Sunday, July 15, 2007

Teenaged Girls Talk Like That, Like, For A Reason

Mike Clark, the N&R's language columnist, today takes on two features of teenaged girl talk that seem to bug adults the most: the profligate use of like, and rising intonation at the end of declarative sentences. He transcribes a girl's cellphone conversation which he overheard at the Smithsonian:

"Waitwaitwait listen. Like my cousin? Rachel? Like she was here last year? And, like, she got so bored? That they, like, had to practically put her in an institution?"

[Mike continues] ... My wife insists that all generations after ours will speak with the question inflection ... the problem seems to be spreading.

He's right that "the problem" of rising intonation is widespread. Two scholars published a study in 2005 of the rising intonation in teenaged girls in Finland. It's also an established feature of many dialects in the UK, including Australia and New Zealand, and its prevalence in some speech patterns in Canada and the upper midwest in the US have led some to believe it's an artifact of Norwegian influence.

Most studies indicate it's commonest among adolescent girls and has been since the 1980s. Since I don't notice many adult women in their 30's talking that way, I'm guessing it's a speech pattern most of them outgrow.

And the rising intonation (which, by the way, is not the same as "question" intonation, which usually has a rise-and-fall unless it's a yes-or-no question) has a discourse function.

Most researchers seem to agree that the rising intonation is used (1) to provide the listener with an opportunity to give indications that she's still listening ("uh huh"), and (2) to signal that the speaker isn't done yet, that there's still more to come.

That may be why the girl on the cellphone used the rising inflection so often. When people don't have access to visual cues that their listener is still listening, it seems natural that they would use vocal ones more often.

As to the use of "like," that's another interesting phenomenon that has been studied pretty intensively among US and UK speakers. Far from being just a verbal tic or a filler, it's been shown to have a number of specific functions, such as marking a new, focused informational element in the utterance, as opposed to an established topic. One recent study shows,
In the vast majority of the children’s data like focuses on constituents which occur to the right of it including not only phrasal constituents, but also whole clauses and, arguably, entire discourse topics. --Stephen Levey, "He's like ‘Do it now!’ and I'm like ‘No!’" English Today (2003), 19: 24-32.
The irritating girl on the cellphone was telling her listener every time she said like, "this is new and important information that hasn't been previously established in our mutual discourse and that isn't a part of our set of shared assumptions." Her repeated use of "like" isn't meaningless; it just tells us that, like a lot of teenaged girls, she tends to place too much importance on trivial things. She's irritating because she repeatedly communicates that her every phrase is important.

Like actually does a lot more than that, however, and the literature on it is fascinating. It can be found without a great deal of effort, both in libraries and even on the internet. The same is true of studies of rising intonation.

I'll bet readers of a language column in a newspaper would like to know some of that stuff.


Calvin said...

I, like, hate it when like is, like, overly used. I so, like, pray that they grow out of the habit to, like through like into every sentence whether it, like, goes there or not.

However, I have noticed, like, alot of women my age, like mid twenties, that like, still use like. But, like it also depends on their career, if they like, are in a more professional environment saying like every 5 sentences would, like, get them fired.

Just me thoughts...


David Wharton said...


I used to play a game with my pre-teen daughters, in which I offered them a dollar if they could go for 5 minutes without saying "like."

I never had to pay, but now that they're a bit older, I find they can control it when they need to -- like, when they're talking to adults.

Anonymous said...

I told my daughter when she was seven about the irritating use of the word "like" by teenage girls. I ridiculed it to the point that she swore she would never talk that way and now points out when she hears other girls talk that way. So far so good.

As far as the rising inflection, a law professor once told me that girls speak that way out of timidness-- that is they are afraid to make a direct statement so they make it sound like a question as if seeking approval of their comment. I'm not sure that is the truth, but I have heard the theory expounded elsewhere. I have researched this a little myself. I suspect both irritating habits have their roots in 80's "valspeak".

Anonymous said...

Like, gag me with a fried Papa Smurf.

Yeah, ok, so I said that in the 80's. But, it was sarcasm! Those valley girls in my high school just annoyed me...I had to say something!

Professor Patch said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Professor Patch said...

How timely. Check out what the "On Language" columnist for The New York Times had to say this week on this very subject.