Have you ever wondered why some people say 'like' so often? Like, even when they didn't need to? Well, earlier this year researchers from the University of Texas took a look at conversations. Filler words, for example, are exactly what they sound like; words such as 'uh' and 'um' we use to fill out sentences and are used by everyone. 'Discourse markers' on the other hand, are words that appear to litter our sentences, for like, literally no reason, such as 'like', 'you know' and 'I mean.'
The group concluded that those particular discourse markers (the 'likes') were used more often by young people and women.
Eww! for real?
They also discovered that the more 'likes' and 'you knows' you use, the more empathetic you are likely to be. According to the findings, 'conscientious people are generally more thoughtful and aware of themselves and their surroundings,' and their use of all those 'likes' just shows they have a 'desire to share or rephrase opinions to recipients.'
Unfortunately, that's not the reputation the discourse markers have earned throughout their 35 year history. Indeed, those classic words, along with 'literally', (rarely meant in the literal sense but felt deeply nonetheless) among dozens of others have their roots in 'Valleyspeak'; a combination of female teen and surfer slang, which rose to prominence in California in the early 1980s and was marked not just by the over-use of 'likes' but perhaps the most grating speech habit to ever have come out of the 20th century: the upward inflection at the end of sentences?
Since then it has become synonymous with female teen speech patterns and has been employed with much ironic hilarity in movies from Heathers to Clueless to Mean Girls. It's most recent user might be Shoshanna from Girls, although Hannah has a slight upward inflection on the show. But this might simply be Lena Dunham's natural speech pattern.
The Australian version has been nailed by Chris Lilley in his portrayal of schoolgirl Jam'ie King. But Aussie Teen-speak has its own peculiar twist: the pronunciation of 'O' as 'Oy'. For example, 'Jackie Oy would soy love to goy to New Yoyrk one day, guys.'
It would seem then, that these words, along with the inflection, are marking more than discourse, they're labelling young women as vapid, inarticulate and strangely, materialistic. Like, besides being totes hilarious, (yes, abbreeves are now part of it - more on them later).
But what about other (traditionally male) discourse markers from other stereotypes?
You only have to turn on the TV after a game to hear the male equivalent, dontcha mate? Because, at the end of the day I give full credit to anyone who can listen to a sportsman talk for 30 seconds. Or, going forward, let's remind ourselves of how corporate-speak can leave us wanting less face time with the person who utilises it. Meanwhile, how do the people of Australia view political-speak?
But while those genres of speech are ridiculed, they are not viewed as a malignant tumour of stupidity on the Australian language the way Teen-speak is. Perhaps because Teen-speak is more American, (and older Aussies are touchy about that). But it's been proven that while it might seem annoying, Teen-speak does not correlate with stupidity. It does correlate with female-ness though. Interesting, right?
“If women do something like uptalk … it’s immediately interpreted as insecure, emotional or even stupid,” Carmen Fought, a professor of linguistics at Pitzer College in California told the New York Times. “The truth is this: Young women take linguistic features and use them as power tools for building relationships.”
In fact, with the internet, this 'Teen-speak' has widened, not just in terms of slang and abbreviations, (RAOTFLMAO), but in demographic terms too. In his thunderously pietistic essay on female writers, Edward Champion accused the current crop of women scribes as having 'an obsession' with 'adolescent mimicry.'
I take Champion's point and I'd like to hold hands with it around Westfield while I confess that since I gyrated my chubby teen torso to Prince's Gett Off in 1991, my vernacular - in my online articles and IRL - has like, barely changed?
But get this: I'm hardly alone. Most women, most people and online outlets use remnants of teen-speak all. THE. TIME, often to hilarious effect.
It's called linguistic appropriation and it happens more than you think. Did you know more men are using uptalk? And that more men are also using 'like' and 'you know'?
The thing about new words is that they enter the collective lexicon via disenfranchised groups, such as people of colour and gay folks. And, like, you know, us gals, who have been called ‘pioneers’ of language by linguists.
Words developed by those in power don't work for them, (uh, us), which is why they have to get creative.
Remember what Samantha told her boyfriend about his cultural reach on Sex and the City? (A show labelled vapid and materialistic so many times, I can't even deal).
'First the gays, then the girls, then the industry.’
I mean, that is like a totes appropes metaphor to explain what’s happening to speech. And, in this writer's opinion? That's actually awesome.