Alexandra D’Arcy is a sociolinguist by training and specializes in the study of language variation and change. She is an Assistant Professor in Linguistics and the Director of the newly formed Sociolinguistics Lab at the University of Victoria. This is the third installation in her new monthly column so be sure to check back next month.
Like. Who likes it? When I ask this of my students a few bashful hands do get raised, but largely the question is met with scorn, derision, and unabashed judgment. And my students aren’t alone in these sentiments. Popular media is replete with complaints concerning this latest scourge on the English language. Newspapers, magazines, television news, talk shows, blogs and comics regularly decry its ‘weed-style’ growth and its ability to ‘drive out […] vocabulary as candy expels vegetables’ (Christopher Hitchens, Vanity Fair, January 2010). Like, however, is misunderstood.
We have very strong beliefs about why we don’t like like: it makes us seem vacuous and inarticulate. We also know who the primary offenders are: young people, and adolescent girls in particular. And we know who to blame: not just Californians but Americans. We are convinced that like is new, meaningless, and ultimately, a blight on the English language.
There are, however, a number of reasons to actually like like, or, at the very least, to respect it (or simply to hate it a little less than we currently do). I know the urge to scoff is strong, but I ask you to bear with me and suspend judgement for a moment… or at least until you follow my next blogs. You never know, you just may come to appreciate that perhaps like has a place in the language after all.
Consider, for example, that like isn’t new. ‘Ungrammatical’ uses have been a part of English for at least 200 years. In 1840 De Quincey railed against the vulgarity of like, stating that utterances such as ‘Why like, it’s gaily nigh like to four mile like’ were typical of uneducated speech. Sound familiar? More recently, like was a staple of the beat and the jazz counterculture movements of the 1950s and 60s.
Nor is like uniquely American. Today, octa- and nonagenarians in UK villages use it regularly, saying such things as ‘It was only like a step up to this wee loft’ and ‘We were like walking along that road’. We also have recordings of first generation New Zealanders saying things such as ‘Like until his death, he used to write to me frequently’ and ‘Like you’d need to see the road to believe it.’ Are these speakers emulating the Valley Girls and Surfers of California?
Lastly, teenagers aren’t the only users of like. Adolescents and early twenty-somethings do use it more than say, 40-year-olds, but the use of like crosses all age barriers. Of course, there’s nothing noteworthy about that at all. In any language change adolescents are at the forefront, and like has been developing new meanings and uses in English since at least the 1800s. The truth is that we were all adolescents at some point. So if we’re going to point our fingers at today’s teenagers, we should think about what we were saying when we were their age.
Coming next: like and its place in English grammar.