Often enough, something we propose as a serious idea turns out to be more or less a joke. It’s much rarer that something proposed as a joke—or, at least, proposed as a semi-serious conceit, offered in the spirit of what’s often called, grimly, “tongue in cheek”—turns out to be, or to have the germ of, a serious idea. So I was startled and delighted the other morning to find out that a small joke I made a few years ago turns out to be true (or true-ish, anyway) and can be shown to be so by a recent scientific (or scientific-ish) paper. It started when, in 2011, I was writing about attempts to computerize the translation of natural language. I touched on the omnipresence of “like” and similar verbal tics in Kidspeak—the language of twelve- to fourteen-year-olds, particularly girls—a dialect about which I have what social scientists refer to as “a strong informant” right here at home. The ubiquitous qualifiers in this dialect—the constant “um”s, the continual “you know”s, and, above all, the unending stream of “like”s—are, it’s usually said, a barrier in the way of lucidity, brevity, and making a point.
But, as I wrote then, we’re all naturally quite good at compressed, or telegraphic, speech, where what is omitted is implicitly understood by the listener. For the sake of economy, we have to leave a lot of information out of everything we say, and one of our special human abilities is to make that economy itself eloquent and informative. Kidspeak is a classic instance of compression in balance with concision. What sounds limited and repetitive to the outsider is, to the knowing listener, as nuanced as a Henry James passage.
If, for instance, a fourteen-year-old girl says, “So we, like, um, went to the pizza place, but the, uh, you know—the guy?—said, like, no, so we were, like, O.K., so we, uh, decided that we’d go to, like, a coffee shop, but, uh, Colette can’t—she has, like, a gluten thing. You know what I mean? So that’s, like, why we came home, and, um, you know, would you, like, make us eggs?” To a sensitized listener, who recognizes the meaning of the circumlocutions, the nuanced space between language and event, the sentence really means: “So we tried, as it were, to go and enjoy a pizza, but the, so to speak, maître d’ of the establishment claimed—a statement that we were in no social position to dispute—that there was, so to speak, ‘no room for us at the inn.’ And then Colette insisted—and far be it for me either to contest or endorse her self-diagnosis—that she could not eat wheat-based food, so, knowing full well that it is likely to be irksome and ill-timed, could you feed us with scrambled eggs?” The point of the “likes”s and other tics is to supply the information that there is a lot more information not being offered, and that the whole thing is held at a certain circumspect remove. It didn’t happen exactly this way, and, of course, one might quibble with a detail here or there, but this is the gist of what happened. Each “like” is a Jamesian “as it were.”
It turns out that three sociolinguists at the University of Texas at Austin have been studying these things systematically. The paper they produced, published in the Journal of Language and Social Psychology, has the beautiful title “Um … Who Like Says You Know: Filler Word Use as a Function of Age, Gender and Personality.” The study they conducted “aimed to investigate how the frequency of filled pauses and discourse markers used in the English language varies with two basic demographic variables (gender and age) and personality traits.” The researchers explain that, to do this, they “focused on three common discourse markers … (I mean, you know, and like) and two filled pauses (uh and um).”
They recorded and transcribed interviews with the speakers, noted how often the speakers used so-called “discourse markers,” and concluded that these markers are, indeed, used most frequently by women and girls. More important, the study also shows that the use of the discourse markers is particularly common among speakers who score on a personality test as “conscientious”—“people who are more thoughtful and aware of themselves and their surroundings.” Discourse markers, far from being opaque, automatic, or zombie-like, show that the speaker has “a desire to share or rephrase opinions to recipients.” In other words, those “like”s are being used to register that what’s being narrated may not be utterly faithful to each detail—that it may not be, as a fourteen-year-old might say, “literally” true—but that it is essentially true, and, what’s more, that an innate sense of conscientiousness and empathy with the listener forbids the speaker from pretending to a more closely tuned accuracy than she in fact possesses. As one commenter on the paper writes,
The researchers believe the explanation is that “conscientious people are generally more thoughtful and aware of themselves and their surroundings,” and their use of discourse markers shows they have a “desire to share or rephrase opinions to recipients.” Stated slightly differently, discourse fillers are a sign of more considered speech, and so it makes sense that conscientious people use them more often.
So it seems that the conscientiousness of “like” is what makes it appear so often. All of the circumlocutions of Kidspeak underline not sloppy indifference but undue scrupulousness. We should admire, not belittle, kids who use it. Far from being banished from polite or public dialogue, their discourse markers should mark our own—they should be imported as a sign of a meticulous grasp of the truth that there is no settled truth, that all narration is subjective, that every account must always be qualified. A headline in the Times, to be so, might read: “SCALIA, LIKE, SAYS THAT OBAMA, IS, YOU KNOW? LIKE, NOT COOL, BUT, O.K., DO IT. WHATEVER.” If the people at the Times wanted to run a truly conscientious newspaper, anyway, they would.