December 28, 2006

Like, a Christmas gift card

The Zits strip for Christmas Eve offered five gift cards a teenage boy can give his parents.  All five are gifts of "communication", in a broad sense, and four of the five are specifically about language:

My favorite, of course, is the one that gets central billing in the cartoon, about the word like.  I like that one [yes, that was intentional] because I'm part of the Stanford ALL Project -- initiated by John Rickford and also involving Isa Buchstaller, Elizabeth Traugott, Tom Wasow, and me, plus a supporting cast of students, both undergraduate and graduate -- which looks at innovative uses of all (in particular, intensifier all and quotative all) and ends up looking at quotative like as well:

I'm like "Yeah," and she's all "no" [From the song of the same name by the Mr. T Experience]

(Look for Rickford, Buchstaller, Wasow, and Zwicky on all, to appear soon in American Speech.  Manuscript available here.)

Now, the thing about like is that, even if you exclude the verb like, it has so very many uses -- at least: as a preposition, a subordinator, a discourse particle, a quotative, and a sentence-introducing element, in an ironic assertional use:

Like I care about what you think.  'I don't care what you think'

And there are subtypes of the prepositional, subordinator, and discourse particle uses.  We've looked at a number of these, in an unsystematic way, here on Language Log.  Back in May 2005, Mark Liberman assembled a list of postings up to that point, with pointers to another blog and to Muffy Siegel's 2002 paper on like as a discourse particle (which includes references to the earlier literature on the subject).

In any case, teenagers have been fond of discourse-particle uses of like for quite some time, at least 50 years; some people now in their 50s and 60s still use like this way.  Meanwhile, quotative like has risen in 25 or 30 years to become the dominant quotative in the speech of young people (and some older speakers use it too).  The result is that some young people are indeed heavy users of like in functions that some of their elders do not use it in.  And many of these older speakers are annoyed as hell about that.

This strongly negative response deserves some attention and analysis.  Here I'm just going to open up the issues a bit.

When people complain to me about discourse-particle and quotative like, I ask them why they dislike it so, and they usually say that kids are just sprinkling a meaningless word (discourse-particle like) all over their sentences and are inexplicably choosing to use a preposition (quotative (be) like) instead of the perfectly good verb say.  They characterize these uses as "bad habits"; they are very resistant to the idea that people who use like as a discourse particle or quotative are actually DOING THINGS by their linguistic choices (though the functions of these choices are what linguists have mostly been interested in); and they are offended by teenagers' rejection of older standard usages in favor of innovations.  That is, they make no attempt to figure out what people who use a somewhat different variety from their own are conveying (they are uncooperative in their interpretation of other people's speech), and they refuse permission to other people to have varieties of their own (they demand conformity).

Uncooperativeness and demands for conformity attend responses to other inter-group linguistic differences, of course, especially when the groups differ socially, in power or prestige.  I have met people who simply REFUSE to understand "double negation" (I didn't see no dogs 'I didn't see any dogs') in non-standard varieties, for example.  But young people seem to suffer especially from these responses.  No doubt that's because they are, after all, OUR children (for some sense of our) and we are distressed that they refuse to be just like us.

Note that discourse-particle and quotative like have both linguistic value (they can be used to convey nuances of meaning) and social value (they're part of the way personas and social-group memberships are projected).  I'm not denying that there are fashions in these things; a major part of the Stanford ALL Project's recent work, in fact, has treated changes over time (some of them huge) in the details of the way people use all and its competitors.  When I talk to those who object so strongly to "innovative" uses of like, I try to hit both the linguistic and the social points: the kids are doing things with these usages, and they're also following fashion (and there's nothing intrinsically wrong with that, especially if you're 15).  And: nobody is saying that YOU should be talking that way.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at December 28, 2006 01:32 PM