Like thanks

« previous post | next post »

In addition to the evergreen list of things to be thankful for — family, friends, health, worlds full of wonder — I'd like to make a plug for the internet, that connects us to all of them. Less directly than we might sometimes wish, but much more easily.

And for anyone interested in speech, language, and communication, the internet and the virtual universe behind it offer an extraordinary opportunity to make voyages of discovery, and to share what we find.

Here's a tiny example, something from the margins of a small project. I've been dis-editing the transcripts of some Fresh Air interviews, adding disfluencies and so on. Because there are hundreds if not thousands of these interviews available both as audio files and as (clean) transcripts, they offer an interesting opportunity to look at various phenomena in a more or less consistent setting.

Yesterday I reported a bit of evidence about "UM / UH accommodation", and this morning I dis-edited a couple more transcripts, and I thought I noticed a generational effect in the frequency of the discourse particle like, as in this quotation from an interview with Lena Dunham:

I mean, my mom always tells the story of like, you know, from the backseat of the car she and my parent- my dad, when I was like three, would be talking about someone from work. And I'd scream what color's her hair? How old is she? Does she have a husband? Like I just- I needed to know everything about everyone.

I'm not the first — or the thousandth — person to notice that this is an example of language change in progress. See "Like youth and sex" (6/28/2011) for some previous discussion. But the effect struck me as pretty consistent on an individual basis in the Fresh Air interviews that I've seen so far, and so I decided to look at it a bit more quantitatively.

The evidence for like-accommodation is more equivocal (though the effect may turn out to be real):

Not a big thing. But I'm thankful!

Update– Interestingly, there's similar age grading of speaking rate (except for Carrie Brownstein, whose speech in the analyzed interview has very long silent pauses throughout):

This might just be older people slowing down. But maybe it supports the view of a young person of my acquaintance:

ok like i am always gonna proudly overuse the word "like" bc it makes all the right people mad,, and i like it as a word, i think its aesthetically pleasing,its nice to pepper it in its like. u are winding ur speech around..a central multi purpose word that can even serve as interjection.. like is the powerhouse of the sentence




  1. D.O. said,

    November 26, 2015 @ 3:37 pm


  2. Michael Watts said,

    November 26, 2015 @ 4:45 pm

    I was in a Chinese class with a young (early 20s) Australian girl who peppered her Chinese speech with 'like' (the english word, although context suggests an analysis other than "english word"), every few words or so. Her English speech was not so affected.

    It's not clear to me what to conclude about what 'like' meant to her, but maybe it was what she said when she was trying to think of how to say something?

  3. Victor Mair said,

    November 26, 2015 @ 7:33 pm

    I'm grateful that I live in a country where the internet is not filtered, constricted, banned, blocked, and censored to such a degree that only a miniscule amount of its wealth can get through.

    As for "like", for what it's worth:

    "Like, Uh, You Know: Why Do Americans Say 'You Know' And Use Other Verbal Fillers So Often?", by Palash Ghosh (International Business Times, 1/29/14):

    On the evening of Jan. 17, Hollywood film mogul Harvey Weinstein appeared as a guest on Piers Morgan Live on CNN to discuss his plan to make a movie that will attack the National Rifle Association and to respond to accusations that his films portray the Catholic Church negatively. While the majority of the viewing audience likely focused on the content of Weinstein's replies, a smaller segment of the audience might have been alarmed (or annoyed or amused) by the movie producer's penchant for using the meaningless phrase “you know” in his discourse. Indeed, Weinstein used that term a whopping 84 times during the broadcast.

    Linguists call interjections like “you know” and “like” and “um” and “I mean” and a multitude of others “filler” or “discourse particles” – that is, an unconscious device that serves as a pause in the middle of a sentence as the speaker gathers his or her thoughts but wants to maintain the listener’s attention. However, it would appear that such fillers – which have minimal grammatical or lexical value – have infiltrated daily conversations to such an extent that they threaten to further damage the beauty, power and effectiveness of verbal communication….

    [(myl) This is actually pernicious nonsense — nonsense because the only thing that has changed over time is what the "fillers" are, not how frequent they are, on average; and pernicious because it feeds into all the world's worst "kids today" prejudices.]

  4. phspaelti said,

    November 26, 2015 @ 8:47 pm

    Is the ration of TG / Guest speech always roughly the same across interviews? Or are there significant variations?

  5. Bloix said,

    November 26, 2015 @ 9:54 pm

    "because the only thing that has changed over time is what the "fillers" are,"

    I do not believe that this is true. I think a man of the status, power, and experience in public speaking of a Harvey Weinstein would at some point in the not-too-distant past have been able to spin out long, grammatically correct sentences without hesitation, filler, or self-interruption.

