British Columbia

Like, don't blame 'like' on kids these days, says sociolinguist

You might think sprinkling sentences with "like" is a recent phenomenon or a lazy speech filler, but centuries of evidence show otherwise, says University of Victoria sociolinguist Alexandra D’Arcy.

Misunderstood little word deserves more respect, says Alexandra D’Arcy, who studies the history of like

The verb 'to like' isn't that complicated, but many of the other uses of the little word are misunderstood and unfairly maligned, says University of Victoria sociolinguist Alexandra D'Arcy. (Shutterstock)

Like, it's not that new.

And, like, it's an important part of speech that you can't, like, blame young people for.

Before you bristle, dear CBC reader, consider the argument of sociolinguist Alexandra D'Arcy, whose forthcoming book, subtitled Eight Hundred Years of Like, traces the history of this "misunderstood" little word all the way from Old English.

"You see this incredible layering of new forms that has been going on since 1200," says D'Arcy, an associate professor at the University of Victoria.

D'Arcy has written a book called 'Discourse-pragmatic variation in context: Eight hundred years of like.' (Tim Cleves)

"Even if we can't get over our dislike of all the "likes," I think what it allows us to do is step back and realize just how remarkable the language is."

Using centuries-old texts, personal letters, court documents and even CBC Radio archives from B.C. settlers, she shows that "like" may be increasing in use, but it's not random or a new phenomenon.

"We really want to believe it's new, but it's just because we've only recently noticed it."

Kids these days?

Even in Old English, there were two distinct "likes" from different origins. The verb — as in "I like oranges" — has been fairly stable for more than a thousand years, says D'Arcy.

The adjective, which came from a different Germanic word, meant "close resemblance or similarity," and that's the flavour of "like" that has multiplied since the 13th century, jumping around sentences to become a noun, preposition and so on.

En route, "like" has taken on forms that are "stigmatized and misunderstood," writes D'Arcy.

Consider "like" at the beginning of a sentence: "You'd never believe Pig Route. Like, you'd need to see the road to believe it."

That might sound young and modern — but it's actually the recorded speech of a 73-year-old man born in 1875.

And the "like" might seem random, but it has a job to do.

"Think of it like a road sign in a conversation," said D'Arcy. "This is how what I'm about to say links to what I just said."

Should we, like, blame the kids for 'like' being, like everywhere? No, says D'Arcy. That's not what the evidence shows. (Shutterstock)

Listen for yourself

Even "like" sprinkled in the middle of sentences is more than 100 years old.

CBC Radio producer Imbert Orchard recorded almost 1,000 interviews around British Columbia in the 1960s. (B.C. Archives)

You can hear this for yourself, in the recordings below made of British Columbians in the 1960s by CBC Radio producer Imbert Orchard, now held by the Royal B.C. Museum and "an absolute gold mine" for a linguist like D'Arcy.

"Well, right in front of that they had boards, like, built across," said Matilda Alexander, born in 1874.

"When you work like in a controversial office, like, I was a water works office … why I heard every excuse that was ever invented, why they didn't pay their bills yesterday," said Walter Engelhardt, born in 1876.

This form of like, which D'Arcy calls a particle, helps convey familiarity and meaning, she says.

"It means, 'I want you to pay attention, what I'm about to say is important,' or 'don't take me too literally on what I'm about to say.'

And I was like ...

There is at least one new "like" that was born in the 20th century: using it to quote something. You can thank (or blame) the boomers for that one.

"That's one of the only ones we can say is truly new," said D'Arcy. "It's speakers who were born in the 1950s and early 1960s who were really the first ones to use it."

For example: "Imagine being told by your parents, like, 'We know you have it in you,'" said a man born in 1959.

Far from being a lazy way to quote, "like" actually opened new doors in communication, says D'Arcy, allowing a storyteller to reference thoughts and sounds and gestures, rather than just what was said.

"We started quoting our own inner states more and more," she says.

"That's why I respect these forms. They let us do things we couldn't do before."