Being inarticulate is highly under-appreciated. In many cases, rather than a sign of carelessness or miseducation, being inarticulate may instead be an important building block of sociality and even democracy in a diverse society. Consider, for example, the following much-maligned expressions deemed “inarticulate”:
You know what I mean?
These are expressions that have been derided by English speakers, teachers, parents, and elders, as a mark of younger generations’ lack of backbone, intelligence, or will. Taylor Mali’s spoken word performance mocking these hesitant words and the mannerisms that accompany them has circulated widely on YouTube. In under three minutes, Mali brilliantly delivers his entire monologue using these expressions and piling onto them all the hesitant rising intonation in the universe:
In case you hadn’t realized? it has suddenly become uncool to sound like you know what you’re talking about? or believe strongly in what you’re like saying?
Invisible question marks and parenthetical you-knows? And you-know-what-I’m sayings? have been attaching themselves to our sentences, even when those sentences aren’t, like, questions?
Are we like the most aggressively non-committed generation to come along in like a long time?
Mali’s spoken-word performance almost seems to be celebrating these ways of speaking. Immortalizing them. But he concludes by imploring listeners to “Speak with conviction,” delivering this line with conclusive falling intonation, and a facial expression of drop-dead seriousness.
This call for confident articulation of our convictions makes sense—in certain contexts. Dozens of you-know-what-I-mean?s throughout Swedish Activist Greta Thunberg’s speeches would likely lessen her impact on worldwide climate awareness. “Invisible question marks” and ubiquitous likes would be surreal on the presidential debate stage. Fluent, confident, unhesitating speech—speaking with conviction—remains the preferred mode in political debates or speechifying in Davos.
But last week I asked some graduate students in my class—many of whom are international students, all of whom are multilingual and have lived in different parts of the world—to think more broadly about being articulate. Specifically, I asked, are there certain situations where being inarticulate is more useful?
An answer shared by several students took me by surprise: Paradoxically, phrases like those maligned by Taylor Mali can also help a person sound like a competent language speaker.
One student from China mentioned how, upon arriving in the United states, she was surprised to hear so many “likes” among the native speakers here. She started using like and you know what I mean to fit in. As she put it, using these phrases does double duty: It makes you sound like you’ve been living in the US for a while, and simultaneously gives you time to search for a word, or think through the rest of your sentence—always useful when using a new language. As soon as she learned the phrase you know what I mean, it became a crucial bridge to successful communication with local English speakers.
A student who grew up in Philadelphia, but had spent the last year living in Brazil, had a similar perspective on speaking Portuguese there. The crucial word for him had been tipo. Another student remembered that when learning French, her instructor, frustrated with all the students’ “ums” told them to please use the proper French “euh” instead.
The examples began to flow—what about saying o sea or este in Spanish? Or something like ba in Swedish? A quick google search yielded lists of filler words in dozens of other modern languages. This duolingo forum about filler words contains an outpouring of citizen sociolinguistic expertise and appreciation (and a little Taylor Mali-like opprobrium) including these enthusiastic examples:
As these stories and outpourings of multilingual “filler” words suggest, being “inarticulate” in this way may be an important step in joining a new language community—and even sounding “native-like”. For a new speaker of any language, speaking “with conviction” may not only be impossible, but undesirable. The priority may instead be fitting in, and using words like like and you know what I mean, can be the most competent way of entering into new conversations.
What forms of being “inarticulate” function well for you? Or do you find ums, likes, tipos, and you know what I means annoying? Please comment below!