May 04, 2005

Ne, innit?

In response to my post on the Japanese sentence-final particle ne, several readers have written to point out that some varieties of Portuguese have a particle with a very similar distribution. Quoting an email from Arlo Faria:

As a Brazilian, I was very surprised when I first learned of Japanese "ne" because it was coincidentally similar in usage and pronunciation to the "né" used in some dialects of Brazilian Portuguese. It might be common in other dialects as well, but I associate it with the Minas Gerais region of central Brazil, whose speakers are notoriously laconic by means of compressing phrases into single syllables: "né" is a shortened version of "não é" (translated "isn't it").

Arlo did some searching on the web and came up with plenty of evidence for non-paradigmatic and narrative uses of the contracted form:

You cannot say: são bons, não é? (they're good, isn't it?)
You should say: são bons, não são? (they're good, aren't they?)
Yet this is fine: são bons, né?

It doesn't have to follow the é ___, né construction (it's ___, isn't it?). can end any sentence, regardless of the preceding verb forms. Here, the meaning of is like Japanese "ne", or English "right?":

Saiu né ("he left, right?")
quando estiver, né ("when he would be, right?")

... And you can also find examples where it doesn't occur in the sentence-final position. It's generally used, I feel, for telling stories. Here's an excerpt from an interview with an old lady:

“... foi o que aconteceu comigo, né ... hoje em dia a mulher trabalha, né, depois que ... as mulheres trabalhá fora, né ... não saindo pra trabalhá fora, sabe?!"
(... that's what happened with me, {né} ... these days the woman works, {né}, after which ... women work outside, {né} ... not going out to work outside, you know?!)

Note this woman's parallel usage of né with sabe.

This seems entirely analogous to the development of the tag innit in British English. Jenny Cheshire, Paul Kerswill and Ann Williams "On the non-convergence of phonology, grammar and discourse" give examples like

We might as well go home, innit?

and variously cite Hewitt 1986, Rampton 1995 and Andersen 1999 to the effect that invariant innit started in London "in the speech of British ethnic minorities" (though they don't specify which), and is "rapidly innovating [i.e. spreading] in the urban centres of Britain", starting with working class speakers.

The use in narrative parallels the examples with Japanese ne and Canadian eh. I'm not sure whether innit has a similar narrative use, but I'm sure someone will tell me about it soon...

Meanwhile, I can't resist quoting Des von Bladet's subversive translation of a Norwegian linguistic bureaucrat:

Og Norsk språkråd gnir seg i hendene.
- Det er svært hyggelig at ungdom velger å skrive tekstmeldinger på dialekt. Å ha dialektvariasjon gjør oss til et sterkere språksamfunn, sier direktør Sylfest Lomheim til VG.

And the Norwegish langwidgecouncil is rubbing its hands.
"It is wicked cool that The Kids choose to write textmessages in dialect. Having dialektvariation makes us a stronger speechcommunity, innit?", direktör Sylfest Lomheim told VG.


Posted by Mark Liberman at May 4, 2005 10:23 AM