What we really mean when we say ‘I dunno’: An investigation into Canada’s multipurpose conversation tool
Thousands of academics have gathered in Toronto this week for the annual Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, presenting papers on everything from whether poutine is a form of cultural appropriation to Canada’s uncomfortable relationship with nakedness. In this week-long Oh, The Humanities! series, the National Post showcases some of the most interesting research.
Nicole Hildebrand-Edgar worked at restaurants and coffee shops through university. There was something about how customers spoke, particularly the unsatisfied ones. They said, “I don’t know,” a lot.
“I dunno, this isn’t salty enough,” one said.
“But they do know,” Hildebrand-Edgar said. In fact, they were so certain in their knowledge — that the food was bland — that they were complaining about it.
Hildebrand Edgar, a PhD candidate in linguistics at York University, launched an investigation into the phenomenon, studying recordings of nearly 50 interviews with people in Victoria and Toronto.
What she found is that the phrase has morphed into a multipurpose tool for guiding conversations. More than just conveying a lack of knowledge, it can soften an impolite idea, or signal that you’re finished speaking, or hint that you’re insecure about what you’re saying.
Hildebrand-Edgar presented her research on the phrase at the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences at Ryerson University on Sunday. Her work tracks the “phonetic erosion” of the phrase, from “I don’t know” to “I dunno,” to “I d’no” and finally a kind of “prosodic grunt.”
“You can hear what I’m saying, and I don’t have to say any words,” she said.
It’s a trend that has been studied in other English-speaking countries, though not in Canada until now. Hildebrand’s research concludes that “I don’t know” is also changing here, too. The technical term is “grammaticalization,” which that means the phrase has two separate functions. There’s the original, literal meaning. And there’s a pragmatic function, where “I don’t know” is used as a “discourse marker.”
A discourse marker doesn’t convey the literal meaning of a word; rather, it uses the word to send cues to the other person in the conversation. By tacking on “I don’t know” to the end of a sentence, you’re telling the person finished speaking without saying, “Now, you can talk.”
“These things are really handy,” Hildebrand-Edgar said. “I can communicate the fact that I am feeling hesitant without saying ‘I am feeling hesitant.’”
One of the speakers in the study, for instance, used “I don’t know” to dull the sting of a rude comment: “She’s one of those women who — one of those people who — don’t, uh, I don’t know, she must not have been listening to anything that I was saying.” Hildebrand-Edgar calls this “hedging.”
Hildebrand-Edgar found that people were more likely to say the reduced form — I dunno, or I d’no — when they’re using it as a discourse marker. So they’d say, “He’s, I d’no, a bit full of himself.” But if they wanted to use its literal form, they would pronounce each word: “I don’t know what time it is.”
It’s unclear how this happened. Hildebrand-Edgar said it’s part of gradual shifts in language that play out over years of use — a product of the same kind of evolution that reduced “going to” to “gonna” and “you know” to “y’know.”
What is clear is the younger people in the study (between 17 and 30) were much more likely to say “I don’t know” in a reduced form when they wanted to use it as a discourse marker. In those instances, young people used a very reduced form of the phrase — “I d’no” or just a grunt — 30 per cent of the time, and the full form only five per cent of the time. Meanwhile, speakers over 50 used the full form 35 per cent of the time, and a very reduced form just five per cent of the time.
That could be proof that the phrase is still transforming, she said. “Younger people just might continue to do this throughout the rest of their lives, and so it might be a change that’s happening.” She can’t rule out a language pattern called age grading, though.
“That’s where you have younger speakers who use more non-standard language,” she said. “But then, when they enter the work force they start to speak in a more standard way.”