Disclaiming understanding? Hebrew ˈani lo mevin/a (‘I don't understand’) in everyday conversation

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This study focuses on the Hebrew negative subject + predicate construction ˈani lo mevin/a (lit. ‘I not understand.SG.M/F’, ‘I don't understand’) in a corpus of over 11 hours of casual conversation. Taking an interactional linguistics approach, we show that employment of this construction is highly fixed and formulaic and does not necessarily refer to the process of understanding or to epistemicity. Furthermore, we show that there is correlation between the formal features of the construction in terms of its prosody, morphophonology, and syntax, on the one hand, and the particular activities in which participants engage in interaction while employing it, on the other. Based on a synchronic analysis, we suggest a grammaticization path followed by this construction from an epistemic verb phrase conveying literal lack of understanding, to a fixed chunk expressing puzzled stance, often disaffiliative, and finally to a crystallized modal construction conveying criticism. We found correlation between the structural properties of the construction and the weakening of its epistemic strength: the further away the construction has drifted from the literal meaning, the more reduced its morphophonological features and the more autonomous its syntactic and prosodic nature, thus revealing the interlaced nature of interaction and grammar.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)163-183
Number of pages21
JournalJournal of Pragmatics
StatePublished - 1 Dec 2016

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Yael Maschler would like to acknowledge Grant # 887/12 from the Israel Science Foundation and a Visiting Professorship at the Finnish Center of Excellence in Research on Intersubjectivity in Interaction at the Department of Finnish, Finno-Ugrian, and Scandinavian Studies, University of Helsinki, which have both enabled completion of this study.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2016 Elsevier B.V.


  • Epistemics
  • Grammar in interaction
  • Grammaticization
  • Hebrew mental verbs
  • Stance

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Artificial Intelligence


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