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Ear to the Ground

Like, Get Over It

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Posted on Jan 9, 2012
Schröder+Schömbs (CC-BY-ND)

Teenagers are scary and they sound weird.

According to journalism prof Ted Gup, the prevalence of the word “like” in youth-speak is evidence that teachers have “condemned children to a common cluster of mediocrity.” But as linguist Geoffrey Nunberg pointed out a decade ago, “like” isn’t a tic or filler, it’s “a word with a point of view.”

Gup isn’t alone in his “contempt” of the word as it is used by teenagers who are well into their 40s. Surely there are plenty of people reading this who agree with the good professor that, “It is the byproduct of a culture that is loath to set standards, pathologically averse to confrontation, and prostrate in the face of precipitously declining verbal and writing skills.”

But maybe there’s a reason people continue to pepper their clauses with “like,” just as those preteens now learning the language eagerly adopt it. Maybe, if we can set aside our in my day prejudices long enough, we might recognize a useful and versatile expression.

As Nunberg, the linguist and “Fresh Air” contributor, explained in a 2001 commentary, “whatever critics and teachers may think, it’s more than just an unconscious tic, or a filler that people stick in while they’re vamping for time. It’s a word with a point of view, and speakers can shut it down when that isn’t what they want to convey.”

Like, says Nunberg, originated with the hipsters of the 1950s, and was spread through popular media to the broader culture. While it may sound mindless, the word conveys numerous meanings depending on the sentence:

To a lot of adults, that was pretty much the way all teenagers were starting to sound. In short measure, critics were making like the symptom of an alarming decline in communication skills among the nation’s young people. That single word seemed to embody all the pernicious influences at work in the culture—lax standards, television, poor manners, and a spreading mindlessness. And it’s true that the teenagers who picked up on like seemed to use it indiscriminately. But there was method in it—one way or another, like lays a certain distance between speakers and their words. Sometimes it can soften a request, as in “Could I, like, borrow your sweater?” Sometimes it communicates disaffection: “Whaddawe suppose to, like, read this?” Or you can use it to nod ironically at the banality of your words, as in, “Do you suppose we could, like, talk about it?” That’s one use of the word that just about everybody has picked up on; I even use it in email.

Like is also used as a quotative marker, as in “I was like, ‘That is so uncool.’ ” That’s something critics hate for lack of understanding, explains Nunberg:

Not surprisingly, this set in motion another wave of denunciations from critics who wondered why teenagers couldn’t say “I said” instead of “I was like.” But those aren’t the same. What follows I said is a report of people’s words; what follows I was like is a performance of their actions. That’s why I was like is as apt to be followed by a noise or gesture as by a sentence. Say is for telling, like is for showing.

Professor Gup doesn’t agree: “ ‘Like’ is merely an adhesive that, ironically, holds together unlike elements. It represents the antithesis of forethought, is inimical to critical thinking, a counterfeit expression, a poseur emboldened by years of self-indulgence and pedagogical neglect.”

It is not pedagogical neglect, but failure to overcome a force that is too functional to be extinguished. It is, dare I say, arrogant for an educator to insist that only he can teach, that the young are incapable of innovation he may not understand. We may not all adore “like,” but maybe if we open our ears a little wider we’ll hear less to hate. 

—Peter Z. Scheer

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Anarcissie's avatar

By Anarcissie, January 11, 2012 at 8:35 am Link to this comment

Obviously the world is going to develop a lingua franca.  And English seems like as good a candidate as any.  It is true that it is difficult to speak (and write!) English in a completely idiomatic manner, because of its numerous exceptions, but on the other hand, because the language is so widely dispersed already, and assumes so many different styles, those who speak it are used to, like, wide variations in grammar and vocabulary.

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By expat in germany, January 11, 2012 at 2:27 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I’m 55, but I recall my father saying to me when I was around 16, “You use the expression “you know” a lot when you talk.” Just having it pointed out made me pay more attention to my speech and the words I chose.

I disagree that using “like” is the result of poor teaching or lowered standards. I think it is directly related to how little teenagers read. When you don’t read, you don’t have a rich pool of words from which to choose. Nuance is lost and everyone sounds the same.

