Just sayin'

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The third verse of Ben Sidran's song Can We Talk (track 5 on the 2013 album Don't Cry For No Hipster) repeats the couplet "I'm not sayin'; I'm just sayin'":

This reminded me of a LLOG Post of Yore: "Just sayin'", 1/11/2012, which tried to answer a question about the meaning and origins of that phrase.

A quick web search this morning turns up a Psych Central page ("Last medically reviewed on April 17, 2023"), "What It Means When Someone Says "I'm Just Sayin", Psych Central , which offers as references my 2012 blog post, a Cambridge dictionary entry, and a 2015 SPLC page "Speak up: Responding to Everyday Bigotry".

Interpersonal psychology aside, this all makes me wonder about a (ubiquitous) question for our field(s).

Google Translate renders "I'm just saying" in French as "je dis ça comme ça", which seems correct, though the word-for-word English copy "I say that like that" is borderline incoherent. German gets "Ich sag ja nur", which again seems correct, though again a literal back-translation "I say yes only" doesn't fit. And in neither case is the effect of the English present participle copied, though it's an essential part of the idiom in English — "I just say" is not something a native speaker of English would use.

The situation is similar for all the other languages that I've looked at. In every case, there's a way of saying "just sayin'" (though I expect that some commenters will find languages where this function can't be expressed…). And in every case, the idiom's text is rationally connected to its rhetorical function — the French version isn't something like "sur le toit" or "à la canadienne" or whatever. (Though again, maybe there are languages where the "just sayin'" equivalent is totally rather than partially non-compositional…)

Anyhow, this problem is a ubiquitous one for theories of natural language meaning. Are phrases like "just sayin'"/"je dis ça comme ça"/"sag ja nur" actually compositional, with the meaning of the whole being a well-defined function of the meanings (and combinatorial affordances) of the parts, if we only understood them correctly? Or have they picked up a cultural overlay through which their compositional meaning dimly gleams?

Of course versions of this problem arise everywhere in every language. For a more purely semantic version, see the section "2.2 Semantic Relations in N° Compound Nouns" on pp. 136-143 of this paper.

I think that we're looking at the place where the formal particles of recursive compositionality reveal their alternative life as the associative waves of cultural experience.


  1. German person said,

    August 4, 2023 @ 9:23 am

    FWIW, to me (native speaker, born in the 1980s) "ich sag ja nur" seems unnatural, lacking an object (even a dummy one). The (by my subjective standards) normal expressions is "ich sag's ja nur" (lit. "I say it only"). Pronounced either [… zaːks …] or [… zaxs …].

    I'm surprised by the translation data, but well, there it is, so maybe my idiolect is just off.


    Cf. "wollt's ja nur gesagt haben".

  2. Mark Liberman said,

    August 4, 2023 @ 10:13 am

    @German person:

    Your version (and you're a better source than Google Translate) makes the same point, in that "I say it yes only" doesn't work any better in English.

    A question: Can you use "(ich) sag's ja nur" by itself, to soften a previous maybe-impolite or harsh statement, as we can use "just sayin'" in English?

  3. Cervantes said,

    August 4, 2023 @ 10:54 am

    I think there's another use of "Just sayin'," which to me seems more common. It means "I'm not placing any particular interpretation on this, just stating a fact." That might apply in a situation in which there may be a benign interpretation, e.g. I'm not blaming you but the hearer might take it that I am; or simply multiple possible implications. I think the linked reference leans too much toward the idea that the utterance it qualifies is necessarily offensive or malicious.

  4. John Swindle said,

    August 4, 2023 @ 11:05 am

    My German's not so good, but I notice that German Person omitted "ja" in providing a literal translation of "ich sag's ja nur." Each of the phrases in question is more than the sum of its parts, but "ja" here may not literally mean "yes." It feels more like a modal particle.

  5. German person said,

    August 4, 2023 @ 11:41 am

    >A question: Can you use "ich sag's ja nur" by itself, to soften a previous maybe-impolite or harsh statement, as we can use "just sayin'" in English?

    Yes, I think so. The above-mentioned "wollt's ja nur gesagt haben" could work, too.

    Please don't rely too much on a single native speaker (who is non-native in English), of course.

  6. German person said,

    August 4, 2023 @ 11:42 am

    @John Swindle

    Yep, "ja" is just a filler word.

