Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Like it or loathe it?

The first guest blog this term is from Jacky Glancey, an A level English Language teacher at Macmillan Academy and it's a great way to get students thinking about the ways in which language issues are reported on in the media.

ITV’s Reality TV show ‘Love Island’ never fails to spark debate. And whilst some commentators are concentrating on the six packs, the fashion choices and the high drama, others seem more interested in counting how many times the contestants use the word ‘like’. As you do.

Last year ITV’s Piers Morgan mocked Niall’s Coventry accent and use of six ‘likes’ in five seconds whilst in The Sun this year, it was reported that, the programme had prompted a primary school in Bradford to ban the word ‘like’ and condemn it to a ‘word jail’. Incarcerating part of someone’s speech may seem a tad extreme, but these reactions are not isolated incidents and can provide us with some interesting insight into attitudes towards both language and social groups and language change. All good stuff for Paper 2 responses. This little four letter word has a history of irking listeners and prompting public disapproval.

Back in 2010 Emma Thompson (aka Nanny McPhee) gave a talk at her old school and scolded the students for using words like ‘like’ and ‘innit’ because, in her opinion, it made them ‘sound stupid’. It’s not hard to find other comments that add to the discourse that suggests that using the word ‘like’ will severely hamper your chances in life. Telegraph columnist Max Davidson suggests that the increase in the use of ‘like’ in speech is an American affliction that makes the speaker sound, in his words, ‘educationally subnormal’. And Gyles Brandreth pipes up in his blog telling us that, ‘Like it or not, ‘like’ has become the lazy linguistic filler of our times’ .

It gets worse. According to Sankin Speech Improvement (a company that offers speech training) this linguistic phenomenon is a language infection that has reached epidemic proportions and threatens to ruin our careers. Yikes.

But language peeves are usually more than purely a dislike of language itself and it’s worth thinking about what these language commentators have in common and trying to unpick what attitudes towards society underpin their vehement disapproval of this dinky little lexical item.

All these language commentators are middle aged, are comfortably off and have a degree of power and standing in society. They all have set views on what is ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’ language use and feel that they are qualified to instruct others on their use of language: in short, linguistic prescriptivists. The groups of people whose language use they complain about are often, younger, or less wealthy and/or have less power and standing in society. Some modern linguists feel that language complaints are sometimes a proxy for social complaints. Deborah Cameron, suggests that, ‘panics about grammar can be viewed as the metaphorical expression of social anxieties concerning society’. So, complaining about young people using ‘like’ in a non-standard way might, in a less obvious way, stem from some of the older generations being concerned about young people not sharing some of their more traditional attitudes and ideas about life.

Descriptivist linguists, on the other hand, are often at pains to challenge what they see as linguistic pedantry, surrounding the hand wringing responses to the use of ‘like’ and other language choices in modern society. They are more interested in describing how language works in real interactions, than reiterating what can be seen as arbitrary rules dictating how we ‘should’ use language. Descriptivists are interested in how language is continuously reshaping to meet the needs and preferences of new speakers and for them, the use of ‘like’ is fertile and fascinating ground for study.

John McWhorter, author of ‘Words on the Move: Why English Won’t – and Can’t – Sit Still (Like, Literally)’ describes how ‘like’, like so many other words, has become more flexible in its use over time and can signal pragmatic meanings, as well as hold onto its more traditional grammatical uses as, for example, a verb (I like her) or a preposition (He looks like his dog). He describes three interesting developments:

1. Like as a way of acknowledging unspoken objection at the same time as underlining one’s own point. So when we hear someone say, ‘I was like just about to call you’ we understand that on a pragmatic level the speaker is saying something like, ‘I know you might not believe this, and I understand that, but I was at this very second about to call you. The speaker is trying to convey the idea that they are being truthful and factual, despite the fact that their claims might be challenged by the listener. McWhorter calls this the ‘reinforcing like’.

2. His second category is termed the ‘easing like’ and describes situations when using ‘like’ helps to deliver unwelcome news, but helps to cushion the blow. So, when you are told that your phone repair will involve you not having your device for a week, you might be told, ‘That’s, like, your only option.’ Take the ‘like’ away from that utterance and it becomes a little more brutal. Pop the ‘like’ back in and you can feel some human understanding of the situation again.

3. A third category, in which ‘like’ is used in a very straightforward way, is ‘like’ as a ‘quotative marker’. Instead of hearing someone relay a conversation along these lines, ‘So I said, ‘You sure?’ and he said, ‘Well, yeah’.’ , you might hear something like, ‘So I’m like, ‘You sure?’ and he’s like, ‘Well, yeah’. Both ‘said’ and ‘like’ do exactly the same job, but one choice is standard and the other is non-standard.

And that brings us to the final point, one which is always worth considering in the study of language: context. Often newer language uses are created in informal contexts and are used quite happily without meaning breaking down. However, those that complain about these newer usages often warn of the dangers of losing the ability to use Standard English. Standards are slipping, they cry. The descriptivist response to this panic would be, ‘Yes, having knowledge and the ability to use Standard English is highly desirable in our society, but (and it’s a big but) this doesn’t mean that other non-standard uses are inferior. The choices we make are always context dependent and some, less standard choices can carry pragmatic meanings in a really concise way.’

Next time I smash my phone, I think I’d appreciate an ‘easing like’ with the bill.

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