Cultural Conundrums / Well, That’s Rather Different! Mapping Maa’s Communicative Maneuvers

I’m surrounded by maa-ers of various ilk. My husband, a research chemist, favors the “Maa, …” preface to a brief, kind response to me when I try to make some kind of comment that approaches the inexplicable world of chemistry. Another family member utilizes the “Maa, maa” stand-alone sequence of two short bursts of the word to suggest (I think) that I’m getting a little too carried away with some idea. It feels like the verbal equivalent of a quick pat on th

These types of interjections, known as “turn-initial particles,” can appear at first glance to be communicative froth, bubbling up and dissipating with no particularly important meaning and not much difference between languages. Indeed, the “maa” preface is often considered the equivalent of “Well, …”

However, conversation analyst Yuki Arita’s study of the Japanese particle reveals interesting facets of its function, which diverges from that of “Well, …”

Arita’s data is based on 31 face-to-face conversations between Japanese people ranging in age from their twenties to fifties, comprising 15 hours and 40 minutes of talk. “Maa” was used 401 times, with 14 of them stand-alone, 256 used mid-turn, three at the end of a turn, and 131 in an initial position as a preface to further speech.

Arita specifically focuses on “maa” in response to yes/no questions, which 34 of the 131 “maa”-prefaced comments matched, as did seven of the 14 stand-alone “maa” interjections.

Arita’s most interesting finding is that “maa” essentially shuts down a topic, but in a concessionary manner. For example, in one conversation a man called Tatsu is talking about a drink with a fermented extract that his company makes, when a woman, Nami, asks if it’s an enzyme. The man says “Maa, it’s been called an enzyme but …” At this, Nami and another woman nod, and the remaining conversation participant, a man, says “Uh-huh.” With no further explanation

In another conversation, three men are discussing a prefectural governor’s response to a reporter’s question. One of the men, Yoshi, has described the event as “harsh” and another, Kato, has said the reporter was “getting a thrashing,” when the third one, Ogawa, asks if the governor spoke to the reporter harshly. Kato says, “Maa, she asked a strange question,” to which Ogawa says, “Uh-huh.” Kato adds that the woman asked a question that was out of place on th

Similar to the drink conversation, the “maa” suggests that Ogawa is correct in a sense, but that he has missed the point. His yes/no question is answered indirectly in the affirmative but at the same time is shown to be not quite the precisely appropriate perspective to be taking. Essentially, Ogawa has gotten the wrong end of the stick, but no one is going to pull it out of his hands and thump him with it or even turn it around and hand it back.

Well, what about “well”?

In exploring “Maa, …” Arita refers to the work of John Heritage, a researcher of social interaction. Heritage has similarly investigated how “Well, …” is used when responding to yes/no questions, based on roughly 24 hours of mostly British English and American English telephone conversations, which rendered 172 tokens of “Well, …” in response to yes/no questions. His findings demonstrate a different function for “Well, …” than Arita found for “Maa, …”

Seventy-two percent of the replies starting with “Well, …” in Heritage’s data were “dispreferred.” That is, they contained content that went against what the questioner might have expected or hoped for. Additionally, 62% were expanded responses that were developed over several turns. On the other hand, when Heritage examined responses to yes/no questions that didn’t begin with “Well, …” only 26% were dispreferred, and just 21% were expanded.

“Well, …” typically signals a negative, lengthier response, but “Maa, …” indicates qualified assent with what has been asked and usually triggers a move to a separate related topic, rather than an elaboration on the present subject, detailing, for example, the reasons “enzyme” isn’t really the best word to use in describing a drink’s features or why the question of whether the governor was harsh is not the most appropriate perspective to take when considering

Each of the interjections is common in its respective language, and they appear on the surface to play the same role. Yet what they actually announce and what ensues following them is completely opposite. In this way, the two turn-initial particles lay the groundwork for subsequent divergence in how a question that misses the mark is dealt with. That cultural differences are embedded in such seemingly similar discourse markers — well, that’s just fascinating.

Kate Elwood

Elwood is a professor of English at Waseda University’s School of Commerce.