American Speech, Vol. 82, No. 4, Winter 2007 doi 10.1215/00031283-2007-025
Copyright 2007 by the American Dialect Society
LIK E AND LANGUAGE IDEOLOGY:
University of Canterbury
abstract: The selective attention paid to the language of adolescents has led to the en-
during belief that young people are ruining the language and that, as a consequence,
the language is degenerating. One feature of contemporary vernaculars that is often
held up as exempliﬁcation of these ideological principles is like, the “much-deplored
interjection . . . that peppers the talk of so many of the unpliant young these days”
(Wilson 1987, 92). There is, in fact, an intricate lore surrounding
like. It includes
the idea that
like is meaningless, that women say it more than men do, and that it is
an Americanism, introduced by the Valley Girls. This article systematically addresses
ideologically driven myths about the uses and users of
like. Drawing on empirical
data, it seeks to disentangle the facts from the ﬁction that has been cultivated in the
general social consciousness. It is argued that most beliefs about
like are either false
(e.g., meaninglessness, Valley Girl creationism) or too broad to reﬂect any coherent
reality (e.g., the role of women). However, in examining individual beliefs about
it becomes clear that each contributes to the perpetuation of others in important
and nontrivial ways.
Throughout the inhabited world, in all times and under every circumstance,
the myths of man have ﬂourished. [Campbell 1949, 13]
Campbell was referring to traditional mythology, yet there is a link
here to language ideology, since it is likely that myths about language have
ﬂourished for as long as language has functioned in social contexts, that is,
from the beginning. Modern examples include the belief that right-handed
people are more proﬁcient linguistically than left-handed people, that double
negatives are illogical, that women talk too much, that King Arthur spoke
English, and most notably, that the media/America/teenagers are ruining
the language. This ﬁnal grouping belongs to the overarching and timeless
gestalt that the language is degenerating.
Ideologies such as these are wide-
spread, virtually intractable, and so deeply ingrained as part of one’s cultural
heritage that they often cease to be recognized for the myths they are (see
also Bauer and Trudgill 1998, xvi). As a result, they tend to be accepted,
generally unquestioningly, as fact.
Like and Language Ideology 387
From a linguistic perspective, the veracity of individual language myths
is often dubious if not ﬁctional. But like traditional myths, language myths
reﬂect the society that produces them, and for this reason they offer important
insights into cultural attitudes and mores. For example, ongoing language
change is often met with derision. This may reﬂect a general unease with
change in any form, but when considering language, it typically results in
the characterization of new forms as sloppy, lazy, ignorant, or vulgar. These
are, of course, social rather than linguistic notions, but the recurrence of
such comments underlies the poignancy of the sentiment. A particularly
interesting aspect of the social context of language change is that from a
diachronic perspective, the cumulative effects of change are unexceptional,
yet in synchronic time individual changes are synonymous with degradation.
As Ogden Nash writes in “Laments for a Dying Language” (cited in Aitchison
1981, 17): “Farewell, farewell to my beloved language / Once English, now
a vile orangutanguage.”
Inevitably, language change is always most advanced among younger
speakers. A peak in the progress of change among adolescent cohorts is a
recurrent ﬁnding of apparent-time studies (Labov 2001, 454; Chambers
2003, 223; Tagiamonte and D’Arcy 2007b) and has come to be seen as a
criterial feature of ongoing change (Labov 2001, 455). Because this peak
typically occurs among speakers between the ages of 13 and 17, it is not a
coincidence that children and adolescents are singled out as the primary
offenders in the linguistic arena. The proposed solution to the “language
misuse” of younger generations is often more rigid teaching standards, a
suggestion that undoubtedly draws on another folk belief: that children
learn the fundamentals of the spoken language at school. As James Milroy
(1998, 63) points out, since children have already acquired the basic spoken
grammar by the time they arrive at school, complaints about the way young
people speak are not about language ability; they are about language vari-
ety. And as just discussed, it is adolescent varieties that are at the forefront
of ongoing linguistic changes.
One feature of contemporary vernaculars currently subject to widespread
condemnation is like when used in the ways highlighted in (1).
1. a. He was like, “Yeah so I’m going out with Clara now.” And then she sounded
really disappointed; she was like, “Yeah she’s really smart.” So then he
was like, “I kind of feel bad, but then again, I don’t.” [N/f/18]
b. He looks like he’s like twelve or like eight. [2/f/16]
c. Like if you’re doing your undergrad, no big deal. Like it’s not that bad, but
like I’m in a professional school. I want to be a professional. [N/f/26]
d. Like the ﬁrst hour I was
like totally ﬁne, like I wasn’t like drunk. [3/
american speech 82.4 (2007)388
As with all forms involved in change, like is associated in popular culture with
adolescents and young adults, and perceptual investigations by Dailey-O’Cain
(2000) and Buchstaller (2006b) have documented the strength of this belief.
Older speakers seldom claim to use like themselves, characterizing its occur-
rence in their vernaculars as rare or nonexistent, while younger age groups
stipulate to its regularity in their own speech (Dailey-O’Cain 2000, 69).
There is an intricate and multifaceted lore surrounding like. The belief
that younger speakers alone are responsible for the propagation of like con-
stitutes just one part of the complex. This conglomerate of beliefs is the focus
of the current analysis. As with other language ideologies, those surrounding
like have been cultivated by popular consensus, but such consensus is not
necessarily informed by empirical truth(s). Thus, in examining beliefs about
like, my intention is to disentangle fact from ﬁction. Many of the commonly
held beliefs about like will be shown to be false, while others are simply too
broad to reﬂect any coherent reality. In such cases, certain aspects of the
myth may bear merit, though as encapsulated the belief itself remains un-
motivated. However, in examining individual beliefs about like, it becomes
clear that each contributes to the perpetuation of others in important and
nontrivial ways to create a uniﬁed whole.
THE LIK E LANGUAGE MYTH
Entwined with the multitude of beliefs about
like are a number of subjective
reactions to the use of this form. These include the feeling that it is an exas-
perating tic and that it makes those who use it seem less educated, intelligent,
or interesting (Dailey-O’Cain 2000, 73; Buchstaller 2006b, 371). Indeed,
general attitudes toward like are overtly negative (De Quincey 1840–41, 224;
Jespersen 1942, 417; Schourup 1983, 29; Dailey-O’Cain 2000, 69–70). It is
not the aim of this article to address or to change such attitudes, though such
consequences may inadvertently result from the discussion. Rather, the focus
is centered on those aspects of the myth that can be dispelled objectively,
drawing on empirical data. Thus, the beliefs to be examined are those listed
here, for which there is evidence of the ways in which the folklore either
reﬂects or obscures actual usage:
Like is just like, that is, there is one like that is recycled repeatedly.
Like is meaningless; it simply signals a lack of articulacy.
like more than men do.
Like began with the Valley Girls.
Only young people, and adolescents in particular, use
Like can be used anywhere in a sentence.
Like and Language Ideology 389
The primary body of evidence brought to bear here on the issues encom-
passed by the like myth consists of corpus data from a large archive of spoken
contemporary English. The materials were collected in Toronto, Canada,
in the period between 2002 and 2004, using a combination of quota-based
random sampling and social networking.
The full Toronto English Archive
comprises over 350 hours of casual conversational data with speakers between
the ages of 9 and 92, all of whom were born and raised in the city; the sample
used for the current analysis is outlined in table 1.
With the largest metropolitan population in Canada, Toronto presents
an ideal context in which to examine urban vernacular usage. Toronto is also
the fourth largest city in English-speaking North America; only New York,
Los Angeles, and Chicago have larger populations (WorldAtlas.com 2006).
Although General Canadian English differs from General American English
in a number of respects, the uses of like exempliﬁed in (1) are shared by both
varieties. Consequently, Toronto English is taken here to represent North
American English more generally, an assumption that is further supported
by two factors. First, models of spatial diffusion (Trudgill 1974; Bailey et
al. 1994; Labov 2003) highlight the crucial role of cities in the spread of
linguistic features. Typically, new forms spread hierarchically from an origi-
nating center. Although some changes are seemingly arrested by national
boundaries (e.g., the Northern Cities Shift), others are not (e.g., uvular (r)
in Europe; Trudgill 1974). Second, the vast body of research investigating
quotative be like (as in 1a) has revealed regular trends across American and
Age Male Female Total
10–12 5 5 10
15–16 4 4 8
17–19 5 5 10
20–24 5 5 10
25–29 5 5 10
30–39 5 5 10
40–49 4 4 8
50–59 4 4 8
60–69 4 4 8
70–79 3 4 7
80+ 4 4 8
total 48 49 97
american speech 82.4 (2007)390
Canadian Englishes, showing that this form is consistently constrained in the
U.S. and Canada (e.g., Blyth, Recktenwald, and Wang 1990; Singler 2001;
Cukor-Avila 2002; Tagliamonte and D’Arcy 2004, 2007a). Similarly, there
is striking consistency in observations about nonquotative uses of like (as in
1b–1d) regardless of locale (e.g., Schourup 1983; Underhill 1988; Meehan
1991; Romaine and Lange 1991; Dailey-O’Cain 2000; D’Arcy 2005, 2006).
