyze vague language as reflected in Russian Formal Discourse. Following Pustovoit (1997, 1998, in progress) I show that Russian Formal Style (RFS) is characterized by a tendency for precision and non-ambiguity achieved by specific linguistic means. At first glance, vague language would seem to have no place in RFS. Nonetheless, examination of selected corpora of formal documents and correspondence reveals a number of vague expressions that appear in Formal Style for several reasons:

1. Semantic vagueness, caused by problems of representation is, in fact, a common interlingistic problem (for instance, “Vse sotrudniki korporacii” may refer to five hundred employees or to a couple that own a convenience store). This is not a deliberate violation of a norm, but rather a contextual variation in semantic perception. On the other hand, limited knowledge of words’ semantic properties is typical of L2 speakers which makes semantic vagueness a pivotal problem in FLT.

2. Communicative vagueness, conventions of communication related to situations that do not require absolute precision, are also quite common: “Doxod kompanii sostavil 300 mln. rublej 6 kopeek”). This type can be divided into two groups: a) rounded-up numbers (without other indicators of proximity) and b) phrases with approximators: "V golosovanii prinjalo učastie počti 100% izbiratelej".

3. Intentional vagueness must be viewed as a part of communicative strategies. For instance, a phrase “Èto interesnoe predloženie …” may be used as a politeness strategy in order to soften the following refusal.

I show that vagueness must be distinguished from lexical and structural ambiguity, on the one hand, and from the use of so-called “parenthetic” words and phrases, on the other. If vagueness is a natural, and often desirable, part of the language use, ambiguity and parentheticals are related to bad usage. In conclusion, I discuss the pedagogical consequences of introducing vagueness in FLT. Learners’ awareness of vagueness will help them to cope with the target language’s natural discourse, and may enable them to identify the interlocutor’s intentions (such as predict a refusal, or identify lack of competence in the subject matter).