The, Like, Downfall of the English Language

The, Like, Downfall of the English Language - n a September...

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Unformatted text preview: n a September 2002 article titled "Cosmo's Crash Course in Office ' k," Cosmopolitan helpfully o 9 a a V inexperience ‘ explained Kristen M. : H , author of the book Grad n- Everything You Need to gme aw“?- ‘ a —- . a p Soc ' After College,who's quoted in of life they nized about: their speech. "If you’re like many young women,” the article confided. "you undermine your pro- fessional profile by littering your speech with words such as 'urn,’ 'like,’ and ‘you know.” The article’s author trotted out a series of career consultants to rein- force this idea. ”Not only does using such words as ‘like' and 'you know' make you seem unpolished and - piece. "but it makes people dis- regard your ideas because you sound as if you don't have confidence in what you are saying.” Slang-bashing is nothing new. Along with rap, heavy metal, televi- sion watching, gum chewing, teen sex, and other faves, juvenile speech patterns are periodically written up as a sign of the decline of Western civilization. “Like,” in particular, comes in for heavy abuse, thanks in gfishla fall 0 ll part to the expression's longevity. While slang descriptors such as “groovy,” "fresh," and "radical" were quick to fade into peculiar-sounding obsolescence, "like" has retained its currency in youth culture for over 40 years. The beatniks were the first group to ._ be tarred with the “like” brush in the popular imagination. Maynard G. Krebs, the misappropriation of beat cool featured on early~19603 TV show The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. was known to pepper his lazy lines with “like.” Also in the early 19605. Canadian television stations aired an SUMMER 2003 bitch 19 ""b\.“--.. ‘4»? "M-.. ""w. ‘u ' "'u.‘ \\ “i Along Witfi‘tag, heavy metastases;an watching, gum 3.3+ path; 5“ are periodically written up as a sigfi'hlithe gal decli /} t Western civilization. /’ //fi,~f’ \/ American Bandstand—ish show called Like Young, presumably referring to a song by that name in whic Perry “he. beatnik slang: I'm out doin' the usual places, And I'm livin' it, like young! Then I dig me this face of all faces, She's the craziest, like young! Whether beatniks actually said “like” or whether it was introduced into mainstream pop culture to exaggerate or mock the differences between beat speech and "normal" speech is unclear. Regardless, the phrase continued to be associated with youth—and, more specifically, with the fringe elements of youth culture—throughout the '60s and ’70s. The 1986 BBC documentary series The Story of English linked the origins of “like” to the surf culture that emerged on the Southern California coast in the late 19505. fie'e'afiefiifieeteeha3:5: chewing, teen "sex, and aimed-faves:i"iitIen.il.e;-;s.p,eech hypothesizes, it headed inland to suburban malls, where it eventually felili'nto the vocabulary of the Valley Girl, that brainless, shopping- obsessed bimbo archetype native to California's San Fernando Valley. The term “Valley Girl" first came into use to describe the suburban teenagers who flocked to the Sherman Oaks Galleria when the mall first opened its doors in 1980. Musician Frank Zappa and his I4- year-old daughter, Moon Unit,_ breathed life into the caricature with 1982’s “Valley Girl," wherein Moon Unit parodied her motormouthed peers from Encino in a song that introduced the rest of the world to Val slang like "gag me with a spoon” and "grody." The teensploitation classic Valley Girl, which lovingly lampooned its namesake, followed in 1983. I Clueless, with its Val-spealdngftfnihite filling?“th that? her lawyer; ad. f;f~,‘\ and snooty.- t t More than a decade later, ariothbr linguistic contrast- 0 teen movie—the Emma Lipiléte‘VS-rnithlir “ghetto authentici h. {"‘m \ 'a {3 \.. «5's. \{1\ i f , f. Hills teen socialites—presumed that the Valley dialect's cultural associa- tions had shifted from brainless con- sumerism to a classier brainless affluence. This is probably why, when I asked a 12-year-old student of mine in the South Bronx what it means to speak professionally—as opposed to, in her words, “talking ghetto"—she responded, "It means, like, you have to, like, talk like this." Was she channeling the class implications of “like,” or its race implications? It’s hard to separate the two. Perhaps she got an earful of Hilary, the spoiled older sister in the/1’" ’ African-American family on ,tli' early-r9905 sitcom The Fr“?an ‘h of Bel-Air. Hilary’s acce 5 pure VaL/ ji'tl it certainly Sig}: ed upper- /./ _/ clas lstatus. Her 3p ech patte. r f I grew up near the Valley so From there, the documentary (or at least whitewashed) Bevan), “like” has (Continued on page 87):: f? ,4?” i l V N h f " ” f" 20 I c ISSUE N0. 21 I, I, f// (f v , ,1, 3 5;; i ._.