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A close up photo of a gardener holding a handful of weeds to illustrate the blog post "Language history and we: the case of 'like'" by the Oxford Etymologist on the OUP blog

Language history and we: the case of “like”

In 1894, the Danish linguist Otto Jespersen brought out a book titled Progress in Language. Whether anything in language can legitimately be labeled as progress is a moot point, but no one doubts that language indeed has history. The larger the speaking community and the more mobile the population, the faster the change. Problems arise when we go beyond such trivialities. Language does not remain stable even in our lifetime, and different people react differently to this phenomenon. Assuming that we notice the changes, do we accept, or do we resist them? I will skip phonetic problems, because it is the vocabulary and usage that deserve our attention here. 

This post owes its existence to Valerie Fridland’s book Like, Literally, Dude: Arguing for the Good in Bad English (Viking, 2023). The book deals with some processes in Modern (American) English, and the author is very much on the side of “progress in language.” If I am not mistaken, her main point is that as long as some widespread phenomenon can be explained, it should be accepted. This approach does not convince me. For instance, I have read numerous interviews with celebrities in sports and music, and almost every noun in them is accompanied by a single epithet, namely, f—ing. I can easily explain why people speak so: the word is nowadays on everybody’s lips from the age of three, and many Americans don’t know any other equally expressive qualifying word. This argument does not make me look “for the good in [their] bad English.” 

Some chapters in the book are less exciting than others: among them, the triumph of the word dude. Dude is a respectable relative of the aforementioned epithet: instead of using many nouns, people have limited their vocabulary to a single one: this is practical and convenient, because with overchoice comes much sorrow: the more knowledge, the more grief.  

This is what an Old English text looks like.
First page of the Peterborough Chronicle, via Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

The chapter that especially interested me deals with the use of like, as in “Like, I came yesterday and found, like, only three people in the auditorium” or: “I said ‘Like, who? I? No way’” (those are my, not the author’s examples). The use of like turned out to be an amazingly fertile subject for modern scholars. Successful academic careers have grown from it. I was once present at a conference at which the greatest world specialist in like gave a plenary talk on it. The subject is not uninteresting, but it is trivial. Like is a hesitation phenomenon (to give it status, the term discourse marker has been used about it), and the speaker, to gain time, makes pauses and fills them with like. No doubt, in oral speech, such “markers” have existed forever, but here too caution should be exercised. Fridland writes: “For instance, the Old English word þa, meaning ‘then’, served as a foregrounding discourse marker in narratives and was often associated with colloquial speech. …some Old English scholars suggest þa occurred so often in some early texts that it can’t have carried much semantic content, a complaint that echoes our modern assessment of excessive like use” (p. 102). No references are given, but I am sure that such an opinion exists. It should be taken with a huge grain of salt. A written text obeys the laws of its own, and in the Middle Ages, the training of a scribe took years. It is improbable that a qualified monk would have inserted an unpremeditated “discourse marker,” “discourse thickener, “linguistic focuser” on a piece of expensive parchment.  

The syntax of Old English, like the syntax of all the old Germanic languages, had hardly any subordinating conjunctions. The narrative went so: “… and they besieged the fortress, and they began to starve, and they attacked, and they fled, and fifty of them died” (try to disambiguate the pronouns!).  Þa was certainly a marker, though hardly a spontaneous “attention-getting device,” and comparing it with our pestiferous like is unproductive. The fact that “our” like sometimes occurred as early as at the end of the eighteenth century is beside the point. Everything has a beginning, but no one in the past said: “He, like, tried to grab my bag and I, like, screamed.” 

Ripped jeans: not in my taste.
Via Pxfuel (public domain)

Fridland asks: “Why despite the surprisingly long evolutionary history, are these speech features still perceived as an ‘emergent’ and disastrous blight on modern speech? And why is like the worst offender of them all?” (p. 105). The answer is obvious (I’ll ignore the reference to the surprisingly long evolutionary history): there is a difference between a solitary pimple (which may even be “cute”) and a skin rash. Indeed, if John says: “I exercised for, like, ten hours,” fine: let him. But quantity has become quality: like inundated our speech and stopped meaning “approximately.” Especially characteristic is the author’s following statement: “This form of nonstandard like use seems to be the one people find most difficult to digest, which is unfortunate, since it’s the most rapidly expanding one in English” (p. 114). I am not convinced. The epithet f—ing is, undoubtedly, the one most rapidly expanding in English, and the same is true of the verb f— up. So what? Should we embrace them? 

Fridland does not mention the process, known as the regeneration of linguistic phenomena. It occurs even in phonetics but more often in grammar, when “progressive” forms yield to the once discarded ones (this once happened in the history of umlaut and in the conjugation of verbs, though not in English). The longevity of like is unpredictable. Several decades ago, the main filler was you know, which Fridland mentions only in passing. I remember a speech by a doctoral candidate in which you know took up half of the time. Where is this discourse marker, plot thickener, and linguistic focuser now? Gone or almost gone! At around the same time, the epithet cool conquered the world (its defunct predecessor was groovy). It is not quite dead yet but certainly not at the forefront of the adjectival world. 