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By gerard, January 10, 2012 at 3:11 pm Link to this comment

guacamaya:  Yes, more like “American”—you are right. I’d like to add, just to be clear, that I’m not entirely glad about American English or English or American enjoying this popularity—because both languages bear the stink of imperialism!  And any one language limits some things being said which can be better said in other languages.
  But still it seems that what is actually happening is too far along to reverse.  It seems inevitable at this point. Still, people ought remember that
every language is limited by those who speak it because it carries their attitudes and thought patterns in its very essence. Every time we lose a language we lose a vast amount of valuable fact and feeling. That’s one reason why learning and preserving other languages is vitally important to remaining more fully human.

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By LEN, January 10, 2012 at 2:28 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

The words that annoy me are

EXCELLENT! & AWESOME!....like is OK

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By guacamaya, January 10, 2012 at 12:41 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Gerard “it is becoming for many millions of people a case of: “I speak English, therefore I am.” And English is doing its best to comply with the need!”

No not English ... American!

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By rumblingspire, January 9, 2012 at 11:13 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Like wow man!
He’s like, out there!

The Rolling Stones - 2000 Light Years from Home
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U6o2ZpHZWos

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By gerard, January 9, 2012 at 11:10 pm Link to this comment

O.S.  Regarding “precipitously declining verbal and writing skills.”  Yes, in many troubled, underfinanced and harried inner city and provincial community schools, verbal and writing skills are quite probably declining.  That is, if you look at the picture from the standpoint of old testing methods and judge from traditional literary points of view.  But everything is shifting very rapidly to a different level which is admittedly hard to tolerate, especially for older people.
  On the other hand, Occupiers (for instance) seem to have little difficulty in what they want to say and how to say it.  Rappers are wonderfully prolific, agile of speech and use language very creatively.  The many people who are making videos seem quite able to describe what they are viewing and recording clearly and on the spur of the moment. Vocabulary is changing and internationalizing too rapidly to follow or record. It is truly wonderful and fortunate how elastic language can be. In many cases (which we do not truly honor or appreciate) it is becoming for many millions of people a case of: “I speak English, therefore I am.” And English is doing its best to comply with the need!

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By gerard, January 9, 2012 at 10:14 pm Link to this comment

The internet speeds up cultural and linguistic change to the point where, if you don’t pay attention, in five years you won’t be able to truly understand anyone ten years younger than you.  That may be an exaggeration (who knows?) but fundamentally it’s more true than not.

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Anarcissie's avatar

By Anarcissie, January 9, 2012 at 7:57 pm Link to this comment

‘Kids today!’

But did Truthdig really have to report on the latest outbreak?

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By John G, January 9, 2012 at 7:17 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

It doesn’t bother me when people use the term now and then, but when it is used multiple times in every sentence it becomes extremely annoying, meaningless and stupid. I have heard many young people using the term in this way, so I think the critics are right.

Another term that I hear young people abuse is “fuckin’”—although it conveys dissatisfaction, it’s lazy not to think of other words that are more specific to what they’re trying to express. It has weakened the effect of what used to be a swear word reserved for showing disgruntlement or anger.

I do see a dumbing-down of the language that’s reinforced through popular culture, but I also think this is more a fad than a trend. Like the 50’s Beat Generation lingo, Daddy-O, it will fade out.

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they call me the working man's avatar

By they call me the working man, January 9, 2012 at 6:58 pm Link to this comment

People who like obsess negatively over spelling and grammar need to chill out. Seriously, though…

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By gerard, January 9, 2012 at 6:16 pm Link to this comment

Among other things, perhaps, “like” is an expectation-marker similar to: ...“what next?” or “you won’t believe it, but” ...  It cues the listener into being prepared to respond, and in that sense is simillar to other cues that act to solicit attention or agreement   Examples: 
      “So-o-o-o?”
      “No-o-o-o?
“..like…” also is often used to emphasize a feeling of disagreement, doubt or criticism: “I was like ... are you crazy?”
  Another one-word cue is “..but hey! .. as in “I knew she was lying, but hey! ... who am I to spoil
her fun?”
  Such cues are usually interjections, meant to call attention by interrupting the expected continuation.
(Excuse me for the dissertation, but hey! language utterly fascinates me!)
  Such expressions should not be demeaned. They are important cues to styles of transmitting attitudinal nuances.  Similar to “Psst!” and “Gulp!” “and Aark!” and “Augh!” in comic books.

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