  6. Ken Miner said,

    November 26, 2015 @ 10:57 pm

    This is actually pernicious nonsense

    I hear you, but we still admire "good speakers". Keith Wrightson teaches a course at Yale on Tudor-Stewart England. He lectures straight through. He is just about the best lecturer I have ever heard. He never utters an "ah" or an "er". Every sentence is polished perfection, he uses adult vocabulary, he makes no references to pop culture, and he seems to have no ego. He uses some notes, but they do not get in his way. Yet he won a teaching award! There is a God after all.

    [(myl) Individuals at any time in history differ widely among themselves in how frequently they use all sorts of fillers, just as they differ in how fast they talk and so on. And any individual also differs in filler frequency across occasions.

    What is pernicious nonsense is the idea that "such fillers […] have infiltrated daily conversations" to a greater and greater extent over time, or that "they threaten to further damage the beauty, power and effectiveness of verbal communication" to a steadily increasing extent.]

  7. Rebecca said,

    November 26, 2015 @ 11:44 pm

    I would imagine that most people have times when they use more or less fillers. I was curious to hear what filler-free speech sounded like when it was not part of a theatrical performance, so I googled Keith Wrightson, mentioned by Ken Miner above. Picking the first video that popped up, he used at least three "uh"s or "um"s in the first 15 seconds or so. Maybe an off day, or maybe certain fillers don't interrupt our attention to content, or maybe certain contexts (like on TV or radio) make them more noticeable, since we hear so much scripted speech in those contexts?

  8. Ken Miner said,

    November 27, 2015 @ 12:15 am

    @ Rebecca You're quite right, I checked it. So I was wrong with my "never". But when he gets going in his actual lectures (what you watched was the beginning of his intro to the course), fillers are – I'll be more careful this time – nearly absent.

    I'm sure I've heard speakers who have trained themselves never to use hesitation forms. I tried to do that in my own lectures, because I know how annoying they can be, especially when overdone, and didn't find it that hard.

  9. Ken Miner said,

    November 27, 2015 @ 12:19 am

    By the way, all you have to do is, when you feel a vocal filler coming on, is to pause.

  10. Michael Watts said,

    November 27, 2015 @ 1:34 am

    I often pause to think instead of vocalizing an uhh (I also often say the uhh). Pausing is extremely disorienting for your audience, if there's any question at all of whether you're going to continue speaking.

  11. Chas Belov said,

    November 27, 2015 @ 3:29 am

    TG = Terry Gross?

  12. joanne salton said,

    November 27, 2015 @ 3:30 am

    Surely the "like" is sometimes a sort of badge of identity, and also a signal that one does not wish to come over harsh and pretentious (and old-fashioned like me), and thus especially frequent. If that is not true then it would be the most counter-intuitive linguistic fact I have ever encountered.

  13. Chas Belov said,

    November 27, 2015 @ 3:33 am

    Ah, yes, I see that now that I've read the UH/UM accomodation post, which would seem to be a prerequisite for comprehending this current post.

  14. mgh said,

    November 27, 2015 @ 4:45 am

    Does the correlation hold up if you plot filler frequency vs speech time rather than number of words, ie normalize for differences in rates of speech? I am thinking that Willie Nelson speaks slowly, and you may need more fillers as you try to talk faster.

    [(myl) Actually Willie Nelson uses "uh" at a pretty good clip even in terms of word-count frequency: 27.7 per thousand words. He doesn't ever use "um", but in terms of UM+UH, his overall rate is still higher than any of the other Fresh Air interviewees I've checked, both in instances per thousand words and in terms of instances per minute:

                     Birth Per kW Per Min
    WillieNelson      1933  27.73    4.23
    StephenKing       1947  14.53    2.42
    JillSoloway       1965  15.48    2.77
    LenaDunham        1986   6.27    1.25
    DanielTorday      1977  17.93    4.07
    RichardFord       1944  10.45    2.00
    CarrieBrownstein  1974  20.18    2.58
    JohnKander        1927  19.13    2.51

    If we add in the counts of "like", then Willie is still the winner in terms of frequency per thousand words, but he loses to Jill Soloway and Daniel Torday in terms of frequency per minute:

                     Birth Per kW Per Min
    WillieNelson      1933  30.14    4.60
    StephenKing       1947  20.42    3.40
    JillSoloway       1965  26.58    4.75
    LenaDunham        1986  18.64    3.73
    DanielTorday      1977  28.29    6.43
    RichardFord       1944  13.86    2.65
    CarrieBrownstein  1974  28.04    3.59
    JohnKander        1927  23.48    3.08

    And we could go on to look at other common fillers like "you know", "I mean", "so", "well"; at less common fillers like "right?"; at repetitions like "and- and- and" or "I- I- I"; at painfully long silences; and so forth.

