Let’s stop shaming people for using vocal buffers. Like, it’s not exactly fair.
Words such as “like,” “um,” and similar monosyllabic mutterings tend to get a bad rap. Why that is, exactly, is unclear.
People tend to point toward vague examples of “valley girls” and “bimbos”; often-sexist and classist placeholder examples of “stupid” people. To be fair, overusing these buffers can be an easy habit to fall into. They can quickly cause one’s speech to devolve from thought-out and patient to inane babbling.
Is that reason enough to discredit these words entirely?
I wouldn’t personally place myself as high on the level of “like”-to-real-word ratios as other people I know, but I am a frequent user. I’m a person who likes to carefully think out how I’m going to word how I’m feeling. A buffer like, well, “like” helps me give myself some breathing room.
In an Op-Ed published in the New York Times last year entitled, “Like, Degrading the Language? No Way,” John McWhorter attempted to get to the heart of this issue.
“However, amid what often seems like the slack-jawed devolution of a once-mighty language, we can find evidence for, of all things, a growing sophistication,” McWhorter said. “We associate it with ingrained hesitation, a fear of venturing a definite statement. Yet the hesitation can be seen less as a matter of confidence than one of consideration.”
This idea of “like” as a means of consideration seems to be lost on people. We seem to recognize it only in its most extreme facets: The “ditzy” blonde, the stoned loser, the wannabe philosopher.
McWhorter’s pro-like plea, originally published in 2014, can now actually be backed up by scientific studies.
The Journal of Language and Social Psychology published a study earlier this year concerning “filter words.” Their study, focusing on words such as “like,” “you know,” and the ubiquitous “um” hoped to discover a link between their usage and the intelligence of their users. What they found is certainly hopeful for “like” enthusiasts such as myself.
“The possible explanation for this association is that conscientious people are generally more thoughtful and aware of themselves and their surroundings,” the study states. “Thus it is expected that the use of discourse markers may be used to measure the degree to which people have thoughts to express.”
It’s a lot of scientific jargon for an idea people most likely won’t respect straight out of the gate. The association between “filter words” and less-than-intelligent people is stronger than ever.
I see it happen all the time. It’s an easy opportunity to place yourself above someone else. Yes, this other person may have an edge on you in this field, but at least you don’t constantly say “like.”
Despite not even saying it that frequently, my own parents still shame me for it. I feel like I’m constantly barraged with statements like, “Stop saying ‘like,’ it makes you sound stupid.” Even if what I say is painstakingly thought out, the simple inclusion of “like” can almost entirely discredit it.
The great thing about language is that it’s constantly evolving. We aren’t speaking the same way we did 100, 50, ten, or even five years ago. Linguistics is a bizarre, amorphous concept, and that’s what makes it so crucial to our development.
Language evolves as we do. It changes itself in subtle ways amongst broader strokes to adapt to the way we live.
Life is just a lot faster now, and our speech is learning to keep up with it.