Like It Or Not, Language Is Changing

Last night, I was idly browsing online on my phone while waiting for some friends to join me, when I stumbled across this issue which was submitted to an agony aunt column in The Guardian: My daughter sounds uneducated because she says ‘like’ so much. The parent who contacted the agony aunt is concerned that their daughter’s use of the discourse marker, ‘like’, is making her sound ‘stupid’ and ‘uneducated’.

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As a linguist, the parent’s question immediately caught my interest because it is representative of common folk linguistic judgements, i.e. “beliefs about language held by non-linguists” (Hartley & Preston, 1999: 237). Perceptual dialectology is one of the many fascinating subfields of linguistics and it elicits folk linguistic attitudes and judgements about language. Preston’s (1989) work in the U.S. found that judgements are commonly based on the ideology of the ‘standard’, in other words, correct vs. incorrect language. This type of judgement is exactly what we see in the concerned parent’s question to an agony aunt column.

It could be argued that one of the most pertinent questions about language attitudes is how these judgements are entrenched within us. No language or dialect is inherently wrong, it is simply that a particular phoneme (a unit of sound) or a word has become “enregistered” as a marker that is associated with certain characteristics. The concept of enregisterment has been discussed by Barbara Johnstone, Professor of Rhetoric and Linguistics at Carnegie Mellon University, who has focused on enregisterment in the variety of American English that is spoken in Pittsburgh (e.g., Johnstone et al., 2006; Johnstone, 2009). However, enregisterment is a concept which we can apply to any variety of language: it refers to the way in which “indexical meanings get attached to linguistic forms” (Johnstone, 2010: 31).

The use of the discourse marker ‘like’ is a prime example. Take a minute and think about the characteristics you associate with someone who uses ‘like’: “and then he was like, ‘I said no’, and then I just like laughed and it was really like awkward”.

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We know that users of ‘like’ are more likely to be young (Dailey-O’Cain, 2002). Perhaps the teenage girl in the photo is a ‘like’ user. Also, ‘like’ is commonly associated with the stereotype of the Californian Valley Girl, i.e. vapid, materialistic young women who do little more than shop and obsess about their appearance. From this, we can deduce that attitudes toward ‘like’ are often unfavourable because it has become enregistered as a marker of the speech of a social group which is considered to be young, ‘airheaded’ and unintelligent. A study by Dailey-O’Cain (2002) concludes that “the use of like is associated with more negative perceptions of the speaker” and found that “Informants perceive [people who use like] as less educated” (p. 73).

At this point, considering that studies have shown that ‘like’ is often negatively evaluated, you might think that the parent has valid cause for concern. However, if I were the agony aunt who responded to this letter, I would have answered it very differently. I would point out that language has changed for centuries and it will continue to change for centuries after you and I leave this earth. The increasing use of ‘like’ as a quotative in phrases such as “I was like…” is simply an example of language change. Next, I would suggest that if we spent less time viewing language as we think it should be (the prescriptivist viewpoint) and more time observing language as it is (the descriptivist perspective), perhaps we could attempt to sidestep these stereotypes and snobbish biases about people who use particular varieties and dialects.

We all speak differently….and that’s okay. If everyone spoke in the same way, linguists wouldn’t have any fun!

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Dailey‐O’Cain, J. (2000). The sociolinguistic distribution of and attitudes toward focuser like and quotative like. Journal of Sociolinguistics, 4(1), 60-80.

Hartley, L.C. & Preston, D.R. (1999). The names of US English: Valley Girl, cowboy, Yankee, normal, nasal and ignorant. In Bex, T. & Watts, R.J. (eds.). Standard English: the Widening Debate. London: Routledge, pp. 207-238.

Johnstone, B., Andrus, J., & Danielson, A. E. (2006). Mobility, indexicality, and the enregisterment of “Pittsburghese”. Journal of English Linguistics, 34(2), 77-104.

Johnstone, B. (2009). Pittsburghese shirts: Commodification and the enregisterment of an urban dialect. American Speech, 84(2), 157-175.

Johnstone, B. (2010). Locating Language in Identity. In C. Llamas and D. Watt, (eds.). Language and Identities. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, pp. 29-38.

Preston, D. R. (1989). Perceptual Dialectology: Nonlinguists’ Views of Areal Linguistics. Dordrecht: Foris Publications Holland.

14 thoughts on “Like It Or Not, Language Is Changing

  1. I’m like horrified by the younger generation’s misuse of language. What on earth is wrong with the age-old standards like ‘kinda’? Why do they always have to change things? Forsooth, soon they shall be using you instead of thou, if we’re not careful. And that will not be groovy!