From this we can extrapolate that regardless of issues of origin, like is a feature
of North American English more generally.
The age range in table 1 signals a crucial respect in which the method
adopted here differs from previous discussions of like. While a number of
researchers have considered quotative be like (as in 1a) from a generational
perspective (Ferrara and Bell 1995; Cukor-Avila 2002; Buchstaller 2004,
2006a; Barbieri 2007; Tagliamonte and D’Arcy 2007a), examinations of
other vernacular uses of like (as in 1b–1d) have focused on speciﬁc subsec-
tions of the population: preadolescents, adolescents, or young adults (e.g.,
Underhill 1988; Miller and Weinert 1995; Andersen 1997, 1998, 2000, 2001;
Siegel 2002; Hasund 2003). With the exception of Dailey-O’Cain (2000), no
analysis of nonquotative uses has considered the full age spectrum within a
community. Even Buchstaller (2001), which provides a perspective on ver-
nacular uses of like within a single family, is limited to one college-age woman
and three middle-aged adults (late 40s to mid-50s). Consequently, the upper
edge of such uses remains unclear, yet this point bears directly on issues of
language change, stability, and age grading, as well as those surrounding the
purported genesis of like in discourse. This lack of information regarding
adult cohorts has obscured our understanding of like, and as will be shown,
in so doing it has contributed to like ideologies in a number of ways.
The current method differs from that of previous analyses in three further
ways. First, I distinguish between different discourse functions of like in ver-
nacular usage. Second, I treat each of these separately, carefully circumscrib-
ing the variable context according to structural diagnostics within functional
domains. Third, I consider not only those contexts where like does occur, but
also those where it does not. The methodology has been described in detail
in D’Arcy (2005) and is too elaborate to repeat in full here, but crucially,
the delimitation of the envelope of variation along syntactic parameters
allows for objective analysis of like following the principle of accountability
(Labov 1972, 72). Occurrences of like are contrasted with whatever form with
which they may alternate in any given function, including nothing, other
discourse makers (you know, well), other verbs of quotation (say, think), and so
on. Exempliﬁcation is provided in (2) using the clause-initial context. This
methodology offers a unique perspective on the use of like in the community
and exposes details previously unavailable for consideration.
Like and Language Ideology 391
2. a. Ø Nobody said a word. Like my ﬁrst experience with death was this Italian
b. You know
, like the people were very, very friendly. You know, Ø we’d sit
out in the park and talk with different people. [N/f/60]
Ø my other cat always sleeps, and like we almost never see him.
DISENTANGLING FACT FROM FICTION
In discussing the beliefs surrounding like, it is important to bear in mind
that certain aspects of the myth are more general than others, which may be
somewhat restricted regionally. For example, while the association of like with
younger speakers seems to hold across the English-speaking world, there is
evidence that its associations with both women and the United States are vari-
ably salient. In North America, the frequency of like in the speech of women
and the focus on California are overtly acknowledged as key elements in the
received wisdom surrounding vernacular uses (e.g., Dailey-O’Cain 2000). In
the New Zealand context, the pivotal role of women remains fundamental,
but the Valley Girl link is more tenuous, especially among older speakers
who may not be familiar with this particular social grouping. This is not to
say that the perception of like as either an American or more speciﬁcally a
Californian feature does not persevere. Indeed, anecdotal evidence clearly
associates like with the United States. In the United Kingdom, Buchstaller
(2006b, 369–70) investigated attitudes toward quotative be like and found
that although a substantial proportion of speakers associate the form with
women (34%; N = 101), the majority (59%) are in fact noncommittal to
any gender pattern. Moreover, only 12% of responses associated be like with
America, compared to the 74% response rate for “no idea” for its regional
afﬁliation (N = 90; Buchstaller 2006b, 374). Thus, the details of the like lan-
guage myth clearly differ somewhat across varieties of English. That such is
the case serves as an important reminder of the culturally dependent nature
of myths in general. In what follows, however, I attempt to address each part
of the myth apart from cultural context, focusing on the content of the belief
itself rather than the social milieu that may have led to its formation in the
Like is just like (and it is meaningless). In the media there is a tendency
to talk of like as a single, monolithic entity, and metalinguistic commentary
typically involves performative speech in which most, if not all, the uses
demonstrated in (1) are modeled. There are, however, four uses that draw
attention in vernacular speech. Each is functionally distinct and can be
american speech 82.4 (2007)392
distinguished from the “grammatical” and largely unremarkable uses in
3. a. verb: I don’t really like her that much. [2/f/12]
noun: He grew up with the likes . . . of all great ﬁghters. [N/m/60]
: It looks like a snail; it just is a snail. [I/f/19]
conjunction: It felt like everything had dropped away. [I/m/40]
e. sufﬁx: I went, “[mumbling]” or something like stroke-
To distinguish between the forms in (3), which have long been features
of both written and spoken English (Romaine and Lange 1991, 244), and
the forms in (1), which are largely restricted to informal discourse, I will
refer to the latter as vernacular uses/functions of like. This signals
quite clearly the existence of more than one like in discourse. The functions
included in the vernacular category are quotative complementizer (as in 4),
approximative adverb (as in 5), discourse marker (as in 6), and discourse
particle (as in 7).
4. quotative complementizer
a. And we were like, “Yeah but you get to sleep like three-quarters of your
life.” He was like, “That’s an upside.” [2/f/12]
b. I was like, “Where do you ﬁnd these people?” [I/f/19]
5. approximative adverb
a. It could have taken you all day to go
like thirty miles. [N/f/76]
b. You-know, it was like a hundred and four [degrees], but it lasted for about
two weeks. [N/m/84]
6. discourse marker
a. Nobody said a word.
Like my ﬁrst experience with death was this Italian
b. I love Carrie.
Like Carrie’s like a little like out-of-it but like she’s the fun-
niest. Like she’s a space-cadet. [3/f/18]
7. discourse particle
a. Well you just cut out
like a girl ﬁgure and a boy ﬁgure and then you’d cut
out like a dress or a skirt or a coat, and like you’d color it. [N/f/75]
b. And they had
like scraped her. [I/m/35]
like dumb or something. Like I love her but she’s like dumb. [3/
As a quotative, like occurs with the dummy form be to support inﬂection
and to satisfy the requirement that the clause have a lexical verb (see Romaine
and Lange 1991, 261–62). This collocation performs the specialized role of
introducing reported speech, thought, and nonlexicalized sounds, among a
range of other content (i.e., constructed dialogue; Tannen 1986, 315).
Since Butters’s (1982) editor’s note in American Speech, quotative be like has
Like and Language Ideology 393
received vast attention in the sociolinguistic literature (e.g., Schourup 1983;
Blyth, Recktenwald, and Wang 1990; Meehan 1991; Romaine and Lange
1991; Ferrara and Bell 1995; Tagliamonte and Hudson 1999; Singler 2001;
Cukor-Avila 2002; Buchstaller 2004, 2006a; D’Arcy 2004; Tagliamonte and
D’Arcy 2004, 2007a); there is little more to add here. I will simply reiterate
what has been said elsewhere: be like is an innovation, representing ongoing
Use of the quotative is constrained by both language-internal (e.g.,
person, tense, and temporal reference, content of the quote) and language-
external (e.g., gender, age) factors. The relevance of the linguistic factors is
twofold: one, the operation of grammatical constraints reveals systematicity;
and two, such constraints highlight the unique function of be like, not only
within the quotative paradigm but vis-à-vis other vernacular uses of like which
do not share these same conditions on use. The relevance of the social factors
will be broached later in the discussion. Finally, the quotative is referentially
contentful, functioning as a synonym for a range of verbs within the quotative
repertoire, such as say, think, ask, and the like. This last point is demonstrated
in (8), which restates the examples from (4) using more traditional verbs of
quotation in place of be like.