Aldous Huxley, a highbrow.
Via Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

In grammar, popular usage almost always wins. Gone is the third person singular speaketh. Four centuries ago, speaks, says, and so forth were northern vulgarisms, and Shakespeare allowed only Falstaff’s boon companions to use it. Now this is Standard English. Other grammatical forms remain unstable for quite some time. For example, American English lost the form whom rather long ago. The so-called norm tries to reinstall it, and the result is pathetic. Here are two recent examples from respectable sources: “Video showed as officers pursue the suspect whom police reported had been taken into custody within minutes” and “This is true of obstetricians whom I believe are among the most sympathetic physicians in general.” But the parasite like is not grammar. It is “usage”: it arrived, and it may or may not go away. 

I think Fridland mentions the word culture only once in the entire book, but isn’t language, in addition to being a means of communication, also an instrument of culture, and don’t most phenomena of culture have a semiotic value in our life?  Do all of us have to wear ripped jeans because such jeans “are here to stay,” like, allegedly, like (p. 100; said about like, not about jeans). Aldous Huxley once wrote an essay titled “I am a Highbrow,” in response to an essay titled “I am a Lowbrow.” I am on Huxley’s side. I am perfectly happy wearing well-made clothes and enjoy the rich vocabulary of our best writers. Far be it from me to enforce my tastes on anyone, but I hate the fillers like and you know, and though I know that the lowest forms of culture, like weeds, usually prevail, I at least don’t hasten to contribute to their triumph. 

If this subject arouses any interest, I may go on in the same vein next week.

Featured image by AC works Co., Ltd., via Pixabay (public domain)

Recent Comments

  1. John Raimo

    Dear Dr. Liberman, just a broader question of whether ‘like’ and ‘you know’ aren’t both a sort of solicitation of phatic expression (or confirmation) from a directly-addressed interlocutor. In American English, both would seem to me invitations to confirm something just said and to possibly respond in the same register of discourse. I’m not a linguist, though, so pardon the clumsy articulation of my question! Thank you in any case; the post above is fascinating and yields much food for thought.

  2. Maggie Catambay

    Oh, what an amusing article! Yes, please continue with your explorations of current English!

  3. Iain

    I very much enjoyed this piece and agree with it is well. I particularly enjoyed the Vichian invocation of ‘culture’. Please DO go on next week.

    I well remember this use of ‘like’ when I was a child in the early 1950s, and honestly, I understood it then as simply an awkward hesitation in speaking, by people who used it because they had trouble with expressing their ideas.

    With gratitude!

  4. Jim Houghton

    As an elder and writer who learned grammar from a ruler-wielding stickler in the seventh grade, I too suffer dental anguish when my children or their friends, all of whom I love and hold high hopes for, sprinkle not their paragraphs but their sentences with “like.”
    I fear I may have been too quick to interrupt them in childhood when their childish syntax needed correction; there’s something about that discourse marker (happy to have a name for it at last) bespeaks a desperation to be allowed to continue without pedantic interference. Also, it sometimes seems to be a way of saying, “I’m not wedded to what I’m saying, I don’t want to be held up by my thumbs if it isn’t totally, like, correct.”
    JMHO, as they say.
    Signing up for your blog.

  5. skp

    I’ve been looking for someone to write about these fillers. I agree with the article completely. Anything in its purest and original form is what I advocate for.

  6. Martin Smith

    This is very interesting but omits consideration of another very frequent use of ‘like’ in the pairing ‘was/were like’, where ‘like’ is not a filler but substitutes for verbs like ‘say’: he was like ‘What happened?’ (he said, ‘what happened?’). Various other verbs get the same treatment.

  7. Philip Heath

    Where does ‘[subject] was, like, … “…” ‘ in the sense of ‘said’ fit into this? Is it in origin an application of the ‘discourse marker’ in question?

  8. Sue Drott

    At last, someone who is willing to defend proper usage in grammar. It occurred to me that the misunderstanding of when to use ‘whom’ is linked to the dropping off of using commas in sentences. (See your examples.)
    The other filler is ‘right?’, which is heard at the end of many sentences these days. My inclination is to reply ‘wrong!’ whenever I hear it. Keep up the good work in defending grammatical standards!

  9. Laurent

    Well put sir! One of those rare articles where I have no noteworthy disagreement. More, please!

    I recently read a “Scientific American” article that was a transcript of a podcast exchange. One of the people in the conversation, supposedly a learned scientist, started every thought with “So…”, followed by a random confetti blizzard of “like”. The fellow could have won a dozen Nobel Prizes, but this transcript made him sound like a half-wit stoner skipping out of third period. I couldn’t finish reading.

    “Ripped jeans are here to stay”? Hilarious. I’ll file that under other memories culled from my life: “bell bottom jeans are here to stay”, and “pastel-coloured leisure suits for men are here to stay”.

  10. Ari

    I am quite content to get rid of as many “likes” and “you knows” from my speech as I can. I haven’t gotten them all, but I have eliminated most of them. There’s quite a sense of achievement in knowing that you’ve said what you meant to say without saying several other things as well.

  11. Andrea Siebert

    I appreciate your careful distinctions and sense of perspective. Yesterday I noticed racks and racks of pseudo-poor torn jeans cast aside in a second hand store. In a time when we can see all the foibles of humanity so easily it is tempting to believe there is a constant like “like.”
    Thank you for providing a more durable context.

  12. Celia Nyamweru

    In he context of current English – I find confusion on the radio between ‘to partake’ and ‘to take part’. My understanding is that one partakes OF something (ie eats it) and one takes part IN something (ie joins in / participates in some activity.) But I hear people talking about partaking IN activities. Surely not? Please discuss this!

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