Saturday, 11 August 2007

On you know

A correspondent from Armenia writes to ask about the origins of you know as a parenthetical conversational 'filler'. Is it recent?

No. The Oxford English Dictionary has citations from the 14th century - though it isn't always clear whether the words are being used parenthetically or with their full meaning. I've just had a look at Shakespeare's usage (by typing 'you know' into the Glossary box at and found several apparently parenthetical instances, but the meaning isn't always clear. Which is it, when the Countess says 'You know, Helen, I am a mother to you' (All's Well, 1.3.133)? But it's clearly a filler when Falstaff says 'to serve bravely is to come halting off, you know' (2H4. 2.4.49). So the usage has definitely been around for a long time, and probably evolved as a weakening of the literal meaning, in contexts such as the one used by the Countess.


J.G. said...

I am wondering if the writer actually meant 'You know what I mean'; the 'you' often being pronounced 'yer'.
The words 'you know' are seldom used, as the writer says, in the form of a 'conversation filler', but, are sometimes used in an introductory fashion such as in the sentence 'You know, there are still a lot of houses in the UK that do not have showers'
'You know what I mean' was cited as an example of the dumbing down of the English language in an article several years ago, in the Guardian I beleive, and was referred to as a tick, meaning an unecessary and largely meaningless phrase that is often repeated in conversation.

DC said...

You know what I mean is very different from you know in its history and range of functions. You know has had a lot of study, over recent years, and it turns out to be quite a complex feature, governed by some subtle rules of grammar and intonation which can alter the meaning or effect of what is being said. To call it 'unnecessary and meaningless' is just plain wrong. A good way of testing this out is to take a sentence and try inserting you know between each pair of words. You'll find that you sometimes can and you sometimes can't. Try it with John and his friend have just gone to New York. You're not likely to find it being used between John and and or between New and York. Its potential effect on meaning can be seen if you insert it before the word friend. You'll find some other examples of its usage in an article I wrote for English Today years ago (it's in issue 13, 1988 - there's a downloadable version on my website, in the English section).

You know what I mean does seem to be recent - but it was around a long time before the fad for describing everything as 'dumbing down' came along. The OED has a first recorded usage in 1968 (see mean 2c).

E.S. said...

As a new comer to this website, I am reading all the old postings. I know this is an old post and therefore unlikely to be read, but I would like to point out that "you know" is ofter used in Australian English as a discourse particle (conversational filler). Its effect when used in this way is similar to the Australian English usage of the High Rising Terminal.

DC said...

And in other varieties too, of course. It had an especial vogue in California in the 1960s, I recall, in precisely this usage, and it's common enough in the UK too.