8. a. And we said, “Yeah but you get to sleep like three-quarters of your life.”
He said, “That’s an upside.”
thought, “Where do you ﬁnd these people?”
The second vernacular use of like denotes concise propositional content
as well. It is used to signal approximation, and it is an adverb (D’Arcy 2006).
Thus (5b), repeated here as (9a), in which like and about alternate, can be
paraphrased straightforwardly with about alone as in (9b), or simply with like,
as in (9c), without affecting the meaning.
9. a. You-know, it was like a hundred and four [degrees] but it lasted for about
two weeks. [N/m/84]
b. You-know, it was
about a hundred and four [degrees] but it lasted for
about two weeks.
c. You-know, it was
like a hundred and four [degrees] but it lasted for like
The synonymy illustrated in (9) has been noted since the earliest work
on vernacular uses of like. Schourup (1983, 30) notes that before numerical
expressions, “approximately or about or around can be substituted for like . . .
without noticeably altering their meaning or acceptability,” and Underhill
(1988, 234) excludes like a priori as an approximative when it precedes
quantiﬁed phrases. That like should convey such meanings falls out from
american speech 82.4 (2007)394
processes of semantic change, since it has long conveyed approximative
content in English (Meehan 1991; Romaine and Lange 1991), yet it is rarely
seen as grounds for distinguishing a distinct function in the folk linguistic
lore surrounding like. It is interesting to note, for example, that Newman
(1974, 15) illustrates “meaningless speech” with the phrase like six feet tall
(cited in Schourup 1983, 29).
The third vernacular function of like is the discourse marker. Markers ﬁll
the syntactic adjunct slot, adjoining in English to the left periphery of CP, the
functional projection that dominates the clause (i.e., (2); see Kiparsky 1995;
Traugott 1997; D’Arcy 2005; Traugott and Dasher 2002). This position fol-
lows from their pragmatic role, which is to signal the sequential relationship
between units of discourse, whether it be one of exempliﬁcation, illustra-
tion, explanation, or the like (Fraser 1988, 1990; Brinton 1996). As such,
they operate in the textual component, marking discourse and information
structure. Consequently, markers are sometimes referred to as “discourse
deictics” (Schiffrin 1987) or “discourse connectives” (Blakemore 1987).
The examples in (6) illustrate the use of like as a discourse marker,
where it brackets elements of talk (e.g., Schiffrin 1987, 31). Although the
bracketing is local in that like links contiguous utterances, discourse mark-
ers may also link noncontiguous stretches of discourse (see Schiffrin 1992).
Other markers in English include so, then, and well, as well as parentheticals
such as I/you know, I guess, and I think (Brinton 1996; Traugott and Dasher
2002). Indeed, these last can often be felicitously substituted for like without
affecting the epistemic stance of the utterance. This is exempliﬁed in (10).
A characteristic trait of pragmatic features in general is their lack of lexical
meaning (Östman 1982). Nonetheless, markers are not a trivial resource
in discourse despite the difﬁculties inherent in trying to deﬁne them in
referential terms. Rather, they are “essential to the rhetorical shape of any
argument or narrative” (Traugott and Dasher 2002, 154).
10. a. Like one of my cats meows so much, ’cause like he’s really picky and
b. I mean one of my cats meows so much, ’cause you know he’s really picky
The ﬁnal vernacular function of like to be discussed here is the discourse
particle, which—in contrast to the marker—occurs within the clause as dem-
onstrated in (7). A number of pragmatic functions have been proposed for
this use of like, including pausal interjection (Schourup 1983), focus (Un-
derhill 1988), and nonequivalence between form and intention (Schourup
1983; Andersen 1997, 1998, 2001). Unlike quotative be like, approximative
adverb like, and discourse marker like, particle like cannot be glossed. This
Like and Language Ideology 395
does not mean, however, that it serves no purpose. Whereas markers func-
tion at the textual level, particles operate in the interpersonal realm, aiding
cooperative aspects of communication such as checking or expressing un-
derstanding. They may also generate a sense of sharing or intimacy between
interlocutors (Östman 1982; Schourup 1983, 1999; Schiffrin 1987). Indeed,
the discourse saliency of particles is quite high, since interactions in which
particles do not occur can be perceived as unnatural, awkward, dogmatic,
or even unfriendly (Brinton 1996, 35). Such is also the case with like. In a
matched-guise experiment, Dailey-O’Cain (2000, 73) found that although
like guises were rated as less intelligent than non-like guises, speakers were
rated signiﬁcantly more attractive, cheerful, and friendly when they used
like as opposed to when they did not. Thus, regardless of subjective attitudes
toward like more generally (i.e., whether speakers like like or not), it serves
important and palpable social functions in face-to-face interactions.
In sum, there is clearly more than one like in discourse. Even though
what is heard consistently is /laIk/, this unit of sounds is not simply recycled
in various frames as an undifferentiated entity. Rather, it is a versatile form,
performing multiple—and distinct—vernacular functions. In attending to
the belief that like is just like, we simultaneously address another part of the
myth, which is that like is a meaningless interjection. Each vernacular form of
like has a unique function. It therefore follows that each has a unique mean-
ing, whether such meaning is primarily referential or pragmatic. To suggest
that like is no more than a linguistic crutch, signaling hesitancy and a lack of
ﬂuency or articulation (e.g., Siegel 2002, 47; see also citations in Diamond
2000, 2 and Levey 2003, 24), trivializes the complex juxtaposition of func-
tions performed by this lexeme in the spoken language (see Levey 2003).
In recognizing that numerous functions of like are operative in vernacular
usage, the myth of meaninglessness is simultaneously demystiﬁed.
women say like all the time. Another widely held belief concerning the
vernacular forms of like is that men use them less often than women do, an
ideology substantiated by Dailey-O’Cain (2000, 68–69). She gave her par-
ticipants a written questionnaire that included two sample sentences, one
demonstrating the particle and one demonstrating the quotative. Asked
whether they associate like with men or women, the overwhelming major-
ity of the participants, nearly 83% (N = 40), responded in favor of women.
Given the multiple vernacular functions of like, however, this question is not
as straightforward as it may seem. There is also the issue of quantiﬁcation.
What counts as “more”? Variationist analyses of the quotative system gener-
ally follow the principle of accountability (Labov 1972, 72) and consider the
frequency of be like relative to all other verbs of quotation in some body of
american speech 82.4 (2007)396
materials. In other words, all quotative frames are extracted from the data set
and then individual quotative complementizers are quantiﬁed proportionally
(e.g., Tagliamonte and Hudson 1999; study 1 in Dailey-O’Cain 2000; Cukor-
Avila 2002; D’Arcy 2004; Tagliamonte and D’Arcy 2004, 2007a; though see
Singler 2001). Within the discourse-pragmatic literature, a rather different
methodology is adopted: raw or normalized frequency counts are reported
(e.g., Andersen 1997, 1998, 2001; Hasund 2003; Levey 2003).
In an effort to draw analyses of the nonquotative manifestations of like
in line with the variationist model, I considered the approximative adverb,
the marker, and the particle separately, carefully constraining the variable
contexts according to syntactic structure (for the detailed methodology, see
D’Arcy 2005). Accountable analyses of like in the syntactic frames unique
to the various functions were then performed (see above). Crucially, this
method allows for comparable comparisons of the distributional frequen-
cies for each vernacular form of like, including the quotative. The ﬁndings
of this proportional comparison are reported in ﬁgure 1, where the overall
distributions are given for each use of like according to gender.
As ﬁgure 1 demonstrates, the gender puzzle is ﬁnely articulated: the
question of men versus women depends on which vernacular form of like
is at issue. In the case of the quotative, women use be like signiﬁcantly more
than their male peers do overall (N = 6,364; Tagliamonte and D’Arcy 2007a).
Concerning the discourse marker, women use this form more frequently than
men do as well, and despite the narrow margin in the overall results, this too
is signiﬁcant (N = 3,363; D’Arcy 2005, 97). The results for the approximative
Overall Distribution of Vernacular Functions of
like across Gender Groups
(N = 6,364)
(N = 3,068)
(N = 2,213)
(N = 3,363)
(N = 4,389)
(N = 3,455)
Like and Language Ideology 397
adverb reveal a slight female edge (19% vs. 18%), but these proportional
results fail to be selected as signiﬁcant in a multivariate analysis, where the
probabilities for both men and women hover near .50 (N = 3,068; D’Arcy
2006, 349). Thus, whereas the quotative and the marker are signiﬁcantly
favored by women, gender is not a conditioning factor on the adverb. Both
distributionally and in terms of probabilities, men and women are equally
likely to use this form.
