In confessing her like-aholism ("My Love Affair With 'Like'", Jezebel 6/26/2011), Erin Gloria Ryan framed the problem in terms of gender roles:
Any girl who's been teased for middle school nerdery has likely developed a long standing aversion for the feeling of being excluded for being too smart or opinionated. This is the way that socially acceptable people talk. This is the way that pretty people talk. Women are taught that it's more important to be pretty and socially accepted than it is to be smart. Ergo, like.
She's talking about the discourse-particle like, as in her example "so, like, my sentences, like, sound like this. And I, like, sound dumber than I actually am". She reports a student evaluation that also noted the stereotypical association with youth: ""She says 'like' more often than a valley girl".
Are these stereotypes accurate? Is the discourse-particle like really characteristic of younger women? Today's Breakfast Experiment™ looks into the matter, and finds (in a limited and superficial survey of proxy measures) that one part of the stereotype is apparently valid, but the other is not.
As a source of data, I used the LDC's Fisher English collection, which comprises 11,699 telephone conversations recorded in 2003. The good news is that like occurs 317,509 times, and the demographic metadata for the speakers include age and sex. The bad news is that like is very ambiguous — we're not interested in like the verb
casual periodic dining out is fine but generally speaking i like eating at home
or like the complementizer
yeah it isn't as easy as it looks like it is on TV
or like the preposition
with a person like that you have no idea what they're gonna do
And I don't have time this morning to sort through even a large sample of the 317,509 cases. So as a proxy measure, I'm going to count hits for some simple patterns where nearly all of the hits will be the kinds of like that we're looking for. For example, sequences of PREPOSITION like ARTICLE will mostly give us things like this:
… but you know just this feeling of you know like disorientation you know this feeling of wow where am I and where do I fit into this and where do we all fit into this you know trying to sort through like the recognition about what happened …
We want to look at specific prepositions and articles that occur together often enough for the comparison to be meaningful; and (because the data is far from orthogonal in the variables of interest) we'll look in each case at the proportion of like-insertion in a given lexical frame.
Here's "in (like) the":
|in like the||in the||like per 10,000|
Here's "on (like) the":
|on like the||on the||like per 10,000|
In both of those cases, it seems that men actually insert like more often than women do. This is not true for all of the lexical frames that I've tried, e.g. "for (like) the":
|for like the||for the||like per 10,000|
Two things are different in "for (like) the" compared to "in (like) the" and "on (like) the": the frequency of like-insertion is 3 to 5 times higher; and the women are doing it around 7% more often than the men, rather than about 20-30% less often. It might be interesting to look into these differences further, but it's time to pour another cup of coffee and move on.
So far, the femininity of like-itis is certainly not getting a ringing endorsement. How about the age dimension? In order to break it down by age as well as sex, let's back off from the prepositions and look at sequences of the form ARTICLE like. These mostly turn up things like
i saw that last on last night on fox news that some of the like suicide bombers are are trying to attack soldiers there
once you have a family you get married and so forth you know the like relationships change a little bit
you have to you have to register you know to have a like i don't know how to say certificate or something
i came across it on um a site on the internet in a like freebie type newsletter
If we again normalize the ARTICLE like counts by the ARTICLE counts, we get something like this:
[The "Age Group" categories are 20-39 ("yng"), 40-59 ("mid"), and 60-69 ("old").]
The first thing to note is that these data do confirm the youth hypothesis: for all combinations of sex and article, the frequency of like-insertion declines steeply with age.
But again, the relation to sex is complicated.
Overall, guys are doing a bit more like-insertion than gals — if we all up all the counts and normalize again, we find a rate of 20.0 per 10,000 for the males, versus 16.4 per 10,000 for the females.
The two articles come out differently with respect to sex. In the case of "a", men consistently insert like more often than women — overall the male rate is 25.6 per 10,000 versus a female rate of 17.6, and the difference is maintained in every age group. However, in the case of "the", women generally insert like more frequently, especially at younger ages.
Where does this leave us? With more questions than answers, as usual; but there are a couple of clear conclusions.
First, there's definitely an association between non-traditional like and youth. As usual, whether this is a life-cycle thing or a change in progress is unclear; as usual, it's probably a bit of both; but it's plausible to assume that this is a change going forward, and that in a few decades phrases like "a really like lively community" will become part of the standard language.
Second, there's no evidence that women insert non-traditional like into their conversation more often than men do. There may be specific syntactic or pragmatic contexts where this is true; there may be effects in some registers and not others. But so far, I'm inclined to think that this is one of those cases where congruence with pre-existing stereotypes (here that women are less assertive) leads to post-hoc rationalization and confirmation bias.
[A set of links to previous LL discussions of like can be found here; also links to two relevant publications, Muffy Siegel, "Like: The Discourse Particle and Semantics", J. of Semantics 19(1), Feb. 2002, and Alexandra D'Arcy, "Like and Language Ideology: Disentangling Fact from Fiction", American Speech 82(4) 2007.]
Update — Thanks to a comment from Damon (below), I remembered a post from Language Log Classic ("Like totally presidential", 8/17/2007) which quotes Yoko Iyeiri et al., "Gender and Style: the Discourse Particle like in the Corpus of Spoken Professional American English", English Corpus Studies 12, 2005:
We have investigated the Corpus of Spoken Professional American English and found that the discourse particle like is attested in the exploratory talk of the national meetings of mathematics tests and reading tests, both held in the 1990s, to a noticeable extent. By contrast, the expository talk of White House press conferences and faculty meetings of the University of North Carolina provides far fewer examples of the discourse particle like. As for gender differences, the same item is more frequently employed by male speakers. This result does not necessarily support the generally accepted view, which argues that it is a characteristic feature of young female speech.
They offer this graph: