The Petit-Bourgeois Origins of An Academic Verbal Tic

A specter is haunting academia – the specter of the affirmatory interrogative. All the strivers of academic programs have entered into a subconscious speech pattern to promulgate this verbal tic: sociology PhDs, political science post-docs, self-important undergraduates.

The tic works as follows: the speaker puts forth a complex (but if properly understood, possibly contestable) statement as if it were instead an incontrovertible premise, followed by, “right”. For example: “Nationalism exists as a discursive process controlled by class-based groups which perceive economic benefits to setting the parameters within which the nation is contested, right. So it follows that…”*

It’s an annoyingly common speech pattern within academia, most frequently deployed by people who are, on the surface, quite pleased with how intelligent they think they’ve just sounded.** But the “right” can be inflected with varying levels of interrogative-ness depending on the degree to which the speaker actually has doubts about what he or she has just said. Deployed with the most questioning of tones it conveys, “I suspect this to be true enough, but please do speak up if you disagree.” This style of use is minimal. Said without any questioning at all it conveys, “I know this to be true, and I’d prefer not to waste time discussing it.” This style of use is much higher.

But regardless of where your usage of the affirmatory interrogative falls on the spectrum, the point of doing so at all is to suggest both that you know exactly what you’re talking about, and that also you certainly wouldn’t be so presumptuous as to assume that you know exactly what you’re talking about.*** It’s borne of insecurity.

And apparently, this insecurity can be traced to a desire to differentiate oneself from the petite bourgeoisie. Who knew?

Thus, in order to account for the new style of speaking adopted by intellectuals, which can be observed in America as well as in France – a somewhat hesitant, even faltering, interrogative manner (‘non?’, ‘right?’, ‘OK?’ etc.) – one would have to take into account the whole structure of usages in relation to which it is differentially defined. On the one hand, there is the old academic manner…associated with a devalued image of the professional role; on the other, the new petit-bourgeois usages resulting from wider diffusion of scholarly usage and ranging from ‘liberated’ usage, a blend of tension and relaxation which tends to characterize the new petite bourgeoisie, to the hypercorrection of an over-refined speech, immediately devalued by an all-too-visible ambition, which is the mark of the upwardly mobile petite bourgeoisie.****

I mean, I’m not really sure how much of this I believe, but it’s nice to know I’m not the only person who’s picked up on it. On the other hand, that quotation is from a book which was published in 1991, which means the phenomenon has managed to stick around for more than twenty years. We can do better than that, right.

*This is a purely made-up statement. I don’t think it’s necessarily true, but it’s certainly a thing you could say about nationalism and have other people agree with
**I’m not immune to it myself, so make of that what you will
***Only an idiot would be wrong, and only a dick would refuse to acknowledge that he might be – the insertion of “right” purports to allow the speaker to cover both possibilities
****This shows up on page 63 of Bourdieu’s 
Language and Symbolic Power because, yes, I am in classes that read that sort of thing.