Like … Kind Of, Sort of, Maybe, Uhm.

The Everpresent Ridiculous Way We Millenials Learn to Talk

When I came to the US in 2008, I only used the word “like” as a synonym for “similar to”. A few months later, immersed into the culture and language of California, the word radically increased in my daily use. For one, because I was interested in assimilating linguistically and re-learning the use of the English language as much as possible (I had an entertainingly terrible Austrian, Schwarzenegger-esque pronunciation, which I learned by osmosis from my English professor who was dedicated to her job yet spent 20 out of the last 20 years in Austria, never properly refreshing her pronunciation skills abroad while she taught). For the other, I wasn’t able to resist the Like virus, and got sucked into its extremely tempting re-purposed nature as a fill word. Sticking around in LA didn’t help much but rather sucked me deeper into the Like vortex, generating sentences … like…:

Oh, you know, I said to her, like, like … I was like “Damn! That’s like, crazy!” – and she was like, you know… like “I know, right?”. Totally crazy dude. I … like, I don’t even know what to, like, to … think of her now.

Maybe I deserve to go to prison for sentences like this, I don’t know. I just didn’t know any better. In Austria, nobody in our English classes talked like that at all, but then again – in our English classes in Austria, we have a “Get to se choppa, nauuuu!” type monstrosity of the English Language going on, and one of our most famous landsmen proudly kept this linguistic mutation. This was back in LA, at Santa Monica College and on a ton of film sets, where everyone uses the common denominator of “Like”.

An 1886 painting entitled "Doubt". This was the same year that R. L. Stevenson's novel "Kidnapped" was released containing the sentenes:   "What'll like be your business, mannie?" (p 7)  and   " 'What's, like, wrong with him?' said she at last". (p 193).

An 1886 painting entitled “Doubt”. This was the same year that R. L. Stevenson’s novel “Kidnapped” was released containing the sentenes: “What’ll like be your business, mannie?” (p 7) and ” ‘What’s, like, wrong with him?’ said she at last”. (p 193).

Fast-Forward to 2014: I am sitting in the advanced Film Production Class for Narrative Short Films at UC Berkeley, Film 187. Our professor, Mira Kopell, asks us to pitch our film concepts in order to get intitial feedback and convert them into screenplays. One student releases the linguistic Kraken:

So, my story is sort of, … like, a kind of drama about a character that goes out to… […]

Mira suggested that by pitching a story with multiple occurrences of “sort of” and “kind of”, you are partially taking back the content you just delivered. What good is a pitch if 30% of it are practically self-negating gibberish? For the remainder of the class, we would catch ourselves and each other using “kind of” and “sort of”, to a surprisingly high rate even though at this point, we were acutely aware to form our sentences without these words. This extreme difficulty to fully censor a word out of one’s vocabulary in a higher educational setting like UC Berkeley was the trigger for writing this … like, you know, sort of article.

There is two issues at heart of this article: The dysfunctional use of “Like”, and the self-negating language that is created by misappropriating “Sort of”, “Kind of”, and “Maybe”. I am in no way a linguist but a conscious individual with an interest in the English language, since communication is what I do on a daily basis as a University student, a filmmaker and an amateur journalist. Why is this really relevant? Not just a rant, but worth a discussion? In linguistics, there is a field called Linguistic Relativity. In Psychology, there is a field called Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP). Both fields are scientifically disputed (NLP more than Linguistic Relativity), yet their premise is highly interesting and deserves further research. They deal with the question: How much of our attitude and world view is influenced by the way we talk to others and talk to ourselves, and by the content of our words and thoughts?

I, Like, Don’t Even Know Where to Start

Wikipedia has a fascinating article on “Like”. In it, there’s a great linguistic analysis of the modern uses of “Like”. One use is as a Discourse Particle or Filler. This is probably the most obnoxious of its uses:

Like can be used in much the same way as “um…” or “er…” as a discourse particle. It has become common especially among North American teenagers to use the word “like” in this way; see Valspeak, discourse marker, and speech disfluency):

  • I, like, don’t know what to do.

A second way of using “Like” is as a Hedge. This is when we’re trying to approximate the use of a word:

Like can be used as hedge to indicate that the following phrase will be an approximation or exaggeration, or that the following words may not be quite right, but are close enough. It may indicate that the phrase in which it appears is to be taken metaphorically or as a hyperbole. This use of like is sometimes regarded as adverbial, as like is often synonymous here with adverbial phrases of approximation, such as “almost” or “more or less.” Examples:

  • I have, like, no money.
  • The restaurant is only, like, five miles from here.

