Simanaitis Says

On cars, old, new and future; science & technology; vintage airplanes, computer flight simulation of them; Sherlockiana; our English language; travel; and other stuff


A FAVORITE CARTOON IS “The Emergence of Language.” And I’m fairly confident that, following “urg,” “ug” and “uh-oh,” among mankind’s first words were “well” and “y’know.” Or so it seems from a hobby of mine, counting these two utterances in news reports. Current records appear to be six wells in a 20-second bite and 13 y’knows in a somewhat longer sports interview.


The Emergence of Language. Cartoon by Leo Callum in The New Yorker.

What with family, friends, SimanaitisSays, GMax, Flight Sim and Sherlockiana, you’d think I have enough to occupy a fulfilling retirement. Yes, but English, not to say language in general, is another interest.

I believe “well” may be a product of mic fright, that tendency to freeze when expected to speak in some formal setting. I’ve read that Humphrey Bogart, Gracie Allen and Jack Benny’s wife Mary Livingstone all were bothered by mic fright.

One way to overcome this is to take the slightest little intake of breath before speaking. Another, so it seems, is to insert a start-up word such as “well.” This word also carries a subtle connotation of authority: It hints at “After having given this some thought….”

My meager knowledge of Japanese suggests that “ano….” is a similar utterance. It seems to be there to give time organizing the rest of one’s thoughts.

At the other end of an English declaration is the ubiquitious “y’know,” a shortened version of “Do you know what I mean?” This phrase began as a way of confirming that the listener understood. Its abbreviated “y’know” has become, like, a mere space-filler.

The Japanese use the word ”ne” in a similar fashion at the end of a sentence. In their language of many built-in subtleties of meaning, it seeks concurrence. Sort of “Do you agree with the drift of my reasoning?”

The word ”yo” is related to ”ne.” Perhaps a bit stronger, it also carries the nuance of telling the listener somewhat new. Sort of “You didn’t know this, but ….”

In fact, a Japanese sentence may end with both “ne” and ”yo” in succession. Its English equivalent would be akin to “see, don’t you agree?”

Such space-fillers are part of what’s called formulaic language. A Wikipedia search for other examples in languages around the world reveals a batch of them. In Bengali, for instance, ”mane” carries the thought of “I mean” or “it means.” In Catalan, ”doncs,” literally “so,” is an acceptable starter. By contrast, the French ”donc” seems to be used more literally as “thus,” not particularly on start-up. The French like ”tu vois,” “you see” in conversations where the familiar ”tu,” thou, replaces the more formal ”vous,” you.

And there’s a whole new area of study: Pronouns of the second person, familiar and formal, in languages around the world. No wonder there’s so little free time in retirement. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2016

3 comments on “WELL, Y’KNOW…

  1. Bruce
    October 7, 2016

    I have just become aware of a new trend of starting sentences with the “So”. This seems to be most prevalent among people in the 20s. Now that I am cognizant of this bad habit, I am hearing it everywhere, and I even caught myself doing it (and I passed my 20s some time ago). Use of “So” to start a sentence has a sort of patronizing effect — “let me slow down so you can understand”,

    • simanaitissays
      October 7, 2016

      Hi, Bruce,
      So I hear what you’re saying’. Y’know.
      (Whatever happened to “I dig”?”

  2. David Rees
    October 11, 2016

    The Italians use the word “allora” in somewhat the same way; similar to “so…”

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