  15. David Morris said,

    November 27, 2015 @ 5:41 am

    A few months ago I watched the first part of a talk by Stephen Fry in the Sydney Opera House (thinks: I much watch the end of that). He alternated between spontaneous sections about his impressions of Sydney and what he'd done there on this trip, and 'set pieces' (for the want of a better word) about his road to university, meeting Hugh Laurie, their first work in comedy, reflections on comedy or language – material which he's obviously written or spoken about (perhaps many times) before. It was very noticeable that the rate of fillers, hesitations, false starts, backtracking and recasting etc, was much higher during the spontaneous sections than the set ones.
    I think that the seeming growth in fillers, etc is due to the fact that, in the past, we generally only (or more) heard 'professional' speakers speaking (relatively) prepared material. Now, with technology including the internet, we can hear just about anyone, speaking just about anytime.
    As I was typing this, I was subvocalising (and occasionally actually vocalising) my thoughts. I noticed that my (sub)vocalisations included ums and ahs which obviously do not show up in the written version.

    [(myl) Excellent points.

    I'd add that people who notice a vocal habit that's different from theirs, and is associated with others whom they're disposed to resent, will tend (in perception and memory) to exaggerate its frequency relative to analogous habits that they find more familiar and comfortable.]

  16. Geoff said,

    November 27, 2015 @ 7:38 am

    Remember that fillers, by slowing things down, not only help the speaker to gather their thoughts, they also help the listener to keep up. The concise and elegant speech of a practised lecturer may look nice in the written paper, but it's not necessarily most helpful for live listeners.

  17. joanne salton said,

    November 27, 2015 @ 8:02 am

    People often comment negatively on "like" in particular – can you think of a comparable historical example where a filler became an object of cross-generational conflict?

    Gore Vidal once claimed to be the last man alive who spoke in complete grammatical sentences. Perhaps he was the last man who wished to?

  18. Richard Krummerich said,

    November 27, 2015 @ 10:04 am

    The first character I remember saying" like" was Maynard G. Krebs the Bob denver role in The Lives and Loves of Dobbie Gillis.

    [(myl) From page 4 of Kerouac's On the Road (1957) — Dean Moriarty says:

    “Man, wow, there’s so many things to do, so many things to write! How to even begin to get it all down and without modified restraints and all hung-up on like literary inhibitions and grammatical fears . . .”

    The Dobie Gillis TV series started in 1959, which is later, but the the Max Shulman "Dobie Gillis" short stories started coming out in 1945, so maybe they have priority. Anyhow the adverbial/discourse-particle uses of like were certainly associated with stereotypical beat-generation lingo.]

  19. January First-of-May said,

    November 27, 2015 @ 5:15 pm

    I don't know how, but this particular filler (and/or its "quotative" sense) had somehow managed to infiltrate even my English (at least, its spoken version) – even though I'm pretty sure it shouldn't have come up much in anything used in my education, both formal and informal (except perhaps the occasional internet text – but even online, people don't use that sort of stuff in writing anywhere near as often as in speech).
    That said, I probably just caught it somewhere on YouTube (and/or when talking to some American that I happened to meet).

  20. Ken Miner said,

    November 28, 2015 @ 3:43 am

    You can find 'like' in US Spanish: "cuando tenia como 19 años expuse unos dibujos en una muestra colectiva" ("When I was like 19 years old I exposed some drawings in a group show"). ( Don't think anybody has explored this.

  21. John Walden said,

    November 28, 2015 @ 5:23 am

    It certainly gets used in BrE, and for all I know elsewhere, as a way of reporting speech. Though perhaps to paraphrase and not be as verbatim as I said/he said might be:

    "And he's like: Will you help me? And I'm like: No way! And he's like:Why not?"

    "I'm kinda: I'm not sure" and "I go: Because I haven't got time" sound much the same.

    And asking to be shot down by pesky details like statistics and facts, I'd say that "I'm like:………" does sound a bit Brit Girl.

  22. Ray said,

    November 28, 2015 @ 6:17 am

    I’ve noticed of late that teevee pundits and experts and celebrities will use “so…” to begin their answer, usually to a serious, complex question that involves a serious, complex explanation or summary. it always strikes me as endearingly informal and conversational, like an adult who’s borrowing from their adolescent speech style, but trying to sound more adult. It’s like, “so” is a brief filler/pause, while also expressing “I hear what you’re asking but I also want to signal that we need to back up so I can explain the larger premise of your question and the context of my answer."

  23. Thomas Leslie said,

    November 28, 2015 @ 10:02 am

    @ Ken Miner, I wonder whether that "como" is just a way to signal an approximation (i.e. "When I was about 19 years old I presented…") rather than a quotative/filler a la English "like"?

