"You betcha I'm a 'Merican" The rise of 'YOU BET' as a pragmatic marker - Q&A with Dr. Laurel Brinton and Tomoharu Hirota

March 28, 2023

In the study titled, 'You betcha I'm a 'Merican" the rise of YOU BET as a pragmatic marker', researchers Dr. Laurel Brinton and PhD student, Tomoharu Hirota, both of whom are from UBC's Department of English Languages and Literatures, explore parenthetical and free-standing you bet (you) and you bet your X, exploring their present-day usage and historical development. 

In this Q&A with Language Sciences, the research team explained how pragmatic markers are used, historical uses of YOU BET, the differences in usage of YOU BET in spoken American English, as compared to usage in television and movies, and more!

1. Can you define what a pragmatic marker is, and explain how it’s used?

A “pragmatic marker” – also commonly known as a “discourse marker” – is a short form such as well, now, like, okay, in fact, of course, I guess, and that said that stands outside the syntactic structure of the sentence, carries little referential or content meaning, is seemingly omissible, and is found in high frequency in spoken discourse. However, research has shown that these forms convey important discourse-pragmatic meaning on a textual level (for example, in introducing, switching, or closing topics, in creating cohesion, in denoting new and old information, in marking textual boundaries and so on) and on an interpersonal level (subjectively in denoting speaker attitude, in signaling understanding, in hedging, and intersubjectively in confirming shared knowledge, in claiming the hearer’s attention, in checking on understanding, in expressing deference, and so on). Consider the pragmatic marker well in the following: “Do you want to see a movie this weekend?” “Well, my parents are visiting”. Well alerts the hearer to interpret the response as not what is desired or expected; it also functions as a politeness marker in softening the negative response. The absence of pragmatic markers would not make a discourse “ungrammatical and/or unintelligible”, but would make it sound decidedly “unnatural” and would make processing more difficult, as pragmatic markers have what is called “procedural meaning”; that is, they act as guideposts to interpretation.  

2. What are some of the earliest historical uses and forms of YOU BET?

The Oxford English Dictionary cites examples of parenthetical you bet in American sources dating from the third quarter of the nineteenth century. Examples in our corpora are only slightly earlier. The first example we have of parenthetical you bet comes from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, published in 1851: “That baby’s going to be found if he’s aboard the train, now, you bet”. The earliest example of you bet you (where the second you is redundant) is found in a Mark Twain story from 1867 (“The Entertaining History of the Scriptural Panoramist”). Both are, of course, famous American writers. Parenthetical you bet your X (e.g., life) is found first in American periodicals in the 1860s, and free-standing you bet (you) and you bet your X occur somewhat later in the American writers Bret Harte and “Artemus Ward” (Charles Farrar Browne). You betcha (a reduced form of you bet you) appears later (1905) in an American humor magazine. Thus, our data clearly point to YOU BET as an Americanism, which by the early twentieth century had become widely recognized as a marker of American English. Our title quotation comes from a 1917 memoir of a World War I photographer; he encountered a Belgian soldier who had lived in Wisconsin and who sprinkled YOU BET throughout his speech as a claim to Americanness.   

3. Can you summarize the differences between the parenthetical usage of YOU BET, as compared to the free-standing usage of YOU BET?

One big difference between parenthetical and free-standing YOU BET is frequency. The free-standing usage accounts for over 90% of our present-day examples. This distribution appears to have materialized in the early 20th century – before then, it was the parenthetical usage that was more frequent.

Parenthetical YOU BET conveys speaker certainty on the statement being made both subjectively and intersubjectively. Consider “You bet, the economy tops the list of voter concerns.” Here, you bet marks the speaker’s opinion that economic affairs play a pivotal role in the election. At the same time, the speaker is asserting certainty by placing themselves in the hearer’s position, indicating that the hearer can safely bet on the speaker’s belief. Replacing you bet with I bet would suppress this intersubjective nuance.

 As an independent response, free-standing usage YOU BET serves two broad functions. The first function is as a response indicating affirmation. It may be used to accept an order, a request, or a suggestion (e.g., “Let’s see if he makes a statement.” “You bet.”); to respond to an inquiry (e.g., “Were you going to protect them?” “You bet ya.”); and to convey the speaker’s agreement to an opinion (e.g., “That was really weird.” “You betcha.”). The other function is as a response to gratitude (e.g., “Thank you for your perspective.” “You bet.”). Related to this function, YOU BET may be used as a response to good wishes or greetings (e.g., “Good to see you.” “You bet.”).

In a random sample of our free-standing instances of YOU BET, we found that the use of marking affirmation and the use to respond to thanks are almost equally common in spoken English, but the affirmation use clearly predominates in TV/movies and fiction.

4. In your research you note that it has been stable in the use of YOU BET in spoken American English over time, but with a significant decrease (more than half) in the use of YOU BET over the past 30 years in TV and movies. Can you explain why this may be?

The use of YOU BET has been quite stable in spoken American English (as represented by unscripted conversation from TV and radio programs), but significantly declining in fictional writing and screenwriting (both American and British). The latter trend might be due to its perception as dialectal or old-fashioned. In our data, we came across meta-linguistic examples suggesting the association of YOU BET with Midwestern speech or with popular TV programs in the mid-20th century (the quiz show You Bet Your Life and the well-known you bet your sweet bippy line in Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In).

Interestingly, we found that the use of YOU BET as response to thanks is common in TV and radio programs, but not in fictional writing and screenwriting. One way to interpret these results is that fiction and scriptwriters might not be widely aware of ‘you’re welcome’ YOU BET – a usage which is not universally recorded in dictionaries and likely developed only in the twentieth century. But the disparity could be a product of genre differences. For instance, the act of thanking is routinized at the end of interviews in TV and radio programs – this is the source of our spoken data –  so this might be the reason for the high numbers of ‘you’re welcome’ YOU BET that we found. In order to decide which interpretation is more likely, future research situating YOU BET within the context of other responses to thanks would be necessary (see Brinton 2021).

Present-day English has seen the rise of a wide variety of different responses to thanks, such as forget it, think nothing of it, sure, anytime, no bother, and no problem, all of which serve to minimize the thanker’s debt to the recipient of the thanks. Interestingly, you bet has escaped the notice of prescriptivists, whereas no problem is perceived as a rude form associated with younger speakers and one that should be avoided. Sociolinguistic studies, in contrast, have shown that no problem is probably an incoming form (neutral or polite but not rude) used by younger speakers.

Written by Kelsea Franzke

First Nations land acknowledegement

We acknowledge that UBC’s campuses are situated within the traditional territories of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh, and in the traditional, ancestral, unceded territory of the Syilx Okanagan Nation and their peoples.

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