Like, Literally, Dude!

Ticked off by verbal tics? Language-expert Valerie Fridland has written an entertaining book about the origins and utility of what many people consider bad speaking habits. Like “like,” vocal fry, and excessive intensification.

Many of these speech habits she covers in Like Literally, Dude are tiny, she says, like saying “Whaaa?” instead of “What,” but that dropped “t” is one of the many linguistic choices that help craft a person’s social identity and offer great guidance for authors writing dialog. Your Gen Z college student can’t sound like one of his professors!

Different versions of “what” have subtly different effects. “What-hh,” as she describes it, has a tiny puff of air after the strongly enunciated “t.” It’s what you say when you’re interrupted for the 43rd time while trying to write a tricky paragraph. “What?” is a normal, business-like query. But “whaaaa?” is more casual or characteristic of certain population groups. To my ear, it indicates not an actual question, but conveys a sense of true wondering. It’s what you’d say if a spaceship landed in your back yard.

Fridland’s book delves into many such features that distinguish one person’s speech from another’s. And, speakers vary their speech, depending on what they are (mostly unconsciously) trying to convey. She says we use vocal tics “to project different attitudes and stances toward what we talk about and who we talk with.” A goldmine for dialog-writers!

Her observation that young people and women generally lead the way in linguistic changes is especially interesting, as is the note that these are the very speech patterns that take the brunt of criticism, women’s speech having been historically “disparaged as chatty, gossipy, and less topically important than men’s.” And women typically soften their presentation so as to be non-threatening. When writing my novel Architect of Courage, told from a man’s point of view, I worked hard to reflect male speech patterns—for example, excising “I think” and “I want,” and replacing them with flat statements and “I need.”

Take “like,” like it or not. This much-maligned word serves a great many non-grammatical (versus ungrammatical) purposes in sentences. One of Fridland’s examples is “I exercised for, like, ten hours.” Anyone hearing that understands the speaker did not, in fact, exercise for 600 minutes, but more that it felt that excessive. Leave out the “like,” and the sentence says the same thing, but doesn’t mean exactly the same. In this role, “like” becomes “a way for a speaker to communicate a certain impreciseness or looseness of meaning.”  

“Discourse markers” are features of speech that don’t contribute to the actual meaning of a sentence (so, you know, actually, oh, um, uh), but convey a sense of the speaker’s intentions. Although we think of these language quirks as being of recent vintage—a deluge of undesirable flies landing in the ointment of perfect English expression—their pedigree is lengthy. Fridland’s example is, “Oh, I finally got a job!” In that sentence, the “oh” invites the hearer to share the surprise.

The tendency to start sentences, “Soooo, . . .” give the speaker a few seconds to gather her thoughts and signals the hearer to listen up. “Well, . . .” does the same. Such discourse markers appear in Shakespeare and date back more than a thousand years. So much for modern bad habits! “Like” used as a discourse marker can be found as early as 250 years ago.

So, if you like language and if you write dialog involving different ages and types of people, you may find this book, whose subtitle is “Arguing for the Good in Bad English” helpful as well as entertaining!

4 thoughts on “Like, Literally, Dude!

  1. Does she go into the various aspects of different dialects too? I’ve always been fascinated by language so I’m definitely ordering this one.

    • Not a lot of specifics about dialects. This was an entertaining read. I’d forgotten about the Kardashian-vocal fry link!

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