- i, ,I .4 ’ -' I1! l -‘ l.) i i on language a. (Continued from page 20) subtly different class implications for me. My prep-school friends and I might well have agreed to meet at, like, the Wet Seal in the Galleria, like, this weekend. But we ignored our own “bad” grammar when conjuring up the stupidest character we could imagine, an airhead whose rapid-fire speech was peppered with "like," "totally bitchin'," and "ohmigawd!" "She's such 3 Val" was an oft-heard insult. Put bluntly, Valspeak was white trash. We were supposed to abandon mall-crawling for more sophisticated pursuits as we got older, and we were supposed to grow out of “like,” too. Our parents looked out for our class standing. I got my first drub- bing for using the word at age 13: A friend and I were in the car, talking excitedly and with abandon, when I realized that my stepmother and father were giggling in the front seat. Eventually, my stepmother turned around to face us and said, "Forty-three." "Forty-three what?" I asked. "You’ve said ‘like' 43 times in the last five minutes." she snickered. Despite its rich history and subtle sociopolitical meanings, "like" is still just bad English to most adults, an error to be corrected. To linguists, fortunately, the phenomenon is wor- thy of more thought. In February 2002, the serendipitously named Muffy E.A. Siegel published a paper on “like” in the journal of Semantics. Linguists are generally concerned with describing how words are used rather than with chastising the user, so the article is an assessment of the rules by which the word is deployed (with comments on where "like" challenges established linguistic theories). Siegel hypothesizes that the use of “like” indicates that the speaker isn’t committing to the accuracy of what 'L-u she or he is saying. This can work in a number of ways. For example, in the phrase “Like, a giant moose knocked our tent over," “like” could be taken to modify the whole phrase, in which case the speaker is giving one example of many things that went wrong on a camping trip. It could be modifying "moose," signal- ing that the speaker is employing hyperbole (it could have been a small deer that knocked the tent over). Or, more simply, it could mean the speaker wasn't clear on exactly what kind of animal had knocked down the tent. (Granted, this is not a new concept. Even my father, who laughed along with my stepmother's “like” tally, will defend his phrasing “like, five cars at the show" to mean "about" or "approximately.") Siegel does not address the use of the word “like” in the phrase “was like,” where it replaces “said.” (For example: "I was like, 'That dog has got to go,’ and she was like, ‘What? He's such a sweet dog,’ and I was like, 'He's peed on the carpet four times this morning”) But her theory works by extension: "Was like" is a good way for a speaker to indicate that the dialogue she is re—creating should not be taken as the exact words spo- ken by the participants. This exten- sion also makes a place in English for the phrase "And she’s Siegel’s understanding of "like" as a modifier places the word among "maybe," "possibly," "you know," and similar phrases known as hedges. So it’s not surprising that "like" is associated more with women than with men. Since the 19705, sociolinguists have noted that women often use hedges to soften the impact of their statements. What would-be grammar police (like the Cosmopolitan article’s author) don't acknowledge is that hedges say less about an individual woman’s lack of confidence than they do about IX society’s expectation that women not be assertive. Either way, it seems to be a good idea to help young women root "like" out of their speech entirely. But Siegel also offers a more positive perspective on the use of the word. Studying 23 tape-recorded inter— views of high-school honors stu- dents—both boys and girls—from suburban Philadelphia, Siegel found that spontaneity of speech, not inse- curity, was most strongly correlated with a flurry of “likes.” _ While she found that girls did use "like" much more often than boys, she also discovered that speakers of either gender said it less often when they had more time to plan what they were saying. The speaker's comfort level and the informality of the setting also seemed to increase the use of "like." "Happily," Siegel concludes, "if girls use 'like’ more than boys, it may indicate as much a gift for intimacy and spontaneity as insecurity.” Alas, fewer young women proba— bly read the journal of Semantics than Cosmo, so the results of this survey are unlikely to do much to break the vicious cycle that plagues "like" users: You don’t feel confident in what you're saying, so you use "like"; your parents pick on you for saying "like," so you feel less confident in what you’re saying; you say “like” more. they pick on you again. By the time you hit the job interview, you’re saying, "My name is. like, Jennifer? And I, like, really want this job?” with such dizzying lack of confi- dence that the interviewer asks you if your name really is Jennifer, and gives the job to Brad. The thrust of popular language use Will never sway the gatekeepers of the English language. While "like" and other nonstandard usages spread to their very living rooms, they still (Continued on page 88 ) SUMMERZOO} bitch 87 _ o O usII: eature / (Cont' edfiompage ) that is ca .self-effacin . dstereotypic - successful. We're all . iliar" ‘th the phelia theories o ' psychology‘te and New York 1'" nee bestsellers‘ e idea that yo ,1 girls eve tally "subsume eir atural 5-3: to the expecta- tions szIl-lleil' ender and alter‘thei behavior ac rdingly. Ifthey happén to stray rdrn this path—~ {the wome n dieséfiims do— ey know' they ' ave a finite amount) of time to co ect their “mist Es." In many b read as c utionarylfables. t uell is wholly oil" the in e path; each rr ied and bore a chil '._in fact, D/e Barres's follow-up InemowifinotMr Little Piece of My Heart, la: kly chronides the difficul- ties she/facéd in parenting Ni dlas; likellvise, Buell ’ s onately of the“ tru es she went through in learn’ how to be a mother. Yet despite eir "mature" concerns M'lth’marriagea childrear- Degfl'arms’s and Bue s contin- ued celebration of their past pre- cl} \es mainstream acceptance of ditional fem- ‘ ays, Girl and [anger Sisters can their“ .manrrity, and therefore 11' )1 legitimacy as artists. mo Ilbein atwomenwhoc nose to puktnllo e feminine inf Iratives of m _rity—-chief a engi‘them mo gaihy and fa gym—become u esirablh,k6 evflngerous, “to society. (Almost smarts, in leaving ‘3 its ending a Penny, av ' s eqirgting her depaf— groupie life with imgiend- ventionality] The ' endings irl and The Be eh. Sisters in parch ar suggest-What perhaps all feminisha rea won us was a‘little breathing I om, the freedom to what wa t, within reason,_tfo’r a re nable aniount of time, and then the fun’s ove ._ ’r" Contrast that Pamela Des es or Bebyrfell. Whenever one ' ' rviewed ont‘amoming w r called on for Whit-{com- ', he is invariably identified/ r groupie," despitor' er. professional ' music, journal: agement. l-Iavin . ovfilent man- edded famous it most obvi- .__\ / ow, then. gge” the questions Hposed hijhe beginning of this piety-"answered? What are women-Expected to" ‘ve up in order to mous, and The Banger‘SEstflsr' traiisition from adolesc‘gétg‘o adult- hood “demands that-girls eerfiilly accept a lifefoF/c'dnformityhor, at least, a mandatory move away from the finesporlsibility inherent in grdilpie life. However, there is one fconsolalion: Hollywood's efforts to manipulate this rite of passage would- - n't be necessary if there Wome- thing that needed to/be me‘din. The countemdmral/spfrit that figul‘e‘s so prominently fn these films is still alive in man?! women—Des Barres and [Buell are only-the most visible. In fact, a real life is filled‘i‘lvith women ‘ lived ‘3 fully during tl1e1yr?ol cence, and orts in thgrealm ofi‘xwho took those/ arenas-1th them as theg moved/into 21dequ without apoLogiiing for or denying them. fidpefiilly men is unde ’ ly \ kwe'll someday see ac te s claygaa But artsy, fgb/ representatian of Stick/Wfrzlen ulo oupie lifestyle 0 the/605 onscreen. Hefitgngeron: How about and '705_ has, for Des Bat-fies and Buell, transcended associated with i unapologetic ceptance ofthe1r past ‘5'" that con ' es to marginalize these omen. Neither Des“Barres nor 88 bitch ISSUE No.21 a Penny lane/geqfiEl?‘ fl Kidder spent two years of her "to lug New Klds on the Block tans tor her the- le. She recently moved to New York City, where shi'hogee to finally find a use for her M.A. in pop- ular culture. \‘ giggovv‘ up? According to Girl, Aim? tguous as it relates to,» a e on language ( Continued from page 87) cling to the old Shibboleth that bad English displays the speaker’s stupidity. eanwhile, my 12—year-old student eterrnines the meaning of "like" em Clueless’s Cher and Dionne. ' at happens when she meets my teprnother. or the Cosmo article uthor? Will she try to speak Val in n attempt to raise her class stand- - g? How many potential employers ill dismiss her as incompetent, ither for her adopted Valspeak or r her native South Bronx—ese? You can't maintain linguistic pur- by sheer force of will, or even rough English classes. People on't have to be taught language to am it. Babies are naturally wired to am language by example, whether a parents or TV. By now, kids ho've never heard of a Valley Girl I e surely learning to say "like" from eir parents. They may be admon- hed by those same parents not to se the word; they may learn to de-switch, turning their use of the ord off in formal situations—but 's not likely that they'll give it up. espite attempts to stigmatize it, like" will live on. What can Cosmo’s job consultants - 0 about it, aside from undermining : ore women's confidence? Accord- ing to Siege], they’ll have to deal with it. “The language mavens always say, “Oh, they're wrecking the lan- guage,” she told the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2002. “And it’s always girls and working people [who are blamed for it]. But languages change because they need to change. There are so many more girls and working people than there are language mavens.” (a Gus Andrews's spell check caught one Intudl- cloue use of “dude” In thls article Her collected works can be found onllne at gus.protest.net and translated back Into her native tongue wlth the Valspeak translator at www.80s.com/Entertalnment/ ValleyURL _ . _ ._,._ c__¢—._.waa.-h.—T._;n . .. .._..- n........-._.. ...
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The, Like, Downfall of the English Language - n a September...

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