Brits answer yeah …?


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 uher, 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, basicallyas 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.


6 thoughts on “Brits answer yeah …?

  1. Jeff Spurgeon

    Well, Louise, you’ve once again produced a very interesting essay. Yeah, I think the fill word at the start of a speech in conversation is a way of catching the ball, so to speak, or grabbing the talking stick and taking the spotlight.

    You know, I once worked with a newscaster who opened every newscast he read with, “Well,…” I wondered if he wrote it at the start of every script or, more likely, never actually heard himself say it. It was a fill word for himself, for getting his own brain on task.

    Yeah, I think I first noticed the British usage in Eddie Izzard’s comedy. He uses it, and “Yes,” or “Yes, yes,” in a way that makes me think it’s a filler for him so he can sort of get back on script after weaving away for a moment or two, or make a segue to a new topic without letting go of the audience.

    Absolutely, this whole topic. And as you might have just observed, “Absolutely” is also a fill word that appears in lots of conversations where, for instance, an interviewer makes a point and then cues the guest to react. “Absolutely” is a way of confirming what the speaker just said, or at least confirming that you heard it — which is why “absolutely” can precede a complete disagreement with the statement that came before.

    Yeah, a great topic, absolutely. Well, I’ve said what I have to say — yeah, and probably more. Absolutely.

    Yeah. Brilliant.

  2. Louise Post author

    Absolutely, Jeff. Why, I should have guessed that you would know exactly what I’m talking about. Yeah, no: you’ve got the Brit-speak down to a tee.

    You know, I wonder if your newscaster friend ever interviewed Ronald Reagan, who was famous for answering every question with “Well ….”? Yeah, that would have been a good interview, you know.

    Yeah, thanks mate. Cheers.

  3. Brian Barder

    Yeah, well, definitely. I hear all these fillers daily, and probably use most of them myself, unconsciously of course. Definitely seems to be giving way to absolutely. I rarely hear an American Senator, diplomat or professor on UK TV without hearing at least one “if you will”, a phrase I believe to be unique to the US, and I’m interested to learn that it’s being phased out as stuffy. I associate it with American males who no doubt expect their sons to address them as ‘Sir’.

    The filler I dislike most is that used by our prime minister a dozen times every Wednesday at noon in PMQs (prime minister’s questions in the house of commons): “My honourable friend [i.e. another MP of the same party] is absolutely right” — the automatic filler preface to the answer to a Dorothy Dixer (look that up if necessary!).

  4. Rob

    :- ) So, yeah… I’m rather late to this party, but I’m throwing my .02 worth into the ring. As a native speaker of the Canadian dialect, I can assure you that the frontal filler “Yeah” has entrenched itself here, but oddly — and thankfully — it appears to be limited almost exclusively to usage by PR reps here.

    As you say, these aren’t wholly without meaning, and as a language professional it irks me to no end when I hear a “Yeah…” in response to an open-ended question. I’d much rather hear a “Hmm…”, or a “Well…”, which to me signifies “I’m thinking, give me a second.” In contrast, “Yeah…”, aside from its grammatical incongruity with an open-ended question, strikes me as dismissive or disingenuous — but that’s a purely personal take.

  5. Bil

    Canadian here. “it appears to be limited almost exclusively to usage by PR reps here”…

    The frontal filler “yeah” has infected media pundits, especially those interviewed on CBC.

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