January 04, 2004

Divine ambiguity

Geoff Pullum notes that Pat Robertson has attributed to the Almighty an English idiom stereotypically associated with adolescent American females, namely the hedging discourse particle like: "It's going to be, like, a blowout election in 2004".

Geoff suggests two alternative hermeneutic approaches to the sociolinguistics of this revelation: "[t]his may indicate, surprisingly, that God uses a younger-generation dialect in his communications with the older generation, or it may indicate a preference for communicating with people in their native dialect." I'd like to suggest that there is textual evidence favoring a subtly different view: a sort of linguistic transubstantiation whereby the Lord's phrasing is ambiguous between the language patterns of the the older and the younger generations, with the same meaning in both construals.

In this 1998 interview with Robert Duvall, Pat Robertson himself uses an apparently similar hedging like:

PAT: Let me ask you about this movie. It is really a powerful piece. Who did you have as a model? It's like you modeled after somebody or was it a composite?

However, this is not really the version of hedging like used by the young woman quoted in Muffy Siegel's paper "Like: The Discourse Particle and Semantics" (J. of Semantics 19(1), Feb. 2002):

"... her and her, like, five buddies did, like, paint their hair a really fake-looking, like, purple color."

The crucial difference is that the likes in Muffy's examples can be omitted without injury to the basic syntactic framework of the sentence

"... her and her five buddies did paint their hair a really fake-looking purple color."

whereas in Pat Robertson's phrase, the like serves to introduce the clause "you modeled after somebody", making it suitable for use as a complement to is. Without this like, the sentence falls apart:

"*It's you modeled after somebody ..."

Words that serve this sort of function can typically introduce either a clause or a noun phrase:

It was after I arrived.
It was after my arrival.

It was like the scales fell from my eyes.
It was like a revelation.

This pre-nominal use of like is syntactically dispensible, in the sense that if you leave it out, the sentence is still OK, although the meaning changes somewhat, in the direction of being more forceful and unqualified:

It was a revelation.

To "be X" is a much stronger statement than to "be like X". So you can always weaken a statement of the form "Y is X" (where X and Y are noun phrases) by sticking in a like in front of X. Of course, you could always weaken the statement in other ways too, by inserting any one of various words and phrases with adverbial force:

It was practically a revelation.
It was more or less a revelation.
It was, if you will, a revelation.
It was almost a revelation.
It was sort of a revelation.

Presumably this is how like was first bleached semantically into a mere hedge (in some uses), and then re-interpreted syntactically as a particle that can be inserted almost anywhere to "signal a possible slight mismatch between words and meaning". The semantic bleaching has certainly been around long enough for Pat Robertson to be familiar with it: the OED cites "1500-20 DUNBAR Poems xix. 19 Yon man is lyke out of his mynd."

On this analysis, God's phrase

"It's going to be like a blowout election in 2004."

is a prototype of syntactic change: the same word sequence can be interpreted in one way by Robertson's generation, and in a different way by the generation of his grandchildren. And yet, miraculously, both interpretations mean the same thing: the 2004 presidential election will have some but perhaps not all the characteristics of a blowout.

Posted by Mark Liberman at January 4, 2004 04:57 PM