As a result, I made it a conscious effort to ban “Like” from my vocabulary as much as possible. Now, a year later, I have certainly made progress. When I am in Berkeley, my ban works decently since there seems to be a good amount of Unlike-crusaders on campus and in the circles I frequent; when I am in LA, it is much harder to upkeep the discipline since SO many people use it constantly. Every individual has the willpower to adjust the way we speak and correctly represent our intelligence through speech. People who don’t use “like” just sound smarter, more in control of their ability to express themselves. “We”, the teen-to-30-somethings in the Millenials generation, were not the first ones. Wikipedia has some hilarious quotes from books in the 19th century that used “Like” the same way that we tend to do nowadays, a good example being “Kidnapped” from 1886. There’s use of it in the UK and the US, across history – with a definite increase since the 1990s. It would be a good idea to fight the trend of, like, language littering.

But maybe, I Kind Of Believe in a Sort Of Public Education

It’s funny going to the Free Speech Cafe on the ground floor of Moffit Library on the UC Berkeley campus. You are surrounded by memorabilia – photos, newspaper articles, leaflets, plaques, reprints of old political journals and posters calling people to strike. Fight the University. Stand up against the establishment. Memorabilia of a past generation. Then you look at yourself, you look around you, and you realize that the spirit for revolution seems to have been reduced to writings in bathrooms, to small flyers being handed out to people outside of Moffit, to discussions with friends – all in all, it’s a different world from what it was in the late 60s. Maybe now, we are more comfortable, have less of a need to raise up against the powers that be – we’re either lulled to sleep by the plethora of joys and technologies we control, or we’re still too comfortable to revive the revolutionary spirit of the late 1960s (see the disappearance of the Occupy Movement in the US towards the end of 2011). One thing is clear though – we often negate or weaken what we say. We artificially turn our speech more humble and self-questioning.

To begin with that, I am not even sure if bringing in the Free Speech Movement was an appropriate connection to draw, or if I’m committing the rhetorical crime of correlation does not indicate causation, or even worse, non sequitur. In the end, I’m just trying to look educated and google up some fallacies on Wikipedia, since there’s a fallacy for nearly every argument one tries to make. The point is though, and I am not sure how the rest of the world looks like – we do like to constantly question ourselves at Berkeley, especially in the undergraduate film department. We constantly re-evaluate our position, opinion or set of facts and arguments. That goes so far that we question our positions while we are communicating them to others, which then leads us to soften just about anything we say by inserting “kind of”, “sort of” and “maybe” in front of most strong arguments we make. Even if the statement is completely fictional and originates from our imagination, we still second-guess our choice of words and content.

Compare for yourself: “This character is a hero”, or “This character is, like, a sort of hero”.

Try to observe yourself and your friends for a day. Observe people from other generations – and you will see how obnoxiously often people diminish or even negate their own ideas and viewpoints in the moment that they release them on the world.

Words and phrases up for linguistic witch hunt of colloquialism:

  • Like
  • Kind of
  • Sort of
  • Maybe
  • Possibly
  • I guess
  • Uhm
  • Just [my opinion]

We’re certainly not tired of innovating or progress, but maybe we sort of became too self-conscious about our lack of wisdom. If you want to start a revolution or a company; if you want to defend public education in front of congress or pitch a movie in front of a group of executives – you ought to have trust in yourself and your ideas. Second-guessing ourselves in everyday situations makes us look like we have no backbone – and that is certainly not representative of our generation.

I was made aware by Lucien Hilaire, a friend of mine, that this article is simplifying the issue to a good extent. He certainly knows much better what he is talking about since he wrote his master’s thesis about the topic and devoted an entire year to researching it. Take my judgmental article with a grain of salt; the topic I wrote about is much larger than I previously imagined and has possibly much greater implications than I could remotely cover without the proper research and education. You can read Lucien’s highly relevant paper here, for free: Mean Girls and the likes: The language of girlhood in American pop culture

To get an idea for the research that you will be able to consume in Lucien’s paper, here is a direct quotation from the paper’s abstract:

Oftentimes, the speech of young American women is presented by mainstream media in anegative light. The three linguistic patterns which are most often discussed as part of young women’sspeech are : uses of like as a discourse marker, uptalk (a high-rising intonation in statements) andvocal fry (also known as creaky voice). Popular opinion seems to agree that the representations of  young women in popular culture using such linguistic devices is the reason behind their relativelyrecent popularity. In order to investigate the veracity of those beliefs, this paper first addresses theissue of girls in American pop culture. More specifically, we are interested in the linguisticconstruction of girl identity in pop culture beyond factors of age and gender. Issues of race, financialstatus and sexuality are addressed, as well as the omnipresent notion of privilege in the representationof girlhood are also discussed. In the second chapter, some of the literature on each linguistic patternis reviewed so as to clarify potential misconceptions about how, why and by whom those devices areused. Lastly, we analyse the results of an experiment conducted with ten native speakers of Californian English about the presence of discursive like, uptalk and vocal fry in their speech. Itappears that popular opinion on the three linguistic patterns may not not accurate, mainly becausemany other factors appear to influence their usage beyond age and gender. On a sociocultural level,the language of girlhood in the US seems to voice the identity crisis of a perpetually infantilisedcommunity of practice.