'Yeah no.' What are people trying to say using this phrase?

Colette Sheridan shares her linguistic bugbears in her weekly column
'Yeah no.' What are people trying to say using this phrase?

Matt Lucas as Vicky Pollard, one of the characters from ‘Little Britain’. It has been suggested that the term ‘yeah no’ came from the show.

YOU can’t fail to have noticed the extremely irritating use of the phrase, ‘yeah no’, which is really quite meaningless.

According to the Urban Dictionary, one of the definitions of ‘yeah no’ is: ‘An annoying and obnoxious phrase uttered by the simple-minded, who don’t think before they speak.’

And you thought you were being cool and riding the zeitgeist?

Just because everyone seems to be using the phrase doesn’t actually make it clever or attractive. It often comes across as moronic.

Fictitious rugby jock, Ross O’Carroll-Kelly, created by writer Paul Howard, uses the phrase at every possible opportunity. For him, it’s a case of grandstanding. He thinks he’s prefacing something interesting by throwing in ‘Yeah no’, but of course, with this Dublin 4 character, he’s only a few letters of the alphabet away from being borderline illiterate.

I haven’t heard an Irish politician use ‘Yeah no’ yet. One would hope that their advisors have warned them not to lapse into silly slang or catchphrases.

But if I do come across ‘Yeah no’ emanating from a politician’s mouth, I just might get onto Joe Duffy to complain. Because it’s driving me cuckoo. It’s the herd instinct that has about 80% of the population using the phrase. But where did it come from?

It has been suggested it may have come from the BBC’s Little Britain, which was broadcast from 2003-2005. The show’s character, Vicky Pollard, a teen slacker, was given to saying ‘Yeah but no but yeah but...’ The catchphrase denotes a lack of articulacy. Not something to be proud of.

But the fact it was first noted all those years ago makes you wonder why it seems to have cropped up in this country only in the past year or two. Maybe it has another provenance, a more recent one.

Whatever its origins, I may be out of step condemning this travesty of language. Because it’s not necessarily a sign of the inarticulate and the terminally confused. At least, that’s what some linguists point out. They describe it as a ‘discourse marker’. That sounds posh. What it means is that discourse markers, usually short and vague parts of a sentence, actually serve semantic and practical functions in speech. They denote assent or dissent (or sometimes both). They can indicate attention, sarcasm, self-effacement or face-saving, according to linguist Edwin L Battistella. So there.

But I’ll be damned if I’ll ever use the phrase ‘Yeah no’. 

It rankles too much. I rather like the Cork way of saying, ‘No way’ by using the phrase ‘I will, yeah’. That works because of the tone in which the phrase is expressed. I wonder how the linguists would parse and analyse it.

There’s no logic to it. It’s all in the raised eyebrow and dismissive tone.

Another linguistic bugbear is starting a sentence with ‘So’. What is that about? I first became aware of it a few years ago when guests on radio and TV shows would routinely use it before expanding on the reply they were giving to a question.

But apparently, ‘So’ kicking off a sentence, has been spreading since the beginnings of the tech boom. In his 2001 book, The New Thing, Michael Lewis wrote that computer programmers always started their answers with ‘So’. When you hear an economist or a computer scientist starting an answer with ‘So’, they are generally telling us that things are more complex than we think.

Adding to my list of linguistic annoyances is the phrase ‘ah here’, which seems to be peculiarly Irish. A friend, who is a broadcaster, asked me why I wouldn’t get a dog. I told him scooping the poop every time you go walking with a dog puts me off having one. “Ah here,” he said, implying that my concern was petty and not to be taken seriously - a kind of ‘would you go away out of that’.

And then there’s the use of the word ‘piece’. You hear people trying to avoid saying ‘thing’ but sounding even worse when they say, for example: ‘The piece in the budget about vacant property tax...’

‘Pieces’ proliferate in people’s speech, but rarely describing a slice of cake, which is the correct way to use the word.

And while I’m on the subject of linguistic travesties, I hate having to use the pronoun ‘they’ when talking about one person. Yes, I know it’s not much to ask when the matter of how a person identifies themselves, gender wise, is at issue. But it just looks so wrong to write about Johnny and then to go on and write ‘they’ love golf.

However, a study at the University of North Carolina found that writers avoid using ‘they’ in articles and are more likely to use the person’s name instead. Proper order.

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