Discourse markers are, like, important

Last week we learned about “Um” and other filled pauses. Now there’s a similar type of linguistic goodness for you, this time from the Boston Globe: Discourse markers are, like, important.

The most maligned discourse marker has to be like, which has long been a source of rants and misunderstandings. One myth is that all colloquial uses of like are the same, but there’s a big difference between saying, “I had, like, three doughnuts” and “She was like, what do you mean?” Another myth is that like is overwhelmingly used by teenage girls, but that fits sexist stereotypes more than reality. In fact, studies show some types of like are used more often by men. The world-champion myth dispeller in this area is Alexandra D’Arcy, an associate professor of linguistics at the University of Victoria who has a book forthcoming this year called “800 Years of Like: Discourse-Pragmatic Variation in Context.”

D’Arcy has accumulated a lot of knowledge about how like greases the wheels of conversation. One use of like as a discourse marker helps create flow in speech. These uses are often dismissed as vacuous, but they have concrete meaning and purpose. Some mean for example or let me elaborate, demonstrating that they have concrete meaning. This is the traffic signal kind of discourse marker, and like, has been used that way for a surprisingly long time. The oldest known example in print is from Frances Burney’s 1788 novel “Evelina.” “Father grew quite uneasy, like, for fear of his Lordship’s taking offence.”

Other uses of like function as the discourse marker’s close relative, the discourse particle: These words lack a specific meaning but have a definite purpose. This kind of like doesn’t mean “Let me clarify” so much as “This is what I want you to focus on” — the verbal equivalent of pointing. Such uses also establish solidarity between speakers, sending the message “We’re similar, and we’re in this together.” This “solidarity work,” D’Arcy explains, is vital to spoken language: “When they’re not there, conversation feels forced” and “There’s less of a rapport.” Curzan mentioned that this type of word allows people to “check in that others are following or mitigate our authority in a way that might make more space for other opinions.” Far from verbal junk, discourse markers and particles are social lubricants. [continue]

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