The word eller is described as a conjunction in the written language and therefore appears with words or constituents both before and after. This description separates the written eller from an eller in spoken language which, among others, can be used at the end of a question, hence the title eller-question. The eller-question is characterized by eller being the last word spoken by the turn taker who asked the question (opposite to eller hva(d)). In this function, the eller is most often pronounced with a falling or straight intonation and can also be elongated.
The eller-question is a certain type of question. Like a yes/no interrogative, eller requests a confirmation of a postulation and expresses that the receiver knows best whether the postulation is true or false. Different from the yes/no question, eller is also used to show that the speaker is unsure about the content of the postulation. This means that the eller-question makes it possible for the receiver to answer in a different way than simply ja or nej and that the receiver can feel the need to correct the utterance which is being asked about. An eller-question also needs more than simply a confirmation or rejection of the utterance. The eller-question is often used to express an understanding of something which has happened previously in the conversation.
In the first excerpt which can be seen below, Preben and Thomas talk about Thomas’ education and work situation. At the start of the excerpt, Thomas has just mentioned that he’s currently involved in an education program. Because of this, Preben uses an eller-question to find out whether Thomas also has a part time job:
Samtalebanken | Sam2 | preben_og_thomas | L1423 ((face-to-face))
01 PRE: [.hhh å så (er) det så] >så ka du vel< få noget
“hhh and then is it then]then can you (part) get some”
02 THO: [ °mmm°↘ ]
03 PRE: deltid derude eller↘
“part time out there or”
04 THO: ja:m det ka jeg det har Per sagt at je:g gerne måtte
“well that I can, Per has said that I can”
05 fortsætte derude °indtil videre°↘
“continue out there until further notice”
Here, we see that Preben requests a confirmation with an eller-question in line 01-03. Afterwards Thomas answers in line 04 with a confirming ja:m and elaborates further.
In the next excerpt, we see a rejection. Mette and Tine talk about an acquaintance who has a metabolic disorder. Before the excerpt begins, Mette has asked what the illness is, but after Tine has been answering, Mette asks an eller-question:
Samtalebanken | Sam3 | 225_deller | L124 ((ansigt-til-ansigt))
01 ME: er det ↑leddene elle:r↘=
“is it the joints or”
02 TI: =nej det e:r °øh° altså hun ø:h(m) hun >får det
“no it is ehm well she ehm she feels”
03 simpelthen< dårligt↗ hun kan ik om<sætte ø:h> maden å
“simply bad she cannot transform ehm the food and”
04 energien å:↘
“the energy and”
Here we see the eller-question in line 01 and a rejecting nej ‘no’ in line 02. The rejection comes right away and without any pause after the eller-question and this helps emphasize the uncertainty which the eller-question expresses. The elaboration after nej in line 02-04 also shows how Tine corrects Mettes understanding.
Sources and further reading
Sørensen (2015) collects and describes the eller-question in Danish from a conversation analytical view. Among other things, it is described why the eller-question is more than just an unfinished question.
Den Danske Ordbog ‘The Danish Dictionary’. Entries on eller. Here it is possible to see the various uses of eller in written language which all need a constituent both before and after eller.
Drake (2013) and (2015) are research on the corresponding English phenomenon or.
Lindström (1999) researches the Swedish eller in a corresponding function.