Question: “How was your day at the seaside yesterday?”
Brit answer: “Yeah … We had an absolutely brilliant time.”
Question: “What are you planning to do once you graduate?”
Brit answer: “Yeah … I haven’t really made any concrete plans yet.”
Question: “What did you think of the movie last night?”
Brit answer: “Yeah … It was pretty crap.”
For better or worse, as I become more and more American — culturally, socially and colloquially — and when I dip back into British life each summer, I enjoy picking up on some of the subtle speech habits that sweep through the British-English lingo, which I tend to notice having been away from it for a while. Some come for a short stay, others settle in for longer.
I’ve been especially struck by something in the last couple of years that (at least to my knowledge) doesn’t seem to have been noted or commented on. It’s the seemingly widespread use of yes — or, more frequently, yeah — as a filler kicking off the answer to an open-ended question; hence the examples above. (And I’m not talking about questions that obviously invite agreement or disagreement, or a yes or no answer). It’s a yeah that’s usually uttered with the faint upward lilt of a question and followed by an ellipsis-shaped pause for hesitant or thoughtful effect. You’ll know it when you hear it.
All languages have their own set of filler sounds and words; used primarily to hold our place in a conversation while our brains catch up with our mouths, they’re (usually) meaningless utterances that indicate, effectively, “it’s now (or still) my turn to talk, but please wait while I work out what exactly I’m going to say next”. In English speakers, the most common filler sounds are uh, er, and um, according to a study published in Language and Speech in 2001. Certainly the most talked-about modern filler word is like, and it generates enough discussion and debate to fill several volumes (see Glossophilia’s earlier post on the subject), mainly because of its rapid, sweeping and largely inexplicable invasion of standard English. Anatoly Liberman noted on the OUP blog a few years ago that it isn’t just in English where this epidemic has raged: “the analogs of like swamped other languages at roughly the same time or a few decades later. Germans have begun to say quasi in every sentence. Swedes say liksom, and Russians say kak by; both mean “as though.” In this function quasi, liksom, and kak by are recent.”
Well is another very common sentence-starting filler, perhaps more acceptable or respectable than like and therefore employed in more formal situations, such as interviews. And more recently the introductory So … has become ubiquitous, especially in business, corporate or political settings. (That word is probably better left for a separate discussion.) Younger people are more likely to use the filler words like, y’know, I mean, so, actually, literally, basically, right, I’m tellin’ you and you know what I mean? These can occur more or less anywhere in the sentence, and don’t have any real semantic meaning when they’re serving this killer filler role.
But fillers aren’t always completely meaningless: they can sometimes be a mark of uncertainty or even defensiveness, when the speaker is guarding against a possible rebuttal or challenge from their conversation partner. As it were, if you will, so to speak and even like can be used to tone down the speaker’s commitment to a statement or claim. (This was also discussed more fully in an earlier Glossophilia post.)
Whereas most of these filler words are heard and now considered standard on both sides of the Atlantic, there are a few that don’t travel well. We can easily imagine the words actually, basically, as it were, or so to speak issuing naturally from the mouth of a dithering Hugh Grant character, but not so instinctively from a Bruce Willis type. If you will is the nearest American equivalent to as it were, although it’s fairly rare nowadays and considered rather stuffy.
As far as I can tell, yeah at the start of the answer to an open-ended question is something you’ll hear only on English tongues, and I’ll venture to suggest that it has become something of a Britishism (at least colloquially) in recent times. Listen out for it, and see if you agree …
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Update: Yeah, it goes even further. The simple “yeah …” has evolved and taken on a more overt element of ambiguity. “Yeah, no…” is how a Brit might start to answer your question — or, equally confusingly, “no, yeah…” . And very occasionally you’ll get the full Monty: “yeah, no…, yeah …”. Just watch an episode of the BBC’s mockumentary W1A and – yeah, no — you’ll agree. Yeah. No, yeah. Really.