I’m afraid your happiness and mine lie at some distance from each other

The (inter)subjective discourse marker (ma) kardan (et)

Keywords: Estonian, verb, emotion, epistemic modality, markers, pragmatisation

Based on the material of Estonian language corpora the uses of the sequence (ma) kardan (et) ‘I’m afraid (that)’ as a discourse marker and the relationship of those uses with the marker’s source structure – a predicate expressing a psychological state and modified by a complement clause – are analysed. Compared to other complement taking predicate markers (CTP-markers) the kardan-marker stands out for semantic diversity. To analyse the (inter)subjective uses of the kardan-marker we propose a model considering four layers co-operating in semantics and pragmatics: 1) shifts in the semantic structure, 2) the function of the sentence in text or communication, 3) subjective meanings applied to the contents of the sentence, 4) intersubjective meanings applied to sentence function.

The semantic shift is divided into five stages during which the perceiver of risk becomes a messenger of bad news, wearing the mask of an empathetic and worried yet helpless person. The main text/conversational functions of the marker sentence were notification of suspicion and assessment, warning, refusal and unexpected response to a question. Concern and assessment of something as unpleasant and inappropriate were revealed as subjective meanings. As for intersubjective uses, the main ones were softening of judgements, refusals, unexpected answers etc.; in the case of assumptions and assessments also involvement (by sharing the problem with the interlocutor) and highlighting (drawing attention to disturbing circumstances); and warning highlighting.

Compared to other Estonian CTP-markers, the kardan-marker is not widespread. Its main domain is online and oral communication. In informal communication the marker serves to involve the co-communicator in the speaker’s/writer’s problem and to mollify unpleasant information. In formal communication the phrase belongs to the expressions used by service providers to mollify information possibly striking the customer out of the blue. In the press and comments, however, we find an opposite use supporting criticism, polemic and irony.


Helle Metslang (b. 1950), PhD, University of Tartu, Professor Emerita (Jakobi 2, 51005 Tartu),

Carl Eric Simmul (b. 1991), MA, University of Tartu, doctoral student of Estonian and General Linguistics (Jakobi 2, 51005 Tartu),