    Liked by 3 people

  2. “…if we spent less time viewing language as we think it should be (the prescriptivist viewpoint) and more time observing language as it is (the descriptivist perspective), perhaps we could attempt to sidestep these stereotypes and snobbish biases about people who use particular varieties and dialects.” –> I love this thought so much and you’re absolutely right. English in particular is quite an interesting language, given how international it is and how many different regional variations there are. Just in California alone, there are distinctions between Norcal (Northern California) and Socal vocabulary. Popular culture is also a big influence in terms of how people speak and/or view certain languages. My old coworkers in Taiwan often liked to tell me how my English sounded “exactly like how people spoke on TV” (when they watched American shows).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you. 🙂 I guess that all of us have different responses to accents and different language varieties and sometimes these responses are negative. But as an aspiring linguist, I try to remain impartial, although I know that I’m not immune to language attitudes or stereotypes. I wonder if any of us really are or if making judgements about the way people talk is tantamount to being an innate trait of human existence.

      It’s interesting that you mention differences between NorCal and SoCal vocabulary. I read a paper recently, “Hella Nor Cal or Totally So Cal?”, which used perceptual dialectology research methods to investigate Northern vs. Southern California vocabulary. Here’s a link to the PDF, if you’re interested. 🙂

      And I agree — the influence of popular culture on language is a fascinating area for linguistic research.

      Liked by 1 person

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  4. That was so interesting! I must admit to using the word “like” a fair amount in speech (but rarely in writing). Sometimes, I worry that it reflects negatively on me, but when I stop and think about it, I realize that I often have a reason for using it beyond just pure habit. For example, I’m most likely to use “like” when I’m not directly quoting somebody. For example, “and then she was like back off” probably means that she didn’t literally say “back off” but indicated that idea through a combination of words, tone, and body language. I also definitely use “like” when I’m nervous or trying to be non-committal in some way.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you. 🙂

      Yes, it’s interesting to note all the diverse ways in which “like” is often used. In linguistics, when it’s used to refer to an action or a direct quote (or a combination), we call it the ‘quotative like’. There is an amusing comic strip about it:

      But when it’s used in the latter context that you mentioned, it is considered to be a ‘filler’ word and can be used as a ‘hedge’ (other hedges include ‘you know’ and ‘sort of’) to fill a pause or mitigate a statement.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post.


  5. On the one hand – I totally agree with you. In a creative writing class I was even taught the Russian word for the-unique-way-one-speaks (but I’m unsure how to spell it in English letters, sorry).
    On the other, perhaps it’s different in an English speaking world. In my own country, when I hear my language “Englishiezed”, I can’t simply accept it. Perfectly good and clear words are forgotten, replaced by ill-fitting substitutes adopted form a screen or another, and sometimes even totally misunderstood and miss-used (which does hint at some ignorance).
    In short, thank you for this article that shown a light on this issue I never saw before. And now I’m thinking that some changes are of development, therefore for the better. Others are of oppression, therefore a negative which should be corrected (by education maybe? I wouldn’t know).

    Liked by 1 person

    • In English, the word “idiolect” refers to an individual’s unique way of speaking and using language.

      Thank you for sharing your point of view. It’s a difficult issue, really, because English is so pervasive and its influence can be found across the globe. I believe in studying and celebrating the diversity of language. It’s a shame if the expansion of English leads to language forms dying out and this has undoubtedly happened in some cases. Indeed, there are many endangered languages in the world today.

      However, it’s complicated because English is the dominant world language (it is possible that another language will take its place in the future) and understandably, many people want to learn English so they can increase their opportunities in life.

      From a linguist’s perspective, the spread of English and the development of world Englishes is an interesting and complex issue to study.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks for the new word 🙂
        As for one language influencing another, that to me is also a natural process (French influenced English, Semite languages influenced Romanian, and the origins of the word Sugar, I lately read, are older than time).
        Yes, I agree with you again – it’s all complicated. Though anything endangered should find a champion. While English may well be all you say (and I see no need to change it), any place willing to preserve its’ local/national Language, along side the international one, should do something about it. I think I have the beginning of an idea to appeal to the local language academia. I’ll think about it some (a lot) more but thank you also for getting me started 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

        • There are linguists who focus specifically on the kind of issue that you mention: language policy and planning. I’m interested to hear about your idea. 🙂

          If you’d like to chat about it or if you’d like me to give further info about language policy and planning resources, feel free to email me. My email address is in the no-spam icon on my About page.

          Liked by 1 person

  6. The English language does change all the time, new words are added, some words fall out of use, and the meanings of other words are completely changed. This does not change the fact that listening to someone insert the word “like” after every second or third word makes me want to scream.


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