    Claudia Holguín Mendoza out of U. of Oregon has done some work on, like, a number of Mexican Spanish quotatives and discourse particles which are similar to English "like" and "be+like". Check out her chapter "Pragmatic functions and cultural communicative needs in the use of innovative quotatives among Mexican bilingual youth" in Sociolinguistic Change Across the Spanish-speaking World : Case Studies in Honor of Anna Maria Escobar (2015). Should be accessible in digital form.

  24. Ken Miner said,

    November 28, 2015 @ 10:17 am

    @ Ray Totally cool! I thought I was the only one in the world who noticed this new use of "so". I've been calling it "introductory 'so'". It's nearly as widespread in the US now as the "double copula" (on which Wikipedia now has an article).

  25. Bloix said,

    November 28, 2015 @ 10:58 am

    Geoff Nunberg of this very blog did a commentary on NPR on introductory so a couple of months ago.
    To me, it seems like a substitution for well, which seems to have fallen back as a way to start a sentence. Well feels slower and older than so.

    [(myl) In this limited set of 10 interviews, the ratio of SO/WELL does seem to increase with increasing year of birth:


    Like seems to have originated, not as filler, but as a word with actual meaning – either "for example," as in the Kerouac excerpt Mark quotes in response to Richard Krummerich, above, or with the related meaning "more or less, approximately," as in "he was like 19 when it happened," to paraphrase Ken Miner's example. It may have been an abbreviated form of "things like" or something like."

    [(myl) There's good reason to believe that ALL fillers — including UM and UH — have "actual meaning".]

  26. Ray said,

    November 28, 2015 @ 12:23 pm

    @Bloix thanks for the link! — the article describes perfectly how I've been hearing the "so" thing. I think the "so" thing also seems on the rise among the explaining classes in the media because of an increasing awareness that the questions themselves are so often posed, in such public arenas, as contentious statements, and so there's a need to 1) acknowledge that and 2) frame that before 3) responding to that.

    (I think "like" is also a kind of defensive thing. and so maybe these fillers are really about power dynamics?)

  27. Rebecca said,

    November 28, 2015 @ 12:29 pm

    Speaking of the "so" filler to begin answers, I find the explanation-ending "so…yeah" very interesting. Among its many uses, 11 year olds find it useful when reporting misbehaviour (either their own or a colleague's) and find it prudent to let some details be inferred by the listener (me). But it's common enough to have its own blog and facebook page.

    I would so love to hear a tv pundit use this. By now, surely, someone has.

  28. Rodger C said,

    November 28, 2015 @ 12:40 pm

    So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by
    And the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.
    We have heard of those princes’ heroic campaigns.

  29. Jenny Chu said,

    November 29, 2015 @ 9:26 pm

    Two (unrelated) thoughts on this:

    1. In the book "Drifters" by James Michener, published in 1971 and set in 1969, the narrator goes on a rant about an 18-year-old character using "like" all the time (especially in conjunction with "wow", as in "I mean, like wow!"). So is it a language change? Or is it a flexible age marker? I am 42 and use "like" a lot less than I used to when I was, like, 16.

    [(myl) That's always a question about age-graded phenomena. In this case, at least, we can be sure that English-speaking young people didn't characteristically use discourse-particle like a couple of hundred years ago — think Huckleberry Finn. And even in 1950, like doesn't seem to have been widespread in the general population — think The Catcher in the Rye as opposed to On the Road.]

    2. From a course in Old Church Slavonic long ago, I vaguely remember that there is a construction in which one can use "byl jako" (or something similar) to introduce a quote. Like, "And Jesus, to his disciples, was like, 'Come follow me.'" Any Slavic philologists around who can confirm or refute this?

  30. Terry Hunt said,

    November 30, 2015 @ 11:13 am

    @ Roger C

    Hwaet's that you say?

  31. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    December 1, 2015 @ 12:08 am

    @ Ken Miner — I often do pause when speaking, and sometimes I get interrupted at that point. I am not particularly offended by this, since I struggle to prevent myself from interrupting others. I think using fillers can signal that there's more to come and help stave off interruptions.

    In general, my experience is that some people speak fluently in public and some don't. Some professors I had (early 1970s) delivered very showy lectures, and others stuttered and stammered and used fillers and sometimes even failed to make the point they had intended to. I experienced excellent and dreadful lectures from professors in both English and linguistics, had a philosophy professor who appeared to have stage fright, and struggled to pay attention to a computer science professor who said "uh" so often that I started counting the number of "uhs" then during subsequent lectures had quite a bit of trouble focusing on content rather than fillers.

RSS feed for comments on this post