This is, like, quite interesting, you know?

What Happens in Vagueness Stays in Vagueness: The decline and fall of American English, and stuff

I recently watched a television program in which a woman described a baby squirrel that she had found in her yard. “And he was like, you know, ‘Helloooo, what are you looking at?’ and stuff, and I’m like, you know, ‘Can I, like, pick you up?,’ and he goes, like, ‘Brrrp brrrp brrrp,’ and I’m like, you know, ‘Whoa, that is so wow!’ ” She rambled on, speaking in self-quotations, sound effects, and other vocabulary substitutes, punctuating her sentences with facial tics and lateral eye shifts. All the while, however, she never said anything specific about her encounter with the squirrel.

11 thoughts on “This is, like, quite interesting, you know?

  1. Armin says:

    That link is, like, you know, like, I was clicking on it, like, and it wasn’t like, working, like, so I was just saying, duh, 404, like?

  2. Heather Burns says:

    That’s not so much a quirk of American English as it is the universal tendency of women to self-deprecate themselves with their speech patterns. It’s a behavior learned from childhood in families where the girls are not just not expected, but barred from being too intelligent or ambitious. That woman does not want to be seen as too confident or direct – clearly she has raised by her family and by society to view these qualities as bad things. One of my best friends, who struggles with it every day, calls it “please the teacher syndrome” and that woman demonstrated it spot-on: she speaks like she is a little girl trying to win a teacher’s affections.

    I’d be happy to refer some books on the subject to anyone who might be interested.

    Ultimately it’s sad that someone’s self-confidence is so low that they have to resort to sound effects as a cover. That has nothing to do with the nationality of the speech.

  3. Squander Two says:

    He’s got a point about the ineloquence — describing events using sound effects, for instance, and a total lack of concision — but complaining about overuse of the word “like” is a red herring. Haven’t got time to go searching for the relevant links on Language Log just now, but the gist of it is that linguists who record people’s speech and analyse and study it say that everyone uses words which are just there to fill gaps in sentences while they think (I forget the technical term — words like “well” and “you know” and “basically” and “right” and so on) at pretty much the same rate across the population and generations, but the words change. People who complain that the prevalence of the word “like” indicates something about the speaker’s intelligence or eloquence use such words and phrases at exactly the same rate; they just don’t use “like”. It’s mere prejudice.

  4. gary says:

    I don’t think it’s prejudice; i think the repeated references to writing samples are key here. It’s not just that applicants are ineloquent verbally; they aren’t as eloquent in writing either.

    I think one of the commenters put it well: “We all speak on different levels, informal, slang, formal, semi-formal. It’s natural to speak to your peers in a coded, insider language. But I have noticed that many young people seem unable to communicate in any way other than how they talk to each other”.

    I do think there has been a shift in how we speak and write. I do it to: my writing is liberally sprinkled with words such as pretty, sure and so on – slang in what previously would have required a much more formal kind of language.

  5. gary says:

    That’s really interesting and you may well be right about the woman he starts the piece with, but I think there is something else going on too. It’s definitely something that appears in both genders.

  6. Squander Two says:

    Like I said, he’s got some points — and I absolutely agree about the new generations total inability to tell the difference between formal and informal writing — but no, he specifically and repeatedly refers to “like” as being a terrible problem with spoken English. He’s clearly under the impression that, when he speaks, he doesn’t use such gap-filling meaningless words, and, unless he’s rather unusual, repeated research has shown that he’s wrong about that.

    And he complains about upspeak too. “Oh no! People’s speech inflections are changing!” Yeah, and? I think this complaint comes from TV and cinema. When speech inflections changed in, say, 1700, no-one was spending time watching recordings of people speaking in 1650.

  7. mupwangle says:

    My granny always spoke with the “I said”, “he said” thing and it used to bug me. Gary says “Do you know what I mean” too much and I say “Apparently” and “basically” all the time and it annoys me. People have speech tics. It’s not disimilar to people (such as myself) scratching when nervous. (which can also be construed as a sign of lying – which is unfair). However there really does seem to be an increasing tendency for people to write as they speak, which is fecking difficult to read sometimes.

  8. Squander Two says:

    I know what you mean, David, but that’s not the problem. I always write how I speak. It’s not writing how you speak that’s difficult to read; it’s writing with no punctuation or capitalisation and crappy spelling. People who do this like to think they’re writing chattily and informally, but really they’re just writing badly and incomprehensibly.

    I try to drum this into my staff, with limited success.

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