By Simon Kelner
Overheard on the No. 14 bus: “So I got him, like, a red wine thing. It’s, like, a bottle or whatever, and it, like, sits on a table.” Leaving aside the solipsistic, egocentric impulse that permits people to conduct private conversations in public places, I was interested in the substance and tone of this young lady’s conversation, and what it says about the modern use of language. Of course, she was talking about a decanter, but didn’t see the need to refer to it in specific terms.
Precision of language is not considered a pre-requisite for discourse these days, it seems. Then there is the use of “like”, scattered liberally through every sentence: this hasn’t simply replaced a pause for breath, neither is an alternative to “um” or “er”, but is rather a way of maintaining a constant stream of verbiage, as if hesitation or an unfilled nano second would result in losing the attention of the listener. It is, if you like, a piece of verbal punctuation and has now become universal in its application, across generations and demographics.
In itself, it has developed into an essential component in the rhythm of contemporary speech, and is none the worse for that. I even find myself using it: it’s, like, a verbal tic that’s very difficult to get rid of. Those of us of a certain age may indeed lament the way in which language has developed, and regard the prevalence of “like” as an egregious example of sloppiness, and of the lack of articulacy in young people.
The actor Emma Thompson launched a one-woman campaign against the use of “like” and “innit” among teenagers, saying: “We have to reinvest in the idea of articulacy as a form of personal freedom and power”. Blimey, Emma. And I thought I was the pompous fuddy-duddy.
Language experts are more forgiving of these modern-day developments, explaining that filler words in conversation have been around since Anglo-Saxon times. John Ayto, the author and lexicographer, said that “it [the use of ‘like’] is not a lazy use of language. We all use fillers because we can’t keep up highly-monitored, highly grammatical language all the time. We all have to pause and think.” In other words, give the kids a break.
A much more worrying trend in modern conversation is what a friend of mine, who works in the movie industry, calls word inflation. “In Hollywood,” he said, “the only adjectives used are ‘amazing’ and ‘fantastic’. These are multi-purpose words used to describe almost anything.” This means, he went to explain, that there are no longer any gradations of quality, and that, for instance, “good” has no meaning any longer. “If you say that something is simply good, that means that it’s bad.” This is a linguistic development we must resist.
Have a good day. And I, like, really mean that.