I firmly believe it’s a confidence issue. I think that people who lack confidence are generally afraid to speak in a straight-ahead way and are also afraid of empty space and silence while stalling for time to think of something to say, and teenagers are often quite lacking in confidence. So they fill in “like” or “uh” whereas I (who hates this practice) will just not say anything if I have to take an extra second to think of my next word (which is rarely.)
Actually, adults do do this. Consider this Language Log post (“News flash: the biggest users of ‘like totally’ are middle-aged men”), where Mark Liberman notes, “Looking quickly at the effects of age, it seems that discourse-particle ‘like’ is associated with middle-aged as well as young people (in these conversations, recorded mostly around 2003).”
As for the actual explanation of why speakers use it, one might want to look at the paper “Like: The Discourse Particle and Semantics” (by Muffy Siegel), and then explore further papers referenced in there. Suffice to say, it’s not some hormonally induced adolescent speech impediment. Indeed, that paper explicitly notes that empirical evidence shows that use of discourse particle “like” has little to do with confidence/insecurity, as well as little to do with simple fluency of speech. Instead, the paper observes, “My data show that the use of ‘like’ to mark lexical indecision correlates with taking little time to plan an utterance. While there is no way to know why some speakers may choose to speak before they have their utterances completely planned, it is certainly possible that speakers do this when they feel comfortable and informal, rather than just insecure. Redeker (1990), for instance, found that all speakers use more such discourse particles when they are speaking informally with friends than when speaking more formally with strangers.” (The referenced Redeker paper is “Ideational and Pragmatic Markers of Discourse Structure”).
The bulk of Siegel’s paper is devoted, as the title would indicate, to explaining the actual function of this use of “like”; far from what might naively be assumed, it is not at all meaningless filler, and doesn’t deserve the aspersions cast upon it for being such.
I teach many 10-12 year olds and they include ‘like’ a lot in their conversation. I’ve pointed this out and they usually are surprised that they do it at all. Once I get them to listen to what they say, they start having regular pauses where they were obviously intending to say ‘like’, but are now trying not to.
From my experience, I agree with Indistinguishable. The kids are all using this word and they feel comfortable doing so when talking rapidly to each other. When they talk to me (or other adults), they slow down somewhat and the superflous ‘like’ is much less in evidence.
I have seen ‘like’ used in this way described as a ‘quotative’, with a rather specific role: it introduces a descriptive part of the conversation. The description need not be just in words; it can be sentence intonation, mannerism, gestures, even an imitation.
“And she was, like, oh wow man!” is not the same as “And she said, ‘Oh wow, man!’”. In the first sentence, the speaker follows ‘like’ with an imitation of the person described, not just that person’s words.
Exactly. The way I hear it used most these days is not simply as, like, a filler, but in place of the older use of “went” which was current when I was a teenager.
Example: whereas I might have gone [there it is again], “So X came over and he went ‘Hey, what you doing?’, and I went ‘Not much’…”, nowadays people are all like, “So my mum’s like, ‘What do you think you’re doing’…”.
And, sadly, it’s catching and I find myself using it too.
Ha! I wish my teenager would say “like”. Instead, when she needs to plan out her next word mentally, she hums, very briefly and quietly. She’ll be explaining something to me about her photography class, for example, and say something like:
So Professor F said that the convex lens ishmmused in circumstanceshmmmwhen the concave ishmmmmnot appropriate.
I don’t think she even knows she does it. She’s normally very bright, articulate, etc. But after the fifteenth hmmm in the space of ten minutes, I get all stabby.
Flashback to junior high English class. We were to deliver an extemp five minute speech to the class, whose job was to listen for and shout back at the speaker whenever filler words were inserted. While I cannot speak for the rest of the class, it caused me to devote significant effort towards thought composition, and avoid the offending inclusions, a habit which has thankfully stuck with me for many years.
I tend to agree with this although I would expand by saying that it’s a subculture idiom that allows certain people, often teenagers, to identify one another as members. I have known adults who use this, and some who use the entire vernacular that goes with it. One thing I really hate is listening to a 35-year-old “That was like, totally awesome!” Valley Girl. :rolleyes: Once I had a waitress in her 20’s who, every time one of us gave her an order, said, “Awesome!” [insert your own rant here]
I just want to remark that “like” and its predecessor “went” aren not limited to English. Kids and adults use the exact same fillers in Dutch.
"En toen ging m’n moeder van: “Hoezo blijf jij daar slapen, daar komt niks van in!”, en toen had ik zoiets van:“Doe niet zo achterlijk, zeg”.
Here’s the translation, literal to show the sentence structure and choice of words:
*"And then my mom went:“How-why you’ll stay for a sleepover, no way that is coming through” and then I had something like: "Don’t act so retarded, say. "
Imagine replacing the stereotypical airline captain’s “uuuh” with “liiike”. I’m cracking up thinking about it! You have to use the same voice though, no valley girl…
“Liiike this is your captain speaking. We have liiiike been approved for take off. We’ll be cruising at approximately liiiiike 35,000 feet. I’ve activated the liiiike fasten seatbelt sign as we will be experiencing some strong headwinds…liiiiike giggidy.”
But the original Valley Girls are now in their thirties and forties. I can see them using formal English in professional contexts, like making a presentation about the dollar to 1500 chartered accountants, but I don’t think it’d be odd to see them using it among friends when relaxing.
In brief, everybody at every level pauses regularly, uses pauses in a similar way, and has to be laboriously trained out of doing so. Erard does not go into why “you know” and “like” have replaced the classic “uh” in some speech, unfortunately, but the explanation is probably as simple as a parallel to the evolution of slang terms into new variations on old themes. It is almost certainly not an affectation, just a reflection of what they hear their peers saying.