What of like as a particle? The results for this function are divided into
three syntactic environments in ﬁgure 1: (1) DP, the functional projection
that dominates noun phrases (N = 2,213); (2) νP, the functional projection
that is located hierarchically between the tense phrase (which hosts auxilia-
ries and other functional categories in the verb phrase) and the lexical verb
projection (N = 4,389); and (3) AP, which represents predicate adjective con-
structions (N = 3,455).
In each of these three contexts, like is more frequent
among men than it is among women. Strikingly, the proportional differences
between the two genders—though narrow—are statistically signiﬁcant across
the board (D’Arcy 2005, 155, 160, 196). This is likely due to the consistency
of the gender pattern across the age groups that use the particle in each of
the relevant contexts. It is worth noting that Dailey-O’Cain (2000, 66), who
employed accountable variationist methodology in analyzing the particle in
focus contexts, also reported a male favoring effect.
In short, there are distinct gender patterns associated with the vernacular
functions of like. The quotative and the marker are correlated with women,
the adverb exhibits no gender conditioning at all, and the particle is more
frequent in the speech of men. Thus, even though popular belief makes
women the “great offenders” in the like arena, the winner in this battle of the
sexes depends on function. Such a result underscores the discussion in the
previous section. If like truly were just like, we might expect all manifestations
to be similarly constrained by gender. Such is not the case.
blame it on the valley girls and adolescents. The differences in func-
tion and in social conditioning displayed by the various forms of like raise
the question of where the vernacular uses came from. As discussed above,
popular ideology situates the epicenter of like usage in California, and the
Valley Girls in particular are attributed with launching like into the general
social consciousness (Blyth, Recktenwald, and Wang 1990, 224; Dailey-O’Cain
2000, 70). It is difﬁcult, however, to divorce the issue of genesis from that of
practice, because the truth of one impinges directly on that of the other. It is
a common assumption that vernacular uses of like are age-graded, frequently
marking the speech of adolescents and younger adults only to be outgrown
in adulthood. In other words, like use is presumed ephemeral and temporally
american speech 82.4 (2007)398
banded, appropriate for a certain stage of life and then shrugged off when
its suitability wanes. In addressing the history of the various discourse func-
tions, issues are raised concerning its social embedding, of which age is an
It is generally assumed that the vernacular uses of like discussed here
have their origins in American English (e.g., Andersen 2001, 216). In popu-
lar lore, no distinctions are made beyond “America” and/or “California.”
Among linguists, however, it is possible to ﬁnd some degree of differentia-
tion. For example, it has been suggested that the marker and the particle
(and most likely the approximative adverb as well) developed among the
counterculture groups (i.e., jazz, cool, and Beat) of New York City during
the 1950s and 1960s (Andersen 2001, 216, and references therein), while
the quotative complementizer emerged some time later in California (see
Blyth, Recktenwald, and Wang 1990). This last hypothesis is the most easily
defensible on the basis of empirical ﬁndings; I will concentrate on the rise
of the remaining vernacular uses before subsequently returning to the issue
of the quotative.
It is entirely plausible that counterculture groups drew on like as a
resource in constructing their sociolinguistic identities, and attestations
demonstrate that they did use like as both a discourse marker and a discourse
particle. Chapman (1986, 259) describes these uses as characteristic of “1960s
counterculture and bop talk,” which he exempliﬁes with the sentence “Like
I was like groovin’ like, you know?” and as shown in (11), a quote from Jack
Kerouac’s monument to the Beat generation, On the Road, and in (12), from
Neurotica, a Beat journal published from 1948 to 1951, both uses were already
features of English in the mid- and early 1950s.
11. “Man, wow, there’s so many things to do, so many things to write! How to
even begin to get it all down and without modiﬁed restraints and all hung-up
on like literary inhibitions and grammatical fears. . . .” [ellipsis in original;
On the Road (New York: Viking, 1957), 7]
12. “. . .
Like how much can you lay on [i.e., give] me? . . .” [Lawrence Rivers,
, Autumn 1950, 45 (OED2 )]
The attribution of the discourse marker and the discourse particle to
particular groups in a speciﬁc place at a speciﬁc time suggests that use of
either form among speakers over a certain age in North America (or else-
where) would be unexpected. For example, if we assume that the apparent
time hypothesis (Labov 1966) provides a valid premise on which to model
ongoing language change (for discussion, see Bailey 2002 and Sankoff 2004),
then in North America, use of both the marker and the particle should be
roughly circumscribed to speakers aged 65 years and under. This ﬁgure is
Like and Language Ideology 399
based on the following calculation: speakers who were 17 years old in 1955
(roughly the purported dawn of the like age in the United States) would
today be in their mid-sixties. To allow for the transatlantic diffusion of these
forms to the United Kingdom, the cutoff should be somewhat younger in
As the examples in (14) demonstrate, like is used as a discourse marker
by speakers well beyond 65 years of age. Moreover, not only is this form used
by elderly speakers in the North American context (as in 14a–14d), but it
also occurs in the speech of septa- and octogenarians living in isolated, rural
villages across the United Kingdom (as in 14e–14h).
14. a. Like our daughter was turning sixteen, and the little girl down the street
is sixteen, was given a car for her birthday. [N/m/83]
Like we were above the tracks but um it was a pretty good company.
Like we always said “karkey” but now I hear them saying “khaki.” [N/
Like we were quite close and when I went away, he just closed the doors
and went to work for someone else. [N/m/84]
Like my neighbors and we got on ﬁne. [AYR/f/78]
Like you forget that’s on at the ﬁnish, don’t you? [MPT/m/78]
Like it was my thinking bit of road. [MPT/f/81]
Like it was a kind-of wee bit of tongue-twister. [CLB/f/89]
An important question to consider is whether the occurrences in (14)
represent isolated or rare tokens in the speech of individuals that could
result from the late adoption of lexical forms or whether they represent a
more regular pattern of use in discourse. While no distributional analysis
has been performed on the British dialect data, ﬁgures are available con-
cerning the overall rate of use in the Toronto materials. Among the oldest
speakers in the sample, those in their eighties, like marks 8% of matrix-level
clauses, while all other discourse markers combined (well, I mean, so, you see,
actually, etc.) account for 11% of contexts overall (N = 299). In other words,
like accounts for almost half of the total discourse markers used by speakers
in their eighties; we can surmise that it is a relatively high-frequency item in
the speech of this generation, who were already in their thirties and early
forties in 1955.
Evidence from the particle presents a further twist. In (15) like is shown
in two distinct syntactic positions: on the left edge of a noun phrase (as in
15a–15c), and on the left edge of the lexical verb (as in 15d–15f). These data
illustrate the use of the particle by elderly speakers of regional British variet-
ies. In (16), the same contexts are illustrated from the Toronto materials.
american speech 82.4 (2007)400
15. a. It was only like a step up to this wee loft. [CLB/m/91]
b. Oh, it was
like boots we wore. [CLB/f/89]
c. That was
like the visitors and we says we would nae mind ken. [AYR/
d. We were
like walking along that Agohill road. [CLB/f/86]
e. They were just
like sitting waiting to dies. [AYR/m/75]
f. We were like ready to
like mutiny. [YRK/f/74]
16. a. We stayed at
like a motel. [N/f/76]
b. Now Tim would be going more for
like Fred Flintstone. [N/f/72]
c. They didn’t have windows. They had
like a box. [N/m/62]
d. So we bought it and
like moved ﬁve houses over. [N/f/55]
e. They were
like living like dogs. [N/m/52]
f. I’m not sure if my eight-year-old
like understands that. [N/m/46]
In the North American data, the oldest speakers to use the particle in
the context of noun phrases are in their seventies (in 16a and 16b), much
younger than is the case, for example, in Culleybackey, Northern Ireland (in
15a and 15b). In the case of lexical verbs, the oldest speakers to use like in
Toronto are in their ﬁfties (in 16d and 16e), again well behind communities
in Northern Ireland, Scotland, and England (in 15d–15f). These two contexts
form the basis of comparison here because they illustrate an important point:
there is no context where like occurs among, for example, the 80-year-olds
from Toronto where it does not also occur among the 80-year-olds from the
rural U.K. locales. The reverse does not obtain.
In isolation, the Toronto data are somewhat problematic for the counter-
culture genesis hypothesis. Not only is the marker used by speakers older than
65 years of age, but the examples do not represent random occurrences. As
noted, the marker is highly productive among Torontonians in their eight-
ies, occurring nearly as often as all other discourse markers combined in the
speech of this cohort. This suggests that the marker was already a feature
of the vernacular before it was associated with the Beat and jazz groups of
the 1950s and 1960s. In fact, working from the apparent-time hypothesis,
in the 1930s, when these 80-year-olds were teenagers, like must have been
relatively frequent in the ambient language as a discourse marker, a usage
inherited by these speakers from the previous generations. The added per-
spective afforded by the British data further jeopardizes the plausibility of
the counterculture genesis hypothesis. As both a marker and a particle, like
is attested among the oldest speakers in the English, Scottish, and Northern
Irish communities considered here, raising troubling questions about the
American roots of these forms more generally. If we interpret the differ-
ences between the North American and the British dialect data as temporal
analogues, then like was used as a particle in certain contexts approximately
Like and Language Ideology 401
10–20 years earlier in the British varieties than it was in comparable syntactic
frames in North American English.
There is a further complication. A form that is highly reminiscent of
the use of like as a discourse marker is attested in literary sources from the
nineteenth century, as in (17a) from the OED2, as is its use as a discourse
particle, as illustrated in (17b).
17. a. “Why like, it’s gaily nigh like to four mile like.” [De Quincey 1840–41,
b. He would not go like through that. . . . They are like against one another
as it is. [C. Clough Robinson, A Glossary of Words Pertaining to the Dialect of
Mid-Yorkshire, English Dialect Society no. 14 (London: Trübner, 1876),
76 (Wright 1902)]
Shown in (18), the marker is also attested in recordings of elderly speakers
made by the New Zealand National Broadcasting Service in 1946–48. These
data document the speech of native New Zealanders born in the period from
1851 to 1919. The vast majority of these speakers’ parents had emigrated
to New Zealand from England, Ireland, and Scotland; none had come from
the United States.
18. a. Like until his death he used to write to me quite frequently. [Thomas
Steel, b. 1874, Waikato]
Like you’d need to see the road to believe it. [John McLew, b. 1875,
c. You know,
like you would be going to the hotel to stay for a day or two.
[Catherine Dudley, b. 1886, Central Otago]
Like once we got the milk from the cows he’d take it into town. [Eric
Robinson, b. 1919, Canterbury]
Examples such as these support Romaine and Lange’s (1991, 270) asser-
tion that nonquotative uses of like have probably been functioning in the
vernacular for more than a century. In fact, in the case of the marker, they
suggest a much longer history. Moreover, the early sources in (17) are Brit-
ish, not American, and an American link would be difﬁcult to construct for
the New Zealand examples in (18). Thus, both the historical record and
synchronic facts contradict the notion that American English is the origin
of the vernacular uses of like as both a marker and a particle.
New linguistic forms may occur at extremely low rates for extended pe-
riods before reaching a point of widespread diffusion, assuming they survive
at all. Language change is not deterministic. In order to advance, innovative
forms must develop an association with some desirable social construct (Labov
2001, 462). Although it seems clear that the jazz, cool, and Beat groups of
american speech 82.4 (2007)402
the 1950s and 1960s were not the source of like as a marker and a particle,
it also seems incontestable that these uses were associated with the counter-
culture groups. In other words, they exploited a resource already available
in the ambient language. A reasonable deduction, therefore, is that these
groups provided the means for like to accelerate in the vernacular. In short,
I suggest that circa the middle of the twentieth century, like was an incipient
form in the vernacular and its connection with certain groups cultivated the
appropriate social context for the marker and the particle to advance. These
forms represent change in progress.
That like has functioned as a marker and a particle for some time in the
English language itself indicates that such uses are not restricted to ado-
lescents and young adults. The data in (14)–(16) further substantiate this
observation: speakers in their seventies, eighties, and nineties use like in the
same ways speakers more than sixty years their juniors do. Why, then, does
the like language myth consistently point to younger speakers? The answer is
as obvious as it is timeless. As with any form involved in change, adolescents
are in the vanguard. They are not the only members of the community using
these forms, but they use them at higher frequencies than older age cohorts
within the population.
To this end, consider ﬁgure 2, which tracks the frequencies of the marker
and the particle across apparent time in Toronto. For the particle, the same
contexts from ﬁgure 1 are included. There are two critical observations to
draw from these results. First, in each vernacular function, the frequency of
like increases steadily across apparent time. This monotonic association of
like as a Discourse Marker and a Discourse Particle
across Apparent Time in Toronto
>80 70s 60s 50s 40s 30s 20s 17–19 15–16 10–12
Marker (N = 3,363)
Particle: DP (N = 4,408)
Particle: νP (N = 5,843)
Particle: AP (N = 4,298)
Like and Language Ideology 403
frequency with age is characteristic of change in progress (Labov 2001, 460).
Second, a peak occurs in each trajectory, either among the 17–19-year-olds
or the 15–16-year-olds. According to Labov (2001), these peaks are not, for
example, indicators of age grading whereby we can expect a retrenchment
toward adult norms following adolescence. Rather, the peaks are a general
requirement of ongoing change, falling out from the logistic progression
of innovative forms. In short, like the marker and like the particle are not
simply passing fads of the adolescent years. It is incontrovertible that younger
speakers use them more frequently than older speakers do. This has been
established in other research as well (e.g., Dailey-O’Cain 2000, 66). It is also
incontrovertible, however, that despite popular belief, adolescents are not
alone. Other age groups also use like for these functions; they simply do not
do so as often, exactly as predicted by all models of language change.
Similarly, the use of like as an approximative adverb has increased dra-
matically over the past 65 years within this same population. Interestingly,
the adverbial function provides an example of lexical replacement. As shown
in ﬁgure 3, it has been ousting about in the spoken vernacular for most of
the period we can track with this corpus, providing a trajectory of weak
complementarity (Sankoff and Thibault 1981, 207). Although a minority
form among the oldest speakers in the community, like has gained signiﬁcant
currency across apparent time as an approximative strategy. While speakers
over the age of 30 tend to prefer the traditional form, about, speakers under
that age favor like (D’Arcy 2006). In other words, the form has changed: where
Overall Distributions of like and about as Lexical Approximations
across Apparent Time
>80 70s 60s 50s 40s 30s 20s 17–19 15–16 10–12
about (N = 330)
like (N = 578)
N = 3,068
american speech 82.4 (2007)404
one increases, the other decreases. This is the deﬁning characterization of
weak complementarity (Sankoff and Thibault 1981, 207).
None of this, however, relates to the Valley Girls. Songs like Frank Zappa’s
“Valley Girl” (1982) and Atlantic Pictures’s 1983 movie by the same name
provide snapshots of life as a teenage girl in the San Fernando Valley, iconic
images that continue to be perpetuated in pop culture (e.g., Paramount’s
1995 Clueless). The vernacular forms of like are salient features of the Valley
Girl persona, but as with the counterculture groups, the Valley Girls were
not the only speakers to use these forms, nor were they the innovators. This
much is obvious. Furthermore, while it is likely—as one reviewer rightly
points out—that the linguistic and cultural style associated with the category
“Valley Girl” was established prior to its being popularized by media repre-
sentations in the early 1980s, it remains nonetheless that the category only
became available to the broader social context at this time. Stated differently,
outside its local milieu, “Valley Girl” was not an active model for association,
linguistic or otherwise, until after 1980. The apparent-time trajectories in
ﬁgures 3 and 4, however, suggest that as a marker, particle, and approxima-
tive adverb, like was already increasing in frequency before this time. For
each use that is tracked in these ﬁgures, the upward slope begins 20, and
in some cases 30, years earlier than can be reasonably postulated for the
Valley Girl branch of the myth to be upheld. Nonetheless, this belief seems
too robust in the North American psyche to be utterly without substance. It
is possible, for example, that vernacular uses of like were recycled as a Val-
ley Girl phenomenon once their initial association with the counterculture
groups waned among subsequent generations of speakers. As Milroy (2004,
169) states, “different groups may be foregrounded at different times.” In
other words, the saliency of social categories can be variable across time, and
linguistic forms associated with one may later come to be associated with
another as each rises to prominence in the cultural landscape of the time.
