If you’ve seen the 1995 film Clueless, you’ll know it is many things: a teen comedy, a modern adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma, a gentle satire of Los Angeles ‘valley girl’ subculture that celebrates its heroine Cher Horowitz’s avoidance of responsibility.
It was also a forerunner of how we use the word ‘like’ today.
“Cher Horowitz in the film wasn’t a real character. She was an exaggeration of a lot of the features associated with young, female speech at the time,” says Dr Chloé Diskin, a sociolinguist at the University of Melbourne.
“But it obviously came from somewhere. Young women are nearly always the first people to do something new with language. You’ll find lots of popular articles online complaining about how young women never stop using ‘like’.
“We know through lots of different studies women were the first to use ‘like’. It started with young women; then it was taken up by young men, then by older women and then finally by older men.”
Dr Diskin says identity is integral to understanding how language changes over time but also adds that young people, particularly women, are crucial to understanding how that change occurs.
“I often compare linguistic innovations to fashion. Young women will be at the forefront of changes in fashion even if people have criticised them in the past.
“And I think it’s probably the same for this. Young people will always want to do things that are different to what their parents did.”
How is ‘like’ used?
A recent study conducted by Dr Diskin in Ireland, where ‘like’ often finds itself at the end of clauses and sentences, discovered the word is evolving and adapting to a range of different contexts, particularly by young women and even by migrants speaking English as a second language.
In recordings she collected with 42 people, ranging from Chinese and Polish migrants to native Irish-English speakers, Dr Diskin found that ‘like’ has undergone what she terms “grammaticalisation”.
“Grammaticalisation is where one feature of speech can take on a new grammatical function,” Dr Diskin says.
In the case of ‘like,’ there were seven key features Dr Diskin studied. While we assume ‘like’ is used as a filler or gap in thought (for example, “Just like, um, so I don’t really know) the six other uses she identified are:
- to exemplify (“There were lots of different vegetables, like potatoes, tomatoes, and cucumber”),
- to mitigate (“I need to go and see this guy, yeah? I don’t want to speak with him like”),
- to self-correct (“And uh, I Skype them everyday… Well like maybe not everyday”),
- to illustrate (“Well when I was like a child I didn’t play with that kind of insect”),
- to approximate an adverb (“As a cleaner she has to get home at like four, five o’clock in the morning”)
- to introduce reported speech or inner thoughts (“And I was like, “Oh my God!””).
Dr Diskin says it is easy to believe ‘like’ is a word that speaks less of one’s intelligence, because most people think of it as a meaningless way to ‘buy time’ while thinking about what to say next, which can give the appearance of incoherence. But in fact filler only made up slightly more than ten per cent of the uses she identified.
“We often talk about features or variables that are either above or below the level of consciousness. But ‘like’ is very much above the level of consciousness, not just in Irish-English but across the English speaking world.
“Some people feel pretty self conscious using it, but they use it anyway, because it’s so multifunctional.”
'Like' in Ireland
She says this heightened awareness contributed to how English-speaking migrants grappled with how to use the word ‘like,’ particularly given its distinctive use within Irish English.
Some migrants actually believe they speak better English than Irish people, especially those speakers exposed to the idea that British English is the most prestigious variety spoken.
“They’d never spent time in an English speaking country before moving to Ireland. ‘Like’ is not taught in classrooms, so people who are learning English as a second language, generally aren’t exposed to words like ‘like’.
“If people believe that the English they speak already has currency and value, they won’t necessarily want to sound like the people around them.”
However, Dr Diskin says that while there was some reticence regarding the word ‘like,’ it was overcome gradually as familiarity with the local dialect increased.
“People who’d just been in Ireland for one or two years were not using ‘like’ at all. But once it hit the five to six-year mark then we had speakers using ‘like’ at similar rates to native speakers.”
'Like' in Australia
While recent research shows ‘like’ is just as frequent in Australian English, particularly when used as a quotative (for example, “I was like “no way””), Dr Diskin says international influence has little to do with its local use.
“A lot of people think we adopted ‘like’ from North America, but we have limited evidence for that,” she says.
“What most likely happened is what we call an ‘independent parallel development’— something that happened in the language, more or less simultaneously, in communities of English speakers around the world.