What do you like?

The older I get, the more intrigued I am at how languages evolve. It would be easy to get swept up in the changes that arise as the primitive pidgins -communication attempts when there is no common language- develop into more sophisticated creoles with their more fully developed grammar and vocabulary, but except in the lineup at the food court in our downtown mall, I am rarely exposed to anything other than the ubiquity of impatient quadruploid letter combos -not loud, but deep- which my poor heart would fain deny, yet dare not. And anyway, I’m not impressed with the syntax.

Of course I’m always delighted with our Canadian Franglais shortcuts like the French saying ‘footing’ for running, or ‘le pressing’ for dry-cleaning -or vice versa: we Anglos using French expressions like bête noir and ‘femme fatale’ as if we owned them. But as English increasingly emerges as the lingua franca (sorry), the miscegenation of expressions is slowly disappearing. I can’t remember the last time I heard anybody asking for an Oeuf McMuffin.

No. What really strikes me nowadays, are the youthful additions to the language which seemed to have appeared out of nowhere. Take the word ‘like’ for example. It is now such a universal stuffing in any under-thirty mouth as to be virtually inaudible. And yet on an older tongue, it seems strange and contrived -a scrap stolen at random from an alms-basket of words. And, indeed, its position in a sentence sounds arbitrary: chosen on a whim, and like salt, sprinkled ad libitum over whatever is on offer.

So, who would have thought we might be on the threshold of a new species of creole? Who would have guessed there was actually syntax involved: rules, albethey unwritten? I suppose I should have suspected as much -I can never interpose a ‘like’ in a sentence without feeling embarrassed at how awkwardly I’ve positioned it. Except in similes, ‘like’ does not trip pleasingly off my tongue. It stumbles unsteadily over my teeth and knocks into any words that get in its way. It is never a pleasant trip.

So how could youth pull it off? How could they possibly use the word as naturally as designer jeans?

I have to say, I would never have thought there was method to the madness. Let’s face it, when a word becomes omnipresent it effectively disappears. How often, unless we specifically concentrate on hearing it, do we notice linguistic fillers like ‘ah’ when we hear someone answering a question in an interview, say? I still hear, the ‘ehs’ because they seem require an vocal upturn as if a question had inadvertently been asked, so I suppose they stand out. And I notice the more recent conversion of the introductory ‘well’ in answering a question, to ‘so’ as the equivalent vocal filler because I grew up with the former and the newer variation seems, I don’t know, unnatural. Forced.

But ‘like’? I only really notice it when those of us with grizzled hair and wrinkles try it out. We cannot hide it in a sentence except in jest; we would certainly not be taken seriously by our peers. I began to wonder if the antipathy engendered was protective: an English equivalent to L’Académie française charged with guarding the hallowed language from blemishes. Defilement.

I stand corrected, however. I came across a provocatively delightful article in the Conversation: https://theconversation.com/like-isnt-a-lazy-linguistic-filler-the-english-language-snobs-need-to-like-pipe-down-122056 It was written by Rebecca Woods, a senior lecturer in Language Acquisition at the University of Huddersfield in England (I had to Google Huddersfield, I blush to admit -it’s in West Yorkshire). ‘… few linguistic habits cause as much ranting from those seeking to protect the fair English tongue as use of the word like… But seeking to protect English grammar from like is misguided for one crucial reason: like has a grammar, too.’

To understand this grammar, Woods created a corpus -a representative sample of language use so it could be examined objectively. To do this, she transcribed the dialect in a (British) show involving young participants, removed all the ‘kinds of like that are broadly “accepted” – that is the verbs, nouns, quotatives and those used for comparisons’ and then counted and analysed all the other ‘likes’.

Then I began to see where I had gone wrong in my own usage of the word. ‘First, it was notable that like was rarely either preceded or followed by a pause. So even though this use of like is regularly dismissed as a meaningless, lazy filler, it doesn’t, in fact, behave like um or er… the participants knew what they wanted to say, and using like was part of that.’

Woods then goes on to list examples of where ‘like’ in a sentence seems to fit, and contrasts it with areas in the same sentence where it is almost never used.

So, ‘The corpus shows us that an utterance that starts with like always follows on from another utterance.’ This adds support to something someone has just said, or to emphasize their own belief. And, ‘Like in the middle of an utterance is similar, but subtly different. It may be used to highlight the part of the utterance that’s telling us something new and relevant, or that the speaker thinks is most interesting or important.’

When thought of this way, I believe one can begin to see the developing syntax -the beginnings of a grammar that rules it. There is ‘an analogy between like and how intonation is used in English. We could remove it from an utterance and that utterance would still be grammatical, but it wouldn’t convey its message in the same way. It could also sound really odd in the context of a conversation. English speakers use and interpret both like and intonation without thinking about it consciously.’

True, we’re at an early stage in the syntactic development of ‘like’, and in the end, it may ultimately disappear. In fact, ‘Alexandra D’Arcy at the University of Victoria in Canada argues that the multi-purpose nature of like might be part of its downfall. Because all of the uses of like are pronounced in the same way, its apparent repetition makes it stand out.

But you know, after reading the article, I think I’m, like, beginning to appreciate its use… Or did I get it wrong again?



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