There is some support for this in the apparent-time trajectories. In ﬁgures
2 and 3, some of the slopes steepen visibly within the cohort of speakers in
their thirties. These speakers would have been in their pre- and young teens
when the Valley Girl persona rose to popularity.
Table 2 summarizes the results of ﬁve multivariate analyses (one for each
of the vernacular functions seen in ﬁgures 2 and 3) within four major age
brackets: the school years (10–16), university and young adulthood (17–29),
middle age (30–59), and retirement (60 and over). The probabilities reveal
that the point in apparent time at which each of these uses becomes favored
is among speakers aged 29 and under. Despite having been active features
of the vernacular for some time, the critical developmental period for the
marker, the particle, and the approximative adverb appears to have occurred
Like and Language Ideology 405
in the past 15 to 20 years. In short, each seems to have recently undergone
a phase of rigorous expansion.
Thus, the sum of the apparent-time evidence indicates that like was
functioning in the vernacular as a discourse marker, a discourse particle,
and an adverb of approximation well before the Valley Girl category was
popularized in the early 1980s. These functions were also increasing in
frequency before this time. However, the rate of change seems to increase
among speakers between the ages of 30 to 39, and this momentum is then
maintained across apparent time. In fact, it is among the subsequent age
groups that the vernacular uses of like attain signiﬁcance, favored among
speakers aged 29 and under. All together, the results suggest that while
the Valley Girls were not solely responsible for launching these forms in
discourse, they did seem to get a boost during the height of the Valley Girl
period, which may in turn have helped to propel them into the vernacular
faster than they would have otherwise.
Probabilities for (Nonquotative) Vernacular Uses of
like According to Age
10–16 17–29 30–59 60+ Total
Factor Weight .65 .58 .43 .36
Percentage 22 18 11 8
N 585 1,056 957 765 3,363
Factor Weight .72 .65 .39 .16
Percentage 17 14 5 2
N 792 1,421 1,149 685 4,047
Factor Weight .65 .62 .24 —
Percentage 10 10 2 0
N 1,242 1,780 1,367 1,094* 4,389
Factor Weight .63 .50 .41 —
Percentage 11 6 3 0
N 866 1,419 1,170 843* 3,455
Factor Weight .78 .77 .45 .08
Percentage 33 32 10 1
N 509 928 1,013 618 3,068
* These tokens were excluded from the multivariate analyses due to the categorical
like to occur within this age groups
american speech 82.4 (2007)406
The one form that probably can be identiﬁed as “Valley Girl” is quotative
be like, since in this instance the chronology seems to corroborate popular
belief. The ﬁrst mention of be like in the sociolinguistic literature is dated 1982
(Ronald Butters’s editor’s note in American Speech), at which time it appeared
to be an incipient form (see also Tannen 1986). There are attestations of
this use available from the pop culture of the time (e.g., “She’s like ‘Oh my
God’” in Zappa’s “Valley Girl”), yet none predating the Valley Girls of which
I am aware. The inception of quotative be like for introducing constructed
dialogue thus seems to be fairly well circumscribed to the early 1980s. Appar-
ent-time data provide further support for this accounting. Figure 4 displays
the frequency of the quotative across the Toronto population.
The results demonstrate that although be like appears in the speech of
Torontonians in their forties and ﬁfties, such uses are extremely rare. In
contrast, be like is used productively by speakers in their thirties, accounting
for 26% of quotative verbs overall within this cohort (N = 453). This is the
generation—born in the late 1960s and early 1970s—that comprised the
teenagers of the 1980s. The divide between the results for this group and those
for the 40-year-olds in ﬁgure 4 is critical to disentangling the developmental
history of be like. Similar data from 1995 demonstrated that the overall distri-
bution of be like among speakers aged 18 to 27 was then 13% (Tagliamonte
and Hudson 1999). The real-time trend comparison from Tagliamonte and
D’Arcy (2007a) reveals that use has since increased substantially: be like now
accounts for 58% of quotatives among 25–29-year-olds, and 31% of quotatives
among speakers aged 30–34. In other words, the frequency of be like has more
than doubled across two similar populations in the seven intervening years.
Overall Distribution of Quotative be like across Apparent Time in Toronto
(after Tagliamonte and D’Arcy 2007, 205, ﬁg. 2; N = 6,364)
> 80 70s 60s 50s 40s 30s 20s 17–19 15–16 10–12
Percentage be like
Like and Language Ideology 407
Results such as these provide compelling evidence for communal change,
with speakers increasing their use of innovative features throughout their
lifetimes (Labov 1994, 84). Relative to the genesis of be like, this suggests
that the odd tokens which occur in the speech of 40- and 50-year-olds do
not mark the inception of this form, but rather reﬂect the late adoption of
a new feature during adulthood (see Tagliamonte and D’Arcy 2007a; also
In short, of the vernacular forms of like that occur in discourse, only
quotative be like may have Valley Girl origins. The discourse marker and
particle have long histories in the language, predating the Valley Girls by
at least a century (cf. 17 and 18; also Romaine and Lange 1991), and the
conversational use of like to mean about has likewise been a feature of English
throughout most of the twentieth century (cf. 5; also ﬁgure 3). Moreover, the
apparent-time data indicate that the use of nonquotative forms of like was
increasing prior to 1980. Nonetheless, a distinct change in the rate of this
increase coincides with the rise of the Valley Girl persona. It is unlikely that
these are disparate phenomena. Given the general perception that like is just
like, it is possible that the association of quotative be like with the Valley Girl
image led to concomitant increases in the use of other functions performed
by like in the vernacular. It may also have contributed to the belief that the
Valley Girls are responsible for all of the vernacular forms.
However, to acknowledge that the Valley Girls may have contributed to
the advancement of these forms in North America must not be confused
with saying that they are responsible for their spread more generally. As I
have argued above, outside quotative be like, the other forms of like have been
increasing in the vernacular for as long as we are able to ascertain with syn-
chronic data. Moreover, these functions are not unique to North America.
They are found in the discourse of elderly speakers of isolated, rural varieties
across both the United Kingdom and New Zealand. To these observations
can be added the evidence from perceptual investigations. The social bag-
gage of one region does not straightforwardly—or even necessarily—carry
to another region. For example, quotative be like, the only vernacular form
for which a North American genesis can be supported, appears to carry no
coherent regional afﬁliation for speakers in the United Kingdom (Buchstaller
2006b). Thus, notions like ‘Valley Girl’, ‘California’, or even ‘American’ may
not be as salient outside the North American context as they are within it. We
must, therefore, be very cautious about claims that the American media are
responsible for exporting the vernacular functions of like to other varieties.
While it is possible that use by iconic media ﬁgures reinforced these functions,
it is more than likely that they were already in existence in the vernacular.
In other words, it is important to distinguish between the development and
subsequent embedding (social and linguistic) of linguistic forms, their trans-
american speech 82.4 (2007)408
mission across nonproximate contexts, and the possible inﬂuence of other
varieties as “targets” for adoption and/or appropriation to the local context
(for discussion of “Americanization” in language variation and change more
generally, see Meyerhoff and Niedzielski 2003).
anything goes. The apparent-time perspective also provides insights on
how the current state of adolescent vernaculars has come into being. The
trajectories in ﬁgures 2 and 3 reveal quite clearly that nonquotative uses of
like have not appeared ex nihilo. Each function and each syntactic frame has
developed gradually across the generations. The net result is that frequency
of use is the primary criterion distinguishing adolescent cohorts from adult
However, it is also the general impression that vernacular forms of like
can be used anywhere, inserted into an utterance at whichever point in the
syntax a speaker wishes. As with other aspects of the like language myth, this
belief is propagated by the media (e.g., Diamond 2000) and by language
commentators (e.g., Wilson 1987, 92). It can also be found in various guises
in the linguistic literature. Siegel (2002, 64) maintains that like can “occur
grammatically anywhere in a sentence,” and Romaine and Lange (1991,
261) state that like is characterized by “syntactic detachability and positional
mobility.” While it is true that the combined functions of marker and particle
account for a wide range of contexts across clause structure, it is also the case
that these positions are not random. To see this, it is necessary to observe
not only where these forms of like do occur, but also where they do not. I
will concentrate here on the position of the particle vis-à-vis verbs. However,
similar types of argumentation can be applied to the other clause-internal
contexts where like functions as a particle, as well as to the use of like as a
discourse marker (see D’Arcy 2005).
