After my last post, this one could be construed as contradictory, but that’s part of the point – which I’ll get to. But first: I like the word ‘like’ in all of its forms, whether it’s as a verb, like its first usage in this sentence; as a conjunction, as in its second usage in this sentence; or as, like, a relatively meaningless filler, as in the way I just used it.
But there are so many like-as-filler haters out there. They generally claim how dumb or uneducated it sounds without really understanding why they think that way, like in this fluff piece. (Here’s the highbrow version, equally as fluffy, just with fancier words.) And this is the very crux of what distinguishes productive linguistic inquiry from analyses that incorporate social judgments about language.
The reason people think ‘like’ (or ain’t or creek pronounced /crick/) sound dumb is because we’ve been socially conditioned to. Not necessarily in any overt or deliberate way, but because often the people who use those terms or speak a certain way occupy a lower rung on the social ladder.
There’s clear evidence of this with features that in one context – being delivered by one group of people – we find perfectly acceptable if not downright elegant, but that in another context – being delivered by a less savory group of people – we find distasteful. Consider r-less speech, that is, when English speakers don’t pronounce their r’s at the end of words for example. In Boston or New York if someone says “car” /cah/ we immediately pass judgment if only subconsciously. But in London, we Americans swoon at a similar pronunciation (and probably think the person is smart). Same goes for the word ‘reckon’. In the dirty south it sounds dirty; in England, delightfully jolly.
Judging language based on a prescribed set of grammatical rules constructed by educators and the linguistic influencers of the day is called prescriptive grammar. As the study of language has evolved, linguists have come to realize that no matter how many rules about language are imparted on young minds, no matter how many grammar books are published, no matter how many knuckles are rapped for saying “Me and my friend” instead of “My friend and I” that language changes – and at just as quickly a rate as in eras gone by.
That’s because language isn’t learned, it’s acquired. We don’t think when we speak our native tongue, we just produce it. The interesting questions are how do we acquire it, and what is the underlying structure hardwired in the human brain that allows us to do so with ease. To start this investigation, modern linguists factor out social judgement and constructs of language, and describe the state of language as it exists in its real-time, non-written form, that is, the way people actually speak it. This is called descriptive grammar. And the end goal, as noted above, is to explain how we acquire it; this is called explanatory grammar.
This is a theme that will be revisited throughout my posts, and I figured discussing my like of like was a good place to start.
So after my last post, you might be thinking, “Really?…Really? You’re a hypocrite!” I recognize the contradiction. But that’s rather my point: linguistic judgment is inherently subjective because it’s colored by myriad social factors and personal tastes. It’s not necessarily that the people I’ve heard use really-really are dumb – in fact, I’ve heard plenty of smart people use it – but personally I have an aversion to certain kinds of trendiness; and as I stated in my post, the pitchy intonation is simply grating.
Time is also a factor that weighs into linguistic judgment. ‘Like’ has become so enmeshed in our speech that it’s almost imperceptible and therefore acceptable. With enough really-really being thrown around, eventually the pitchy intonation would fall on deaf ears, and I’d cease to even notice – and more importantly, probably start using it.
The “me and my friend” backlash that has caused all of our grammar teachers to inculcate us with the “my friend and I” correction has had an unintended consequence – people have extended that construction to the object position of the sentence and think that “He invited my friend and I,” is proper when in fact it’s technically “He invited my friend and me.”* You don’t say, “He invited I,” unless you’re Bob Marley and speak a dialect of English where that’s normal. With time, the object form of pronouns (e.g., me) very well could disappear because of this, and we might all be speaking like Bob. The point is, a critical mass of usage and time affect what is deemed proper and acceptable in language. (I’ll never forget the first time I heard a newscaster say “diss” on the nightly news.)
Who really knows the origins (etymology) of ‘like’ as a filler**. At the end of the day, who really cares? The fact is we use it, the educated and uneducated masses, and it’s akin to the more accepted um’s, uh’s and ya know’s of common speech. To be sure, even descriptive linguists adhere to social norms, and would try to avoid using such semantically vacuous fillers if they were giving a speech or being interviewed on TV. But in less formal and rigid contexts, there’s nothing wrong with using like, like, to fill the gaps.
* The phenomenon of incorrectly extending a grammatical rule to another word or syntactic structure is called hypercorrection.
** I think some rhetorical or idiomatic questions like these sound and look better with a period. But the question in the sentence immediately after feels better with a question mark.