  7. Christian Weisgerber said,

    August 4, 2023 @ 3:10 pm

    @German person

    Oh no, ja is not just a filler. It's a modal particle.

  8. German person said,

    August 4, 2023 @ 3:49 pm

    @Christian Weisgerber: Indeed. I couldn't recall the term. Thank you :)

    Tja, ab und an ist das ja eben so, dass einem das richtige Wort, an das man sich wohl doch schon irgendwie erinnern müsste, nun mal partout nicht in den Sinn kommt.

  9. Viseguy said,

    August 4, 2023 @ 5:08 pm

    Just sayin' was not on my (b. Brooklyn 1950) radar until well into the internet era. I've mostly encountered it in text environments (mailing lists, online forums, etc.) and rarely if at all in face-to-face conversation. I've always taken it to mean something along the lines of "something to consider, it may or may not be true", the purpose being either to avoid giving offense or to indicate that the speaker is noncommittal about they just said.

    A couple of other data points:
    Italian: solo per dire (Yandex), tanto per dire (DeepL).
    Russian: просто говорю (Yandex). DeepL gives просто скажу and просто так as alternatives.

  10. david said,

    August 4, 2023 @ 6:18 pm

    For me, the meaning of “just saying” revolves around “just” which, to me, is short for “justification”. If I’m feeling cynical I might replace the second ‘i’ with a ‘u’ .

  11. AntC said,

    August 4, 2023 @ 8:54 pm

    @david the meaning of “just saying” revolves around “just”

    So far I agree.

    which, to me, is short for “justification”.

    No: equivalent to 'merely' Adverb sense 1 at wiktionary. And clipping to "sayin'" reinforces that playing-down.

    Except it's passive-aggressive: I know what I'm sayin' you'll take as "maybe-impolite or harsh" as myl puts it. So I'm not sayin' it aggressively — except that I know perfectly well I am.

    For a "justification" sense, you'd say 'I'm justly saying'. And then you're being a total p-in-the-a.

    (If you want a grammatical argument: "justification saying" isn't English, to my ear; "just" in the sense you claim is an adjective; " saying" isn't English either.)

  12. Taylor, Philip said,

    August 5, 2023 @ 5:27 am

    I did not think that I was going to have anything to say on this topic, "not saying" not being in my idiolect, but a situation arose a few minutes ago in which I think that I could quite legitimately have used "just saying" — I had been informed by my club president that we had fielded an illegal team the previous evening, one player not being a club member (he was asked to stand in at the last minute, when the scheduled player failed to turn up). I then realised that the score card bore not the name of the illegal player but of the legal player who had failed to turn up. If I understand the meaning correctly, I could have said to the president "Before reporting our transgression, you might want to know that X's name does not appear on the score card — just saying …", where the "just saying" implies (to my mind) "I realise that it would be highly unethical to take advantage of this oversight, but I thought that I should nonetheless mention it …".

  13. Kris said,

    August 7, 2023 @ 5:07 pm

    Philip Taylor's example is a good summary of what "just saying" tends to mean. It can be used in the "just throwing a fact out there (ostensibly) without judgment" sense, but I think the most common usage is the one we can make more explicit by expanding to something like "I'm not saying [we should], I'm just saying [we could]." Depending on context, tone, and speaker's predispositions, it sometimes is more like "I'm not saying [we should], I'm just saying [I would, unless you'd be outraged]," roughly.

  14. Pamela said,

    August 9, 2023 @ 9:42 am

    I've always associated this phrase with the old fashioned English way of saying "I merely ask," meaning in each case "what I'm saying is desultory, meaningless, inoffensive" when in fact it's the opposite. German phrases like "sag da[s] nurso" seems the opposite to me–"I'm saying it without meaning it." as contrasted to "I'm appearing to say it without meaning it but I actually mean it."

  15. KevinM said,

    August 9, 2023 @ 12:04 pm

    To me (US, NYC area), it suggests "Candor requires that I make this observation. Take it or leave it, I'm not going to fight about it."

    I loved the shades of meaning in "not saying, just saying." It reminded me of this wary exchange from Glengarry Glen Ross:
    AARONOW: Yes. I mean are you actually talking about this¸ or are we just…
    MOSS: No, we're just…
    AARONOW: We're just "talking" about it.
    MOSS: We're just speaking about it.

  16. Pamela said,

    August 9, 2023 @ 10:17 pm

    Kevin, interesting there are speech acts but no talk acts (that I've heard of).

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