By Baden Eunson, Monash University
American comedian Taylor Mali in his YouTube sketch “Totally like whatever, you know?” attacks inarticulateness in the US, describing new language trends as making the current generation of Americans the most “aggressively inarticulate generation”.
He despises the rise of discourse particles or “fillers” such as “like”, “you know” and the tools of vagueness, “approximators” such as “sort of” and “and that”.
Take the transmutation of the verb “go”. Time was, this simply meant “to move”, but it has evolved into a synonym for “say”. For many the most known example of this evolved in Australia in the 1970s and 1980s in The Comedy Company’s character Kylie Mole.
Yet, strangely enough, the first instance we have of “go” in this new sense is not new at all – it’s from The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens in 1836, according to the Oxford Dictionary.
We can track the “new” meaning of “like” back even further, from the novel Evelina by Fanny Burney, published in 1778, where the word in a sentence meant “as it were” or “so to speak”, which may be derived from the Old English gelīc, from which we get adverbs (quickly = quick-like) and adjectives (friendly = friend-like).
Another major language trend to have emerged is that of “yeah, no”. That too appears to have Australian origins. It is first analysed in a 2002 issue of the Australian Journal of Linguistics by linguists Kate Burridge and Margaret Florey in a paper called Yeah-no He’s a Good Kid: A Discourse Analysis of Yeah-No in Australian English.
“Yeah-no” can be a politeness strategy, especially where conflict might occur – as, for example, if a shop assistant recommends a cheese/coat/lipstick that the customer really doesn’t want, but rather than potentially offend with a straight-out “no”, the customer might say “yeah-no, I was looking for something a bit more…”
It can be a self-effacing downtoner; when a person is embarrassed by a compliment. As Burridge and Florey point out, it is often heard in sporting contexts. They give the following example from the 1999 Coolangatta Iron Man contest:
And with me is one champion, a phenomenal effort, Ky Hurst. You said you felt buoyant today, you proved that. Some of the best bodysurfing we’ve ever seen.
Yeah-no, that was pretty incredible I think. It was, you know, in one of the swims, I think it was the first swim leg and also the second swim leg, I picked up some really nice waves coming through.
Yeah-no, is certainly spreading, and not just within the world of sport: even Bill Clinton seems to have succumbed to this bad habit.
The character from the TV show Little Britain, Vicky Pollard, won a British Award in 2010 for her “yeah but no but yeah” catch phrase. Even though many people love the Pollard character, her main characteristic, according to her creators David Walliams and Matt Smith, is her inarticulateness. Walliams remarks that:
people didn’t talk like that ten years ago […] people constructed sentences, and now it’s getting rarer and rarer.
So what does it all matter?
Is inarticulateness a hanging offence? What’s wrong with these apparently minor weaknesses in expression? Well, articulateness will get you a job, or at least be the first thing an employer will consider. Graduate Careers Australia, in its reports for the past five years, has listed the top ten selection criteria for recruiting graduates. Work experience usually comes sixth; calibre of academic results, in spite of the propaganda of the education industry, comes fourth; while interpersonal and communication skills (written and oral) always come first.
Languages are studied by linguists, who tend to be either descriptivists who prefer to scientifically observe and record language without making any value judgements, or prescriptivists who try to prescribe or lay down rules of usage.
Flickr/Jay Denhart, CC BY
Most linguists are descriptivists, but, to return to Vicki Pollard et al, it’s obvious that David Walliams, Matt Smith and Taylor Mali are prescriptivists – they argue strongly for articulateness, and recommend changes in the way we speak and write. Burridge and Florey’s interesting analysis notwithstanding, as a closet prescriptivist I think we have a problem with our articulateness.
If Taylor Mali refers to this generation of Americans as the most aggressively inarticulate one in yonks, then we might just be the most passively inarticulate generation of Australians in yonks. If so, what do we do?
It seems fairly simple, according to Walliams and Mali – think before you speak, and then speak in complete, declarative sentences, and say “yes” or “no”, but not both. If Australians started this stuff, let’s finish it.
Baden Eunson does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.