Miscellany 6: phatic expressions

Miscellany 6: phatic expressions

Are they all right?

Continuing our exploration of the origins, conundrums and variety of language.

The British “You alright?” is incredibly jarring to American ears.

In American English, “You alright?” – or, more commonly, “Are you all right?!” – is a serious expression of concern. It’s what one might say if a friend suddenly appeared very ill at dinner or took a nasty fall.

Across the pond, however, it’s a different story. “Y’aright?” is frequently delivered as a blithe greeting. No response needed – or expected.

This takes quite some getting used to for Americans. For the uninitiated, it might appear rude, as if the speaker is implying that it looks like there’s something wrong with you. At best, it’s simply bewildering; am I supposed to respond and, if so, how?

Meanwhile, the American usage of “What’s up?” might invoke confusion in the opposite direction, while “How ya doing?” and “Good morning!” are more universal.

All of these are what’s called phatic expressions, meaning the semantic information they convey, or what the sentence means, is more important than the pragmatic information, or what the sentence accomplishes in the conversation. In other words, you can’t take them at face value.

Thus, the reason “Y’alright?” employed as a greeting sounds off to Americans is that “Y’alright?” is not a phatic expression in the U.S.; the words convey real information rather than simply serving a social function.

This serves as yet another reminder that how people communicate can differ in subtle ways, including those ostensibly speaking the same language and even using the same expressions.

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Lark Knutsen
Lark Knutsen

Writer and editor