It’s like… a whole new way of speaking!

This is one from the archives, written long before the advent of Journeys Into The Night. Enjoy!

Have you noticed that the word “like” is changing the very nature of the English language? This little word is being used so often to add an irrelevant pause in the middle of even the shortest sentence – as in, “She was, like, really nice” or “We had, like, rain all the time!” – that it has become part of some larger conversational drama.

The speaker may say, “She goes, ‘You can’t do that here,’ and I’m like (long, significant pause) ‘I don’t believe this!’”

Here, “like” signals high emotions, in this case astonishment, anger or outrage. The speaker is saying “I was shocked, I was in a total state,” and the listener is supposed to gasp.

However, the speaker isn’t really saying it, but acting it out.

Often, this kind of dramatic utterance is part of some larger story in which an important dialogue is reproduced. We have all heard it: “So she said, ‘You’re going?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, I think so,’ and then she goes, ‘How come you didn’t say so?’ and I’m like (long pause, mock astonishment, mouth and eyes open in disbelief).”

We get the direct quote rather than the indirect comment on it. Dialogue is replayed rather than summarised. The story is not reported so much as it is rendered, with the storyteller sometimes mimicking the characters’ voices. Even speechlessness is mimed.

This kind of talk attempts to show rather than tell. Especially among the young, speech is turning toward performance. We’re asked not just to hear, but also to experience, the speaker’s astonishment. And if other people’s reactions are quoted, then we hear what they said and how they said it, in their own tone of voice.

In fact, the use of the word “goes” or “went” instead of “says” or “said” is also evidence of speech turning into drama. “Going” suggests activity, acting, both in the sense of doing something and of performing.

One theory I have about the origin of this sort of talk is that it started with a generation brought up on Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny – on cartoons, where everything was always spoken with great emphasis, and any conversation had to be acted out. The children liked the energy, picked it up, copied it – and a new style was born.

Cartoon talk needs the inflections, the gestures, the mimicking and clowning, to accompany it. You say, “You know, I mean, wow, I was like…”

You can only give those words meaning by creating a highly charged context. Eyes grow wide, mouths fall open, tongues hang out.

In such exchanges, body language replaces oral language. American movies and cartoons are spreading this new way of speaking all over the world. It’s the great American over-animation that never fails to impress (or distress) the rest of us.

What’s lost is a certain precision of language, a suppleness of vocabulary that comments on the action. What’s gained is that emotion that gets into the conversation as part of a performance.

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