In the current data set, the syntagmatic order of like and verbs is highly
ﬁxed: the particle categorically occurs to the immediate left of the lexical
verb. Thus, when functional morphemes such as modal verbs, auxiliary verbs,
and inﬁnitival to are present, like appears between these and the main verb, as
exempliﬁed in (19) (see also 15d–15f and 16d–16f above). This observation
was made by Underhill (1988, 243) for American English and by Andersen
(2001, 280) for London English, and it also holds in the Toronto materials
(D’Arcy 2005; N = 4389).
19. a. I’d like wake up and feel good. [2/m/15]
like grown into that. [3/m/12]
c. They like to
like intervene a lot. [3/m/18]
d. Everyone is
like calling stuff out. [I/m/22]
e. They kept
like jumping around. [N/m/26]
Like and Language Ideology 409
The consistency and regularity of the pattern in (19) refutes the notion
of arbitrariness in the use of the particle. It also suggests that like targets a
speciﬁc adjunction site in the syntax, since its position is systematic. D’Arcy
(2005) has argued that in the verbal domain, this target is the light verb pro-
jection (i.e., νP), since this would situate like between functional material in
the higher tense phrase and lexical material in the lower lexical verb phrase.
Note that a prediction that falls out of this analysis is that like can target the
periphery of any νP. Thus, in biclausal complexes such as control structures,
it should be possible to ﬁnd instances of like adjoining to the higher νP, to
the lower νP, as well as to both light verb projections.
As the examples in
(20) demonstrate, all three patterns are attested in the Toronto data.
20. a. They like want to Ø get together. [3/f/16]
b. I didn’t
Ø want to like walk up to them [2/f/15]
Ø trying to like pull it out of the water. [3/f/17]
d. As long as they
like try to like merge with Canadian culture. . . . [I/
The positional systematicity of like in a range of predicate constructions
thus provides compelling evidence that like is not an ad hoc option of the
vernacular. Some further evidence that the particle is not randomly inserted
in discourse is provided by its linear order relative to adverbs. Jackendoff
(1972, 1997, 2002) has proposed that adverbs can be grouped into three basic
classes: speaker-oriented, subject-oriented, and degree/manner. Crucially,
these classes are hierarchically located at different levels of structure, with
speaker-oriented adverbs merged highest in the verbal complex and man-
ner adverbs merged lowest.
If like has a ﬁxed position in the structure and
adverbs occur in a range of structural projections, then it is entirely plausible
that the syntagmatic ordering of these elements may vary depending on the
type of adverb with which like co-occurs.
Examination of the Toronto data reveals two distinct patterns: (1) adverb
+ like and (2) like + adverb. This ﬁrst pattern is demonstrated in (21) and
(22); the second pattern is shown in (23) and (24). Crucially, these patterns
are not accidental; they correlate with adverb type. In (21) and (22), where
the particle co-occurs with speaker- and subject-oriented adverbs, like follows
the modiﬁer. In (23) and (24), where the particle appears with degree and
manner adverbs, it precedes the modiﬁer. Thus, there seems to be consistent
division between adverbs that arguably are located quite high in the structure
of the verbal complex and those that arguably are located quite low in this
domain, with like adjoining at some point between these positions.
american speech 82.4 (2007)410
a. I don’t really [epistemic ‘truly’]
like judge people on what music they
listen to. [2/m/15]
b. We literally
like cooked all the food. [N/m/26]
c. He actually
like stood up. [I/m/21a]
d. They honestly
like threatened me. [I/m/21b]
still like comes to lunch with us. [2/f/16]
b. Me and my friends, we always
like took rulers. [3/m/11]
c. They like it but they
never like played. [3/f/17]
a. A trade that I
like really [intensiﬁcation] like was the one they had
got from Jersey. [3/H/m/12]
b. Some people
like totally fell into the mold. [2/i/f/19]
c. The glue
like slightly falls off your hair. [2/r/f/11]
a. But people will
like slowly get into it. [2/f/19]
b. And then he
like slowly added more and more things. [S/m/15]
c. And then they
like gradually changed like how they looked. [2/
Thus, in examining just one syntactic context in which the discourse par-
ticle occurs, it becomes fairly evident that like is not a random element of the
vernacular. Nonetheless, the perception that it is ad hoc is likely to endure
in popular belief. There are at least three reasons for this. First, as a lexeme,
like is remarkably versatile. It functions as a lexical verb, a noun, a preposi-
tion, a conjunction, a sufﬁx, a quotative complementizer, an approximative
adverb, a discourse marker, and a discourse particle. As noted by Wilson
(1987, 92), “the only part of speech like isn’t is a pronoun.” In terms of raw
occurrence, this translates directly into increased token frequency. Second,
the marker and the particle together account for at least eight adjunction sites
in the syntax, and probably more: CP, TP, DP, NP, DegP, AP, νP, AdvP (D’Arcy
2005; see also note 11). Thus, not only is like multifunctional, but certain
of these functions cover a wide array of contexts. The third compounding
factor is that, as discussed above, the vernacular forms of like have recently
undergone a period of vigorous development. All together, these facts have
contributed to its saliency, and because each form sounds like every other, it
creates the illusion that like can go anywhere grammatically. In other words,
we have returned to the ﬁrst ingredient of the like language myth, that like
is just like, which it is not.
Like and Language Ideology 411
To summarize, I have argued the following. First, there are minimally four
vernacular functions of like occurring in discourse: quotative complementizer,
approximative adverb, discourse marker, and discourse particle. Because they
all sound the same, they resound in the communal ear simply as ‘like’. Second,
each function connotes a distinct referential and/or pragmatic meaning.
Third, gender does not condition use of the vernacular forms uniformly.
Women are favored for the quotative and discourse marking functions, but
men are favored across the range of contexts examined here in which the
particle occurs. The adverb exhibits no gender pattern, being equally prob-
able as an approximation strategy in the speech of either gender. Fourth,
the vernacular forms are not twentieth-century innovations that originate
from the Valley Girls. Only the quotative may be sourced to this group; the
rest have extended histories in the English language. Fifth, adolescents use
the vernacular forms more frequently than adult cohorts do, but adults of
all ages use them to some extent or another. Sixth and ﬁnally, vernacular
uses of like are systematic, not arbitrary.
Returning to the various components of the like myth, a little bit of
truth has been disentangled from the ﬁction. These truths in turn suggest
some of the factors that may have been instrumental in the rise of the myth
more generally. The combination of empirical data from regional dialects
of British English and the apparent-time results from Toronto suggest that
the nonquotative vernacular functions of like have been increasing in fre-
quency over the last 65 years or so, and the marker for seemingly longer still.
In other words, they represent change in progress and cannot be isolated
to the North American context. In the interim, quotative be like was likely
introduced by the Valley Girls in the early 1980s, and the other forms were
concomitantly associated with this group as well. Since this time, all vernacular
forms of like have subsequently increased in frequency to the point where
they are now signiﬁcantly favored among speakers under the age of 30 and
disfavored (though not absent) among older age groups. As a consequence
of the typical trajectory of change, these uses are most frequent in the speech
of adolescents, and the stigma associated with the vernacular forms draws
overt attention and commentary.
From here it is possible to hypothesize a scenario that could have led to
the cultivation of a number of beliefs about like. In North America at least,
Valley Girls remain a well-deﬁned category. This not only perpetuates the
Valley Girl image, but it also perpetuates stereotypes of Valley Girl behavior.
Like is one aspect of this image. Crucially though, Valley Girls are young
american speech 82.4 (2007)412
and female. While this might seem obvious, it helps to explain why the myth
perseveres, focusing on the use of teenagers and women in particular, even
though it is clear that vernacular uses are not, nor have they been histori-
cally, conﬁned to these segments of the population. The adolescent peak
that is a general requirement of language change then feeds the adolescent
connection, as does the strong female preference for quotative be like. If like
is just like, then it follows that what holds for one holds for all.
This, however, raises an interesting issue for theories of language change
more generally. The gender conditioning displayed by the vernacular
functions of like does not correlate with the social afﬁliation that has emerged
within its attendant ideology. The iconic ﬁgures of the counterculture
movements were predominantly male (e.g., William S. Burrough, Neal
Cassady, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Peter Orlovsky,
etc.), yet the discourse marker, which was a part of the Beat vernacular (as
in 12 and 13), has been more frequent in the speech of women than in that
of men across apparent time. Only the particle displays a regular association
with men. Valley Girls are young women, and while the quotative—for which
they are credited—has more or less consistently been favored among women
throughout its development (Tagliamonte and D’Arcy 2007a), the particle
remains more frequent in the speech of men. At the same time, the use of
like as an approximative adverb is independent of gender. This suggests that
social patterns of use are not tied to the groups with which a form comes to
be associated for a time. In other words, social perception and language use
can operate independently of one another. Thus, even though like might
simply be regarded as a single form in the received cultural wisdom, in the
grammar these various functions remain distinct.
