- Discourse-pragmatic variation in context: Eight hundred years of like by Alexandra D’Arcy
A lot of linguists work now on popular issues, questions about language that will appeal to the general public. In that sense, this slim volume treats a distinctly unpopular topic, like as it is used for discourse-pragmatic purposes, something constantly decried by nonlinguists and only incompletely understood by linguists, certainly until now. That said, Alexandra D’Arcy’s Discourse-pragmatic variation in context: Eight hundred years of like is a weighty and consequential work for a wide range of audiences. I first give an overview of the book’s contents and then move on to some more evaluative remarks.
The ‘Introduction’ (Ch. 1, pp. 1–33) surveys the many uses of like. Just the ‘unremarkable’ uses are rich: verb (‘to like something’), adjective (‘of like minds’), noun (likes and dislikes), preposition (‘like a dog’), on to conjunction, comparative complementizer, and suffix. To this, D adds five more uses, listed here with her labels and characterizations plus one of her examples:
• Approximative adverb like, ‘remarked upon but unremarkable’: ‘I’m like half a block behind.’ (9–12)
• Sentence adverb like, ‘remarked upon but restricted’: ‘You’d hit the mud on the bottom like.’ (12–13)
• Discourse marker like, ‘remarked upon but not new’: ‘Och, they done all types of work. Like they ploughed and harrowed.’ (13)
• Discourse particle like, ‘remarked upon and innovating’: ‘They’re like really quiet.’ (13–16)
• Quotative be like, ‘remarked upon, but remarkable for unsuspected reasons’: ‘It was like, “So, what have you been doing?” ’ (16–23)
Even this list leaves aside some rarer patterns, like infixation, as in un-like-sympathetic. One major aim of the book is to dismantle claims ‘that like, in any of its uses, is random and meaningless’ (31). The richness of like already becomes clear from this introduction but is steadily developed from here onward.
Those last uses in the bulleted list are where the action is, at least for much of the general public, and this chapter introduces readers to some of the rants: like is meaningless, a tic, grating, incorrect, and, of course, associated with young women. I wonder if there might be some movement on some of these fronts. The discussion of the wikiHow page ‘How to stop saying the word “like”: 10 steps’ is reported to include images only of women, but a visit to the current version (now simplified: ‘3 ways to stop saying the word “like” ’; https://www.wikihow.com/Stop-Saying-the-Word-%22Like%22) shows that it includes images of a couple of males (and people of color, which may play against the popular association with whiteness; see below).
One of the first surprises to those not familiar with this complicated set of forms is how old most of them are, going back to Old English in many cases. To understand that long and variegated history, D uses corpus data and quantitative sociolinguistic methods. These are clearly laid out and situated in the embedding problem in particular (Weinreich et al. 1968:185–86), and D holds throughout to the Labovian principle of accountability: that we must deal with all occurrences of a variable and its competing forms (e.g. p. 155). While this focus is underscored by the word ‘variation’ in the book’s title, the book is equally or even more about change and stability.
Ch. 2, ‘Empirical context’ (pp. 35–45), simply and concisely sketches the ten diachronically oriented and ten synchronically oriented corpora from which D draws her data. They vary tremendously—by size, region, time or time span, types of material included, and so forth—but she notes that the corpora tend on the whole to reflect relatively vernacular language.
In Ch. 3, ‘Historical context’ (pp. 47–66), D lays out a remarkable example of the recency illusion: of the many uses, only the quotative be like and complementizer use in epistemic parenthetical clauses (‘I feel like’, ‘it seems like’) are from...