Already sick of the sweetness of all the heart-shaped confectionary, pink hot chocolates, and simultaneously both heart-shaped and pink lingerie? Can’t take another rendition of Puppy Love? Or just want a break from figuring out a larger-than-life Valentine’s gift with less than a week to go? Fear not, even with Valentine’s Day coming up, I am not here to tell you how to express your affection in a dozen languages nor to provide you with an etymology of the word love; I am here to water down love to a variety of like which does not even mean, like, like.

Love is all around me - and so is like. Peggy2012CREATIVELENZ.
Love is all around me – and so is like. Peggy2012CREATIVELENZ.

Now liking something is one thing – to like, as emotionally complex as it may be, is grammatically relatively straightforward. You use the verb like when you like banoffee pie, George Clooney, or analyzing linguistic data, and even without any knowledge of linguistics you will have a fairly clear idea of what sort of an element this like is (a verb, in case your intuition failed you). But when you strip away the meaning of like, you are suddenly looking at a homophone with a range of functions that it is much harder to put your finger on.

Just think about like in all these instances:

  1. George Clooney acts like a true Hollywood star.
  2. He has won an Oscar like all good actors should.
  3. The wax sculpture of George Clooney at Madame Tussauds is so life-like that many a fan has been fooled.
  4. I mean, there were fans of him like fainting.
  5. So I was like, come on, it’s not the real deal.

To capture these uses of like, like in this sense (as opposed to the verb like) has been dubbed aparticle’. This is something of a dustbin category, filled with a wide array of words that do not have their own lexical definition – think of words relating to grammatical categories, such as negation (not), or those little things that you utter to connect and organize different bits of what you are saying or to express attitude (known as discourse markers – well, anyway, firstly). To continue the name-dropping, in the first sentence like is used as a preposition, in the second it is a conjunction, then a suffix, and finally a non-quotative and quotative complementizer. Sometimes you wish all words could be like (preposition here) the verb like.

"I was like OMG it's George Clooney like taking a selfie like a normal person!"
“I was like OMG it’s George Clooney like taking a selfie like a normal person!” Courtney.

By far the most controversial use of like is the final, quotative complementizer one (sentence 5), the structure be like. I was recently at a dinner where an elderly professor, upon hearing that I did linguistics, launched on a rant about how his grandchildren’s speech was dotted with atrocities such as “I was like that’s so cool.”

As with so many linguistic things that people like (!) to condemn (see Chris’s post about code switching from last week, or my earlier blog about pronouns), be like is not a result of an evil mastermind corrupting language, or even adolescents expressing their teenage angst by not speaking ‘properly’. Rather, it would seem to have developed along a very commonsensical pathway, attested in the evolution of different lexical items across languages.

The key to understanding how the quotative complementizer be like came to be (and to annoy so many people) lies in its multiple uses. The starting point here is like as a preposition. As prepositions do, it only precedes noun phrases or perhaps phrases with other prepositions (like a true Hollywood star); however, it is not difficult to imagine that this class could be extended to include whole sentences – et voilà, we have derived from the prepositional use in sentence 1 above the conjunction one in sentence 2 (like all good actors should). Consider now sentence 3 and like as a suffix (life-like). Combined with the preposition and conjunction like, like can now be used both before and after the thing it modifies. This sort of detachability and mobility characterizes discourse markers, and a final touch of adding be – after all, English sentences must have a verb – completes the development of the quotative be like.

This may seem all very well and logical for the solitary case of like but this alone does not make a pathway of development in any way natural. Zooming out, however, you can observe a more general change across different functional components of language. First we have the propositional component, the resources that make it possible to talk about something: the preposition like falls into this category. The conjunction like, in turn, belongs to the textual component, providing means of creating a cohesive discourse. Finally, there is the interpersonal or expressive component for expressing personal attitudes, and this is where like as a discourse marker fits in. Like is not alone in going from propositional through textual to interpersonal. Just consider the different functions of why:

  1. Why hasn’t Geroge Clooney won more Oscars?
  2. I don’t understand why such a great actor doesn’t get all the awards.
  3. Why, that’s just bizarre.

Here the first why is clearly propositional, expressing that the sentence is a question, the second why connects the two sentences, and the last one expresses the speaker’s attitude. Why, this looks a lot like like!

Of course, elements do not change and spread their new uses on their own, no matter how tempting a pathway there is available. The origins of be like have been traced back to the US and the early 80s; from there, it had reached the UK shores by the mid-90s, not least through the media. As with so many linguistic innovations, be like is typical of younger speakers: the ratios of be like decline with age, so that it is most commonly found in the speech of under 30s and high-school students. Again, this age demographic is nothing but natural to language change – and probably the reason it attracts the dislike of language purists.

From America into dictionaries - like is here to stay. Trevor.
From America into dictionaries – like is here to stay. Trevor.

Like it or not, be like is a prototypical example of language change: it follows universal pathways of change, spreads through younger speakers, attracts a lot of emotion, and is here to stay. In the words of Wet Wet Wet, “Like is all around me [–]/ it’s everywhere I go, oh yes it is.”

If you would like a more in-depth tour of the wonders of like, have a read of Romaine and Lange’s study, on which the discussion here was based:

Romaine, S. and Lange, D., 1991. The use of like as a marker of reported speech and thought: A case of grammaticalization in progress. American Speech 66: 227–79.