I was, like….what? – The new new English

For whatever reason, I was recently on a bus in Chile. Having a modest command of Spanish, I can usually manage a basic exchange in the language, but when the conductor addressed me, I heard bla, bla, bla and nothing more. Even when he repeated what he’d said, I didn’t catch a single word.

Annoying! Why can’t people speak their own language properly?

Sitting behind me were three young Aussie guys. I overheard their conversation, which went rather as follows:

“ Man, I was, like… what?” “I was, like… far out!” “And she was, like… what the…” “I was, like… crazy.”

And so it went on. I soon realised that, although I could identify all the words, I had absolutely no idea what they were talking about. All I caught were various parts of the verb “to be”, a

handful of “likes”, a grinding pause after every “like”, and then finally some kind of interjection.

After a while, the conversation reached its glorious, inevitable climax:

“I was, like… fuck!”

Whereupon everyone roared with laughter. Whether this meant that the trio had actually extracted some meaning from this curious exchange, or whether they were just accommodating one another, I’m not entirely sure.

Having overheard the sentence, “I was, like… fuck!” and observed the same reaction a number of times now, I’ve concluded that it inevitably produces a kind of Pavlovian chuckle. It doesn’t require interpretation. Maybe it just cheers people up – if you’re feeling down, you could perhaps recite it to yourself to see if it helps.

That said, I tried to envisage a context in which “I was, like… fuck!” had some meaning. I believe I understand the standard meaning of all four words in this utterance, but how could they come together to convey some aspect of reality? A number of curious images drifted in and out of my consciousness, but somehow failed to coalesce into anything very concrete. Still less could I attach them to the context in which the words were used – but then, as I hadn’t been able to identify a context anyway, it wasn’t very likely that I would.

But here’s another idea: maybe there’s some mystery code enabling sophisticated meaning to be extracted from a language which has apparently been reduced to about four words. Are there perhaps layers of meaning conveyed by the intonation, and has that replaced vocabulary as the primary vehicle for the conveyance of meaning? Instead of using a hundred different words, just produce “fuck” with a hundred different intonations, and meaning will be conveyed, at least to the cognoscenti, just as well.

I’m thinking now that we should rewrite the textbooks we produce for learners of English. Out goes: much of the old grammar. In comes: “to be + like + pause + interjection”. We could then add, “This construction is now used to convey meanings ranging from ‘to say’, through ‘to feel’, to ‘the reaction was’, to essentially anything at all. It has replaced 99% of the previously existing language.”

But seriously, does it matter if the English language is reduced to about four words? I have to say I’m not exactly offended by the word “fuck”: how can anyone be seriously offended by hearing a word they’ve heard thousands of times already? I do have an issue when it’s used in every sentence regardless of meaning. And I have an even bigger issue with a jarring “like” puncturing every sentence and creating a horrible staccato effect.

It seems to be mainly younger people who speak in this way. Sometimes their speech is so far removed from standard English that it really amounts to a distinct dialect – one determined not by region, class or even nationality, but by generation. Actually, if they want to speak in this way, and manage to communicate with one another, well, so be it. But I really hope they recognise that this is not standard English, and that there are contexts in which they need to switch codes and use that standard.

One such context is in communicating with non-native speakers of English. No learner of English is actually taught the construction “to be + like + pause + interjection”, and to be suddenly confronted by it must be a little dispiriting. When you learn a foreign language, you rather hope the native speakers you encounter will speak the form you’ve learnt. Dialects may well create a valuable sense of identity, but they can also exclude, and when you’re learning another language, they can drive you mad – it’s hard enough learning the standard, let alone umpteen variants.

Most English speakers make little effort to learn foreign languages; the very least we can do is to use a standard form of the language when speaking to those who do. The I-was-like-fuck! dialect may have its place, but it’s not here.

One of the travellers now approached another conductor. Speaking Spanish was obviously out of the question, so would he perhaps switch codes and try to communicate in standard English?

“Yeah, we were, like… wondering if we could, like…”

And I was, like… wondering whether English speakers deserved to

be understood at all.

Euroasia Principal Peter Chapple recently returned from a holiday in Latin America. He is currently researching the topic of optimal delivery of Spanish lessons for English speakers as part of the Euroasia curriculum development programme.

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Peter is Principal of Euroasia.

1 Comment

  1. Useful comment, Peter, that reflects the continual frustrations of all those who try to learn and then speak a second language. Often those who have themselves learnt (or tried to learn) a second language are sympathetic to people who are trying to speak to them in their home language, but all too often they will make no concessions and will assume that if you can say ‘Buenos dias’, ‘Guten Tag’, ‘Namaste’ etc you have a fluency in their language that requires no concessions on their behalf.
    We are often told that this is particularly true of English speakers, but in my experience it frequently happens with other languages and cultures. What to do? Be aware that all languages have their equivalents of ‘like’, ‘y’know’, and a range of sexual references that have nothing whatsoever to do with the reproductive act, and politely explain that you have a limited competency in the other person’s home language and could they therefore speak more slowly. Sometimes it works, and at other times, particularly among Germans, they will give you a sympathetic smile and then proceed to address you in fluent English! C’est la vie!

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