Sociolinguistics and the Like-Particle

Continuing on our idea that even bad-grammar is still correct and useful grammar, today we're, like, gonna totally talk about the disourse-particle "like".

Click Here for the Related IntroNotes Article: Yither and Yence Yeet Ye?

Use of the mid-clause-"like" conjures a very specific image of the speaker. The forever twenty-one california Valley Girl, the vapid teenage beauty queen, the air-headed blonde bimbo, and whatever other insideous mysogynistic image you can musterIgnoring the obvious patriarchal rejection of all "feminine" or "womanish" modes of communication, what is the mid-clause-"like" actually saying?
The sociolinguist Vera Regan of University College Dublinexcellently summarises the use of this particle as it's own grammatical system. This is to say it is: regular, meaninful, and bound by strict rules, some of which we will discuss here.
First are the rules of this grammar. The "valley girl" mid-clause-"like" ("I was all, like, confused") follows a distinctly different rule-set to the "irish" terminal-clause-"like" ("I was all confused, like")Furthermore, the mid-clause-"like" (MCL), serves a different function to the standard-comparative-"like" (SCL) ("this is like that") and the standard-verb-"like" (SVL) ("I like pizza").
The MCL almost always falls after the copula verb to be (implied or stated). This can be either for emphasis (A), or to function in place of the SCL, suggesting that a demonstration or performance follows (B). In the few instances in which the MCL occurs after a non-copula verb, it is then used for emphasis. This can be emphasis of the objective phrase (C), or of impetus of an explicit or implied imperative structures (D).
  • He was, like, super drunk.
  • I'm, like, so done with all this.
  • She was, like, "what at you talking about?"
  • And I was like, "why are you so obsessed with me?"
  • I ate, like, everything!
  • She's been, like, everywhere.
  • Could you be, like, any more annoying?!
  • Can you, like, not?
So why is this considered a distinct grammar and not bad English? Because of the potential for contextually shifting between languages. A speaker may use correct (or rather standard) English in formal settings, and use their own vernacular English in informal spacesThis switching between vernaculars differentiates not just the grammars but also the social and semantic context.
To speak with a group's vernacular is to include oneself in the linguistic in-group. Use of the MCL and associated vernacular doesn't just exist as a unique grammar, but is also a social cue suggesting a demographic. It is a way to say "this is me" and "I am part of this group". It suggests a non-male-dominated social mileu. It suggests a dynamic in opposition to firm prescriptivistic and academic tradition. It suggests a value of socially-relevant or impressionistic interpretation, rather than literal/factual or academic information.
Vera Regan suggests use of the MCL is a performative display of status, group, and personal identityAnd, whilst this vernacular can become part of ones default manner of speech, it can also be an intentionally affected social device for certain situations.
In my experience as a gay man, I frequently find myself employing the MCL in certain contexts. In reflecting on my useage, I find I predominantly use the MCL when talking to friends who are women or other gay men. I find myself employing it to say "this performative feminisation of my vernacular is being employed to show you that any incidental man-ness in my identity is not to be employed to suggest superiority in discourse" or "this interpersonal conversation is placing importance on emotional or social content rather than academic merit"It is intendedconsciously or otherwise, as a performative display which, whilst intrinstically politically charged, is pragmatically and primarily one of social identity and function.
Whilst this is just the tip of the iceberg of culturally significant vernaculars, the mid-clause-"like" exists as more than just bad-EnglishIf the purpose of good language is to convey maximal information, univeral use of standard academic English, could be said to convey less para-verbal social information.
In this way, speaking with mid-clause interruptions may be traditionally, like, bad-English, linguistically, it is far better than good-English, could ever hope to be.

Banner image edited from public domain captures of the Gutenberg Bible



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