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Jamen as response initiator after wh-questions

In Danish spoken language the small word jamen ‘well/why/but’ is quite common. It can serve many different functions, such as: initiate a response to wh-questions (in Danish "hv"-questions involving words like hvem ‘who’, hvad ‘what’, hvor ‘where’, hvornår ‘when’, hvorfor ‘why’, hvordan ‘how’); make the answer more polite, and signal reservation or an unclear answer. 

However, jamen can also be used as an answer ‘delayer’, as we can see in the example below. The single mother Katja has called Lars’ radio program Natteravnen (Night Owl) where listeners can call in to get advice, or vent problems. Katja feels isolated at home, so Lars asks in line 1 what she’d like to do aside from taking care of her son: 

AULing | Natteravn | Katja | 138-144 | ((radio)) 

01   LAR:   hva ku du tænke dig å la:ve↘
            'what would you like to do'

02          (0.7)

03   KAT:   .pt ø:h jamen jeg havde    faktiskh 
             pt uh  JAMEN 1PS have.PST actually 
            'uh well I had actually'

04          (0.3) prøvet  å:  lokke    kommunen 
                  try.PPC IFP lure.PRS municipality 
            'tried to lure the municipality'

05          til å:: å   give     mig   noget     et 
            to  PRT IFP give.PRS me    something the-N 
            'into giving me some'

06          noget  revalidering   så jeg ku 
            some-N rehabilitation so 1PS could 
            'rehabilitation so I could'

07          starte    en  uddannel°se°↘ 
            start.INF a-C education 
            'get an education'

08   LAR:   ja[er ]↗ 
            'yeah'

09   KAT:   [.pt ] .hh å det vil de ikk heh hhh↘ 
            'and they don’t want to do that'

In this example the answer is longer than perhaps expected. Katja could have for example just answered, ‘I want to get an education’ or ‘I would like to get an education’, but she starts by describing her situation in line 3 with a hesitation marker ø:h ‘uh’ followed by jamen ‘well’. The answer starte en uddannelse ‘start an education’ doesn’t come until line 7 after a jamen initiated side comment in lines 3-6 – that she has tried to do something about the problem, with no luck. This is relevant to the answer. Jamen can thus predict a separation between the question (line 1) and final answer (line 7) due to some inserted information. In other words, jamen can be used to indicate a shift in the relevant context, and moreover to show the direction of the coming turn, hereby functioning as a turn-taking regulator. 

Jamen also informs the interlocutor that an answer is coming, but with a delay since what comes right after will just be a parenthetical remark.


Sources and further readings 

Jucker (1993) about a similar phenomenon in English. 

Pedersen (2015) thorough about jamen as response initiator after hv-questions, and introduces jamen’s other regular functions. 

Svennevig (2001) about a similar phenomenon in Norwegian.


Relevant entries

Forms > Word classes/Parts of speech > Conjunctions

Functions > Actions > Directive actions and responses