‘Like’. A ubiquitous word in 2016, thanks to Facebook’s eagerness to get us to share our enthusiasm for any given picture, statement, video, song or sentiment that may pop into our feed; a behaviour that’s been appropriated by Twitter and myriad other platforms. Who’d have thought that the greatest and most marketable skill of the modern world would be the ability to make people click on things?
…but before ‘like’ became an everyday commodity in the social sphere, it was a word widely derided by snobbish old folks as the slack-jawed stutter of the thicko. Oh, kids today, they say ‘like’ all the time, they use it as a form of punctuation. It’s, like, totally amazing and, like, y’know, whatever. They misappropriate the word, using it as a quotative. And I was like ‘[…]’, and he was like ‘[…]’, and…
This, as the type of friendly and accommodating person that you surely are will know without a doubt, isn’t something to be derided at all. It is a form of verbal punctuation. It’s just how people talk, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Adding these little quasi-conscious noises into the flow of our speech is a valuable device that allows us to buy time, to shuffle the coming thoughts and words into order. And we all do it. The fact that a lot of people liberally sprinkle the word ‘like’ throughout their speech is notable only for the fact that ‘like’ is the chosen sound and stuck-up people keep banging on about it; it’s detached from meaning, it could be any sound, it works exactly the same as ‘um’ or ‘er’. This is called speech disfluency, and everybody in the world does it.
For clarity, there are numerous types of disfluency – involuntary stutters, revisions (that is, going back and repeating or rewording something you’ve already said), and of course physical movements – in particular hand gestures. The most common form of speech disfluency is what’s known as the ‘filler’ – a sound or word thrown into speech for the aforementioned purpose of buying time. In English we say ‘uh’, ‘er’ and ‘um’, and there’s plenty of ‘like’, ‘y’know’, ‘so’, ‘basically’, ‘actually’, and ‘I mean’ thrown into the mix as well. Every language has its own versions: in Japan, they say ‘e-eto’, ‘sono’, and ‘ano’; in France, it’s ‘euh’, ‘quoi’, ‘ben’, ‘tu sais’, or ‘eh bien’. The Finnish filler ‘niinku’ means ‘like’, interestingly, as does the Czech ‘jako’, the Italian ‘tipo’, and the Hebrew ‘ke’ilu’. So if that crotchety old git in the tweed jacket starts spouting off again about how English kids say ‘like’ because they watch too much American TV, you can suggest to him that perhaps they have Finnish roots or an interest in Gallic linguistics.
Now, this all gets a bit complex when you start to move beyond fillers, or indeed analyse the nature of fillers and broader speech disfluencies. It’s a commonly cited behaviour, for example, that Barack Obama generally tends to answer any question posed to him with “Look…”, whereas Ronald Reagan would always begin with “Well…” – what this tells you about their respective surety or forthrightness is entirely your own interpretation; these disfluencies may be deliberate, a sort of vocal trademark. See also the way the President in 24 would always say “Make no mistake…”
And it’s also worth noting that ‘um’, ‘er’ and so on may not always simply be noises used to buy time while the brain sorts out its forward path; the speaker may wish to add a pause into a statement that’s sufficiently long to allow the message to sink in, without yielding control of the dialogue – i.e. if you just stop talking for a moment, someone may interject, but if you throw in a lengthy ‘errrrrrrrm’ then it’s obvious that you’re not done talking, that there’s further wisdom to come. Or perhaps ‘er’ and ‘uh’ are being employed as function words in their own right – they may be devoid of specific meaning, but they act to express grammatical relationships between other words in the sentence, or to express the speaker’s mood or attitude. It can be a marker of behavioural intent - look at the way Dara O’Briain tends to finish a ribald observation with a lengthy ‘Ahhhhh’, it’s his ‘I observed a funny situation, now you may laugh, but there’s more coming’ noise. Function words – ‘a’, ‘the’, ‘but’, ‘can’, and so on – are the glue that holds sentences together, and ‘um’ or ‘er’ can happily slide into that list. As can ‘like’.
The common criticism of relentless ‘like’-ing is that it’s sloppy, a lazy way of talking. But that’s nonsense. The human brain works faster than the human mouth, that’s just a fact, and trying to keep them in sync in the fast-paced thrust and parry of highly-monitored, highly-grammatical discourse necessitates the odd filler. Disfluency isn’t a badge of dishonour, it’s just a mark of being human. And, y’know, that’s just, like, fine.