Monday, June 03, 2013

Ya' Know What I'm Sayin'?

Nature, it is said, abhors a vacuum. So, apparently, does the human mind when it comes to talking.

It seems to be a quirk of human nature that there is too often a sort of race between the mind and the mouth, and people tend to talk faster than their mind can supply their mouth with things to say. The result is a break in the momentum the mouth has built up, leaving potentially awkward gaps which we tend to spackle over with a wide variety of oral fillers. “Umm,” “Uh,” and “Er” are classic old reliables so ubiquitous not one person in 50 is even aware of them.

What is there about human beings that makes them think that once they begin talking, there can be not one instant of silence; perhaps they fear someone else may jump in?

“You know” is one of the most common of gap fillers, and it also implies the speaker's attempt to make sure the listener is following what is being said. Some, I imagine, consciously or unconsciously use “you know” as an attempt to create a bond with the listener by assuming a connection which may not indeed exist. (“I was telling Sally, you know,...” Well, gee, I'm sorry, I didn't know, but it was nice of you to think highly enough of me to assume that I did.)

“Ya' know what I'm sayin',” is an extremely unfortunate and relatively recent bastardization of the far more simple “you know.” It is fascinating to note that it is used almost exclusively by African-Americans with little formal education. I have been exposed to conversations, usually on TV, in which not ten words go by without the insertion of a “Ya' know what I'm sayin'?” Single sentences can contain up to four of them. I personally find its effect similar to chewing tinfoil, and I am tempted to grab the speaker by the neck, lift him or her off the floor, and shout, “Yes! Yes, I do know what you're saying! Now just get the f**k on with it!

Of course the fact is that few people, in fact, speak in complete sentences (listen carefully). Sentences overlap, wander from their original topic.We are so accustomed to gap fillers that we are almost unaware of them...which is probably just as well, for if we were aware of them, I'm sure they'd drive us to distraction and beyond. Have you ever had the opportunity to read the full, complete transcript of any extemporaneous speech, or listened to the recording of any individual talking for any length of time, and then played it back specifically listening for gap fillers? Probably not. Were we to be consciously aware of gap-fillers, it would be difficult if not impossible to make an iota of sense out of what is being said. And yet we seem terrified of simple brief pauses, devoid of sound. Are we subconsciously afraid that if we allow even the shortest space between words, our listener(s) will wander off somewhere? Or that if we pause we or the listener might forget what we were saying?

Some people eschew most of the usual gap fillers in favor of individualized, creative gap fillers of their own, but the result can be equally annoying. I have a dear relative who ends nearly every sentence with “and that.” (“So we decided not to go, and that.”) She is utterly unaware of this habit as, I would fervently hope, is her husband, who has been exposed to it for nearly sixty years.

There are what might be called “fad” fillers. “Like” is a good example, and it is often combined with other fillers. (“And he was, like, you know....”). “Goes” was another blessedly short-lived popular filler. (“So he goes,.... And then I go,....And then he goes.....”)

It's possible, and interesting, to tune one's ear to pick up gap fillers. Try it if you have a little time to spend testing out what's been said above. Ya' know what I'm sayin'?

Dorien's blogs are posted by 10 a.m. Central time every Monday and Thursday. Please take a moment to visit his website ( and, if you enjoy these blogs, you might want to check out Short Circuits: a Life in Blogs (


Kage Alan said...

I was invited a couple of years ago to guest host a 2 hour GLBT radio show and the host continually uttered "um" throughout. He looked over at me on the air at one point and asked what I was doing. I told him I was keeping track of the number of times he said "um."

He was not amused. His mother couldn't stop laughing. She's the reason I was invited back a second time. He, meanwhile, remained slightly paranoid about what he said after that.

My work there was done.

Essayel said...

'Like' is the one I hear most often. It's very popular in Wales. I work with someone who peppers her sentences with them. I once heard her say "I been lookin' on Amazon, like, but I can't find anything I like, like."

Nikolaos said...

Ozzies say "yeah" to fill the conversational gaps.

And I once heard a long line of African women, all with a bundle balanced on their heads, move in stately progression down the road, each uttering an occasional "ehhh", followed by an answering (after a decent pause for thought)"ehhh-weh" from one of the others.

Anonymous said...

In the Navy, I quickly learned the universal 'gap filler' was f**k, often spoken as: m**herf**ker. There were those who seemed to interject the f-word after every word they uttered. Annoyed mates would often tell the offender to stop using f**k so f**king much. Well, you get the idea.

Anonymous said...

Deep Gap is a place in North Carolina. According to Wikipedia, Daniel Boone spent time there, and Doc Watson the guitarist was from there