Monday, November 19, 2007

yeah right

There are 3 interpretations of “yeah, right” in American English, but I only have two of them in my dialect (I’m originally from California). I’m in my late 30s and I hear this particular version from younger folks a lot (I can imagine my teenage niece saying it this way), but I’ve also heard it from a 30-ish father of 3, so I’m not sure what generation it’s most closely associated with (perhaps I just missed it). The three interpretations I know of are as follows:

1) Normal (factual agreement): yeah right = ‘yes, that is correct’
2) Sarcastic (opposite meaning): yeah right = ‘no way in hell’
3) Back-channel (sentiment agreement): yeah right = ‘mm-hmm’

Thanks to the influence of Seinfeld and Friends throughout the 90s, (2) sarcastic is probably the default use these days, but it is the 3rd use that I don’t have in my dialect. I would say that (3) is in the same class of back-channel expressions as “you go girl!”

These three interpretations all involve different prosodic realizations; roughly, they have different tones. I’ll dig deep into my past when I studied the tone languages Mandarin Chinese and Cantonese (12 years ago) and when I actually took a phonetics course (10 years ago) to see if I can offer a plausible hypothesis about the F0 differences.

1) Normal: yeah = falling mid-low; right = falling mid-low
2) Sarcastic: yeah = rising low-high; right = rising low-high
3) Back-channel: yeah = steady mid-mid; right = rising low-high

I have little confidence in my intuitions about the prosodic properties of (1), but I feel (2) and (3) are a pretty good guess.

BTW, I happen to run across this paper by Joseph Tepperman et al. from USC: “YEAH RIGHT”: SARCASM RECOGNITION FOR SPOKEN DIALOGUE SYSTEMS. I haven’t read it, but it seems somewhat relevant to my point: “This paper presents some experiments toward sarcasm recognition using prosodic, spectral, and contextual cues.”


Anonymous said...

Hm, is there a way you can record examples of what these tone patterns sound like? I haven't studied tone much and so don't have a good idea in my head of what they should sound like, especially number (2), which I would think actually should be falling on right. For me, anyway.

There's also something about timing between the three of them. I feel like there's a longer pause between yeah and right when you're being sarcastic than when you're expressing factual agreement, and definitely than when you're backchanneling.

Moses said...

"Yeah, right", of course, is a double positive used as a negative; as opposed to the usual double negative used as a positive.
"You can't not do it!".

See Christopher Brookmyre, but I forget which novel.

Chris said...

Thanks for the posts pc and moses. I thought about adding a sound file of me pronouncing the three versions, but I'm at work (shhhhh) so I should wait until I have more free time, hehe.

The double positive interpretation is the punchline of a linguistics joke. The folks over at Language Log have posted their version here, (which I'll repeat):

Linguistic humor, Double positive
Source: Christine Santorini Biser and Bob Julia

An MIT linguistics professor was lecturing his class the other day. "In English," he said, "a double negative forms a positive. However, in some languages, such as Russian, a double negative remains a negative. But there isn't a single language, not one, in which a double positive can express a negative."

A voice from the back of the room piped up, "Yeah, right."

Nils said...

Interesting post! What about the way of uttering "yeah right" that combines 1 and 2 with a tone similar to 1, but with each word drawn out: "yeeeaaaah...riiiight..." In the right context, this could imply that the speaker means "I'm pretending to agree with you, but I actually think you're totally wrong," or, "I'm pretending to agree with you, but I have no idea what you are talking about." This probably shows up more in TV shows and movies, since its use in the real world would betray the speaker's disagreement with or failure to understand his/her interlocutor.

Chris said...

Nils, good point. I was overly restrictive saying there were only three interpretations. The one you mention sounds exactly the way my niece says it, hehe.

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