Learn English – Is Valley Girl speak “like”, entering the language


So like, I had this teacher? And he's like, "You're late?" And I'm like,
"There's like other people late too?"

I've always cringed at the word "like" strewn about in a spoken sentence. Well now I've seen it in print, right in the middle of an otherwise articulate National Geographic article. Not once, but twice. As far as I could tell it was not being used tongue in cheek. In the Feb '10 issue, in the article about the Congo Chimps. See last two paragraphs here: http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2010/02/congo-chimps/foer-text/2

"Sure enough, they built their nests directly over our tents," says Morgan.
"I was like, This is great! But our trackers were like, No way, man, this
is very bad news."

"People were like, Curiosity: Hmmm, how do you define that?" says Sanz,
34, now a professor at Washington University in St. Louis."

When I read that I had to shake my head and go back to re-read those sentences. I'm just curious what people think of this, and if you have seen any other examples in like a literate context?

Best Answer

I can't think of any other examples at the moment, but I can offer a few interesting comments.

The word like in the sense you are using it is a discourse particle to indicate a possible mismatch between words and meaning. This was first noted by Schourup (1985).

Compare the difference:

  1. John said, "what are you, crazy?"

  2. John was like, "what are you, crazy?"

Sentence (1) implies an exact quote from John, while sentence (2) is paraphrasing or giving the gist of his reaction — he didn't have to say those exact words at all. It can even be used to recount facial expressions or emotions, e.g. "and I was like (O_O)", where if you are speaking to someone you can mimic the facial expression of your story.

Note that, in the reference I linked to above, there are other uses for like besides this particular function.

I wish I could find a reference for this (and if anyone can find one, please add it to the comments), but it is well-known among linguists that adolescent girls are very often at the forefront of language change (and men are generally more conservative than women overall). So it is no surprise that something considered to be exclusively done by adolescent girls in the early 80s could be fairly widespread in 2010 and increasing.

As I mentioned in the beginning, like also provides a useful discourse marker that other words do not replicate, which means that it has linguistic value — it provides something unique. This leads me to believe that, once the valley-girl stigma is a thing of the past (who knows how long that will be), like will only proliferate more (unless something else comes along in the meantime!). Just think how far it has come even with the stigma in existence. People who think it is silly sometimes find themselves using it in speech in spite of themselves.

I find this word (and its viral power) fascinating.