4

I have read many a novel set in the Regency period where la is used in conversations.

La, Susan, don't be so bothersome

What is its purpose and correct use?

Thank you for your insights.

5

You are referring to the use of la as an exclamation. According to M-W:

  • interjection chiefly dialect —used for emphasis or expressing surprise

Interjection la (from Wiktionary)

  • (obsolete) Used to introduce a statement with emphatic or intensive effect. (archaic) Expressing surprise, anger. etc.

    • 1811, Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility, vol. III ch. 2: “Oh, la! here come the Richardsons. I had a vast deal more to say to you, but I must not stay away from them any longer.”

Etymology: from French la, Italian la.

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    It is used extensively in Malaysia and Singapore. e.g. Parent to child: 'Would you go to the shop please'; Child: 'Cannot la! Too much homework!'. – WS2 Oct 5 '14 at 8:18
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    This is interesting!! Are you sure it is the same interjection used in 19th century novels, or is it an expression of local origin? – user66974 Oct 5 '14 at 8:21
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    @Josh61 I'm not sure about the origin of much of the pidgin in South East Asia. I think it is unlikely that 'la' derives from the French, but perhaps from some Malay or Chinese interjection. My wife, who is a Cantonese speaking Malaysian, thinks it is from Malay. Apparently it is not used by Cantonese speakers in Hong Kong. – WS2 Oct 5 '14 at 8:37
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    @WS2 The interjection used in Chinese-influenced areas is indeed from Chinese, from 啦 la. This is a sentence-final particle, and it is so in English, too. The la used in Jane Austin novels is a different word altogether: it is almost always used at the beginning of a clause and is ultimately from what in Modern French is (and means more or less the same thing, too). – Janus Bahs Jacquet Oct 5 '14 at 9:09
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    @BlessedGeek: In the West it is highly archaic. – Lightness Races with Monica Oct 5 '14 at 15:20

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