To conclude, teasing apart the individual beliefs that contribute to popu-
lar like ideology has revealed what the vernacular uses of like are as well as what
they are not. On one hand, they are complex and historically long-standing
features of English dialects. Only quotative be like can be deﬁned as a late-
twentieth-century innovation. On the other hand, these uses are not simply
“a girl thing,” “a teenager thing,” or some combination of the two (e.g., “a
Valley Girl thing”), nor can it be said that they are a strictly “American thing.”
Instead, to a certain extent, these forms are everybody’s thing.
I gratefully acknowledge Sali Tagliamonte for granting me access to the Toronto
English and Roots of English archives, without which this research would not have
been possible. I also thank Isabelle Buchstaller, Suzanne Romaine, Johanna Wood,
Like and Language Ideology 413
and three anonymous reviewers for their careful and insightful comments on earlier
versions of this manuscript. Finally, I acknowledge the Social Sciences and Humani
ties Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), who supported this work with Doctoral
Fellowship no. 752-2002-2177.
1. On language myths in general, see Bauer and Trudgill (1998) and articles
therein; for attitudes toward language change, see Aitchison (1981) and L. Milroy
(2004); and on the state of the language, see Cameron (1995).
2. Parenthetical information following examples marks the subcorpus from which
the datum was extracted, followed by the speaker’s sex and age. The following
corpora, housed in the Sociolinguistics Laboratory at the University of Toronto,
document Toronto English: 2 = data collected by students in the 2002 Research
Opportunities Program (ROP) in Linguistics; 3 = data from the 2003 ROP course;
I = data collected in 2003 as part of the “In-TO-vation” (TO) research project;
and N = data collected in 2004 for the TO project. For British dialect data, the
relevant codes are: AYR = Ayrshire; PVG = Portavogie; MPT = Maryport; and
YRK = York (see Tagliamonte and Smith 2002; Tagliamonte forthcoming).
3. For discussion of the design and construction of the individual corpora within
the Toronto Archive, see Tagliamonte and D’Arcy (2004, 497) and Tagliamonte
4. Despite being a feature of colloquial English since the fourteenth century
(Romaine and Lange 1991, 244, n. 7), the use of like as a conjunction created
an uproar during the 1950s in North America when R. J. Reynolds Tobacco
Company released the advertising slogan “Winston tastes good like a cigarette
should.” Interestingly, this usage recently drew a reaction from a New Zealand
audience of older, educated speakers during a presentation about the vernacular
like (Sept. 5, 2006). It seems the conjunction was perceived along the
like in (1d), suggesting that despite the longevity of constructions such
as (3d), there are sectors of the population who continue to advocate the use
of ‘as (though)’ in speech.
5. This article, which draws largely on data from North American English, presents
evidence for four vernacular functions, though it is clear that some varieties of
English may distinguish between ﬁve or more. For example, English English
and Scottish English include a sentence-ﬁnal adverbial, discussed by Andersen
(2001) and Miller and Weinert (1995) and exempliﬁed profusely in the OED2
(see also 17a), which takes backward scope and can be glossed as ‘as it were’ or
‘so to speak’. In North American English, this function is marginal, restricted in
the Toronto materials to speakers over the age of 60 (e.g., “We need to smarten
it up a bit
like” [N/f/76]), though even within this cohort its use is extremely
rare. It has also been suggested that
like functions as a pause-ﬁller, equivalent
to um and er (e.g., Siegel 2002, 38; Fought 2006). While it is possible that as a
like may function this way in some of its uses, it should be noted that
most instances of
like are prosodically integrated; co-occurrence with self-repair
and hesitation phenomena constitute the exception, not the norm, in vernacular
american speech 82.4 (2007)414
use (Andersen 2000, 19; Levey 2003, 28). Consequently, this function is not
6. See Tagliamonte and D’Arcy (2007a) for discussion of the actuation problem
with reference to be like.
7. The results for quotative be like in ﬁgure 1 are drawn from Tagliamonte and D’Arcy
(2007a), while the results for the approximative adverb, the discourse marker,
and the particle are drawn from D’Arcy (2005, 2006). It should be noted that
this ﬁgure reports overall distributions across the age groups who use each form
of like. This age range differs from function to function (see ﬁgures 2–4).
8. This list is intended to be representative, not exhaustive.
9. Notably, in his discussion of “vulgarities,” De Quincey (1840–41, 224) provides
the sentence in (17a) as an example of the speech typical of uneducated, older,
rural males of Westmoreland. That he associates
like with this particular social
group suggests that it was already at that time well-entrenched as a feature of
the vernacular. De Quincey goes on to state that like is used so frequently that
“if the word were proscribed by Parliament, he [“an ancient father of his valley”]
would have no resource but everlasting silence.”
10. Buchstaller and Traugott (2006) discuss adverbial all (e.g., John is all wet), tracing
its history from Old English through to the present day. Though not new, this
adverbial function is often considered such (e.g., Waksler 2001), linked with the
genuinely innovative form quotative be all. Buchstaller and Traugott (2006, 364)
suggest that the perception of newness for adverbial uses results from a “social
selective attention effect,” what Zwicky (2005) has called the “adolescent illusion.”
A similar effect may be at work with vernacular
like. Speciﬁcally, the emergence
of quotative be like, a form whose diffusion has progressed with extreme rapidity,
may have increased the saliency of the other vernacular functions, triggering
a “perceptual generalization” (Buchstaller and Traugott 2006, 365) whereby
adolescents, associated with quotative be like as a recent change in progress (as
opposed to slower, long-standing ones), become associated with all functions.
11. In fact, when language-internal constraints are factored into the analysis, they
are revealed to operate uniformly across the sample, regardless of speaker age.
In short, the entire speech community shares a single variable grammar for each
of the vernacular functions of like (D’Arcy 2005, 139, 213–14).
12. This does not rule out the possibility that like may subsequently generalize beyond
this position and begin to occur in an increasing array of syntactic contexts.
In D’Arcy (2005, 219), I hypothesize that grammaticalization of the particle is
incomplete, which, if correct, would allow for its spread to projections not yet in
evidence in either the Toronto materials or the earlier corpora used by Under
hill (1988) and Andersen (1997). Indeed, I thank Isa Buchstaller for sending
the below examples from the Web, found using Google (pers. comm., Feb. 10,
2007), which demonstrate just that. In other words, the suggestion being made
is that the restriction of
like to the immediate left of the lexical verb represents
an earlier stage of development in this ongoing change.
Like and Language Ideology 415
a. Like, something like when you get like to see if you have like strep throat
or something. [interview with “low-risk teen” about AIDS, Center for Risk
Perception and Communication, Carnegie Mellon University, http://
(accessed Feb. 10, 2007)]
b. . . . but when you get
like to go and see them and help out, same people
that you’ve robbed. [David Smith, Harry Blagg, and Nick Derricourt, “Me
diation in South Yorkshire,” British Journal of Criminology 28 (1988): 378
c. . . . and she like is walkin to the banster and when she gets there she
like hippbummps the air! [ps_iluvyou_xo, post on High School Musical
Club discussion board, Picture Trail, http://www.picturetrail.com/club/
forums/viewTopic.php?topicID=5419, July 10, 2006]
13. The νP analysis is also able to capture the contrast between the positioning of
like vis-à-vis ﬁnite lexical be (like be) and nonﬁnite lexical be (was/am/is like) (for
details see D’Arcy 2005, 184).
14. The hierarchy proposed by Jackendoff (1972, 1997, 2002) is compatible with
the extended cartography argued for by Cinque (1999, 2004), where adverbs
are merged in the speciﬁer position of functional projections. For example,
Cinque’s ﬁxed universal hierarchy situates speech act, evidential, and epistemic
adverbs in distinct Mood projections, located high in the syntax. These types
of adverbs fall into the group of speaker-oriented adverbs, the highest category
in Jackendoff’s model. I adopt Jackendoff’s approach simply because the ﬁne-
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