Monday, November 21, 2011

A Beautiful Post about the Limitations of Language and the Universality of Experience

Wow, that's a long title.

I really loved "A Thanksgiving for Susie," a short piece by linguist Geoffrey Pullum, published today in The Chronicle of Higher Education's "Lingua Franca" blog. In it, he starts out with his usual curmudgeonly tone, but then the post shifts into something lovely and bittersweet.

Pullum is a contributor to one of my must-read blogs, Language Log.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

I'm On, Like, a Mission

It was 1983, and we were in eighth grade. I don't remember if we were in Mrs. Bonner's speech class or Mrs. Bonner's drama class, but each student had to go in front of the classroom and make some kind of speech.

I don't remember what I talked about. I don't remember anything about the speech except this:

As I sat down, Kelly Bertrand leaned over in her desk and quietly said, "That was, like, a really, like, interesting, like, speech." For a moment, I was genuinely flattered that she'd liked my speech, and I started to thank her.

But the deadpan look on her face stopped me. When she added, "Like, it really, like, WAS!" I knew what she was telling me.

Practically every other word in my speech had been a gratuitous "like."

(Why do I remember this particular exchange? I have no idea. As I was a painfully shy eighth-grader, you'd think I'd remember the terror of the speech itself. But no, I remember Kelly's comment.)

In its roundabout way, it was good advice. I would have done well to listen to the message.

Almost thirty years later, the word "like" is the bane of my speech-making existence. I not a big "um" sayer, and I don't think I ever say "er" or "ah" when speaking in front of a group. But "like"? Oh, my goodness.

I hear myself saying it when I'm standing in front of a classroom, or when I'm giving an update at a meeting at work. I cringe when I hear it; I know it makes me sound immature and probably uneducated. But it slips out still, just as naturally as "um" or "ah" or "er" slips out for a speaker whose adolescence occurred before the early eighties.

Why do I say this? Why all the gratuitous "likes"? I don't think them when I'm writing. I certainly never use them in my writing.

One reason I say "like" too many times, is that it's a habit--one that has been almost 30 years in the making. It's not as if it's something I can unlearn overnight.

Back in my shy junior-high years, it started out as a coping mechanism, and I think it still is, to a degree. Even though I now stand in front of a classroom every day, I am still the introverted, shy person I always was. The whole "outward orientation" thing isn't natural for me. So, in addition to occasionally stuttering, slurring my words, and forgetting how to spell things when in front of a group, I say the hated word: Like. Like, like, like, like, like.

I have to, like, stop saying "like."

So, today I have begun a mission--a mission to eradicate gratuitous "likes" from my speech. I've already told several people at work to call me on those extra "likes" when they hear them. I'm tempted to tell my students to do so as well, but I don't think I want to go there.

I actually found a wikihow article on how to stop saying the word "like." Gotta love the Internet.

OK, like, let's Let's see how this mission, like, goes.