Literary Pretentiousness Is, Like, So Overrated

What’s the difference between “My sister said ‘I would rather die than help you’”, and “My sister was like, ‘I would rather die than help you’", and “My sister was all, ‘I would rather die than help you’”? For some people, there isn’t one. They’d claim that the use of ‘like’ and ‘was all’ is nothing but a remnant of valley-girl speak that reduces us all to adolescents, twirling our hair and popping our bubblegum while the grown-ups articulate eloquently in coffee shops. Which is like, totally rude, right?

The difference between ‘said’, ‘like’, and ‘was all’ is actually a very sophisticated linguistic modifier to denote tone. If I said that my sister ‘said’ something, I am implying that what follows is a verbatim quote. If I said my sister ‘was like’, I am implying that I am paraphrasing her. If I said my sister ‘was all’, I’m giving the tone of her words without denoting anything about what she actually said. This effective tool is an advancement on linguistics, allowing our speech to be more nuanced than before, but only if the speakers and recipients understand this unspoken verbal code. Those who aren’t learned in the modern vernacular (old, male linguistic professors, or our moms) often conflate the three and will gasp and ask if the speaker actually said those things. Well, no, obviously. That’s why I said ‘was all’.

But onto ‘like’ in its other usage: “And I was thinking that’s, like, a totally pretentious view of modern linguistics!” This is the like most often associated with teenage girls, and the one most often mocked. In this case, the usage of ‘like’ is what’s known as a filler word, or verbal pause. Some others include ‘uhm’, ‘ah’, ‘you know’, or ‘basically’. They function the same as someone saying, “And I was thinking that’s, uhm, a totally pretentious view of modern linguistics!” It doesn’t look good written down, no, but that’s why written dialogue doesn’t directly mimic human speech anyway. Besides, that’s not what verbal pauses are for. Filler words exist in every spoken language. Wikipedia even has a whole page (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Filler_(linguistics)) about them. They’re so inherent in our speech patterns that professional speakers have to intentionally train themselves out of them. But that doesn’t mean that they’re ridiculous or cringy, and they serve a specific purpose. A verbal pause allows a speaker to mentally catch up to what they’re saying without leaving an awkward pause in the middle of their sentence. In some cases, they’re used to emphasize the words that follow after them. Others can invite the speaker to agree or fill in gaps in the statement without the necessity of pausing in the middle of one’s sentence.

Linguistics is not a static study. In the 1700’s, the use of ‘thou’ and ‘you’ were for two separate cases, the informal and the formal, respectively. You would never say “Thou art looking well” to the upper class, it would be a great insult! As social class became less rigid, people began to use ‘you’ as their only second person pronoun to limit the risk of accidentally offending people. Now, ‘thou’ has fallen completely out of modern use, and is, weirdly, associated with a stuffy and formal way of talking. When this change came about, I’m sure linguists were just as incensed about the youth losing their eloquence of speech and sounding like ill-bred adolescents. But language is always changing, and it changes to fit the times. As an English major who loves linguistics, that’s what I love about it! I embrace these changes for the advancements they are, the same way we embrace advancements in science. We shouldn’t limit ourselves to outdated use of speech because of tradition anymore than we should limit ourselves to leeches and bloodletting. And we certainly shouldn’t mock the youth for being the innovators in these changes, you know?

So speak proud, valley girls! Speak loud! Let the world know that your linguistic fillers don’t mean you’re any less articulate than someone who says ‘uhm’ every third word. Thou art the innovators of the modern language, and nobody can, like, take that away from you.