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:
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.
"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.
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.