Like, Wow: Linguist Defends 'Like'

By Michael Rubinkam
Associated Press Writer
Wednesday, September 4, 2002; 7:17 PM

PHILADELPHIA –– This is, like, way cool.

A Temple University linguist says there's a lot to like about "like," the crutch word of teenagers and the bane of language purists. Muffy E.A. Siegel, who has published a scholarly study of the word, says "like" is not mindless filler but can actually impart meaning.

It turns out "like" in its slang form evolved over centuries, becoming a Beatnik buzzword and catching the attention of linguists in the mid-1980s after it was popularized by Southern California "Valley Girls" ("Like, gag me with a spoon.").

The Valley Girl version of "like" is classified by linguists as a "discourse particle," along with "um," "well," "oh" and the like.

Unlike mere fillers, however, "like" has the ability to change the meaning of a sentence, according to Siegel's research, which builds on the findings of at least two other studies of the word.

For example, "like" can be a hedge, when the speaker is not quite sure what he or she is about to say is accurate. (Example: "He has, like, six sisters.")

Siegel and other linguists have identified a variety of other uses for "like": a substitute for "said"; a way to introduce an exaggeration ("He's, like, 150 years old."); and, yes, a filler when the speaker is casting about for just the right words.

"That's the word you use when you can't think of anything else to say. During a story people use 'like' a lot to keep the story going instead of pausing," said Molly Pardue, 17, a high school senior from Devon, Pa. "Teachers will stop us and be like, 'Do you know what you just said?'"

Siegel's own daughters provided the inspiration for her study, published in the Aug. 19 issue of the Journal of Semantics. Their speech was littered with "likes," and Siegel began to wonder whether there was some greater meaning.

At first, Siegel conducted formal, one-on-one interviews. But she soon abandoned that approach because her teen-age subjects were using too few "likes."

Fortunately, Siegel's older daughter Miriam happened to be doing a school project in which she asked classmates a single question: "What is an individual?"

Those 23 tape-recorded interviews – conducted informally in school hallways, classrooms, even the girls' locker room – formed the basis of Siegel's research. Fourteen of the students used "like" at least once. Siegel's own daughter also used it.

Siegel turned her linguist's mind to the transcripts. Her findings largely involve mathematical formulas and esoteric linguistic concepts such as "truth-conditions" and the "weak/strong distinction." Essentially, though, Siegel's claim is that "like" can change the meaning of a sentence.

"It's a big deal to linguists because the assumption has always been that all the meaning in a sentence comes from the real words in the sentence," Siegel said.

Nancy Niedzielski, a linguistics professor at Rice University, said linguists won't be horrified by Siegel's defense of "like." "Linguists tend to be much less prescriptive than other people who look at language," she said.

Sister Marianna Fieo, an English teacher at Archbishop Carroll High School in suburban Philadelphia, would prefer to see the word used "as it is intended, as its proper part of speech."

"You wonder as a teacher why someone would seize upon that particular word, which doesn't seem to have any particular relation to the way the student is using it," she said.

Niedzielski said like it or not, "like" is probably here to stay.

"It doesn't matter what parents or editors or English teachers say," she said.

© 2002 The Associated Press