Speech disfluencies: The garbage of our language

By on October 30, 2011

By James El-Mallakh–

If you’re a young person, you may have been criticized at least once for your use of the word like as a placeholder. One can listen to most young people these days and find that it is common for people to use the word like where it, grammatically speaking, does not belong. Why do we do this? Most people agree that using like in this way is really just a new placeholder such as um, well and ya’ know. There is an evolving idea that these placeholders are not speechflubs but are actually more like words.

Speech placeholders – for example, like or ya’ know – are called speech disfluencies. An article in the New York Times by Michael Erard quotes a study by two linguists that discuss the idea of a disfluency. “Speakers use (and listeners understand) uh and um in distinct ways. Uh signals a forthcoming pause that will be short, while um signals a longer pause… Uh and um are not acoustic accidents, but full-fledged words that signal a delay yet to come.”

Is um a word? Maybe it is more of a method of communicating. Another perspective of the placeholder like comes from the idea that language is constantly changing and developing. We speak much differently today than people who lived hundreds of years ago. Anyone who has read Shakespeare can testify to that. When was the last time you were told “oftentimes excusing of a fault doth make the fault the worse by the excuse” when you tried to explain why you don’t have your homework? There is even a field of study devoted to examining changes in language, called sociolinguistics.

There are, of course, appropriate times to use and avoid placeholders. It is a good idea to avoid using like’s and um’s in speeches. But using vocal fillers on different levels of communication can help you; if you are trying to communicate how you feel to a person or speak about emotional topics, disfluencies such as the word like can be very comfortable as talking about strong emotions can sometimes be difficult.

Whether you think it is good or bad that the word like is now part of the new American lexicon depends on your point of view. If you embrace change and think that it’s good that language can change, then you probably won’t mind dropping a like or two. If you’re a traditionalist and think that language is clearly defined by established rules, you probably won’t be too fond of hearing how your friend’s class is, “totally, like, the hardest thing, ever.”

Language is changing all the time and our new utterances about the likeness of things herald a new mutation in our everyday speech. In my view, I appreciate what change can do to cultures and societies and people. I think that change is ultimately good in any scope of life. But with anything that gives us great benefit comes at a great cost.

The cost in this case comes at the expense of an even greater degree of eloquence. Linguistic disciplinarians today are up in arms about the deterioration of language structure and form in young people; the new use of the word like is a strong example. What is happening today is that we are evolving out of well structured grammar habits into speech that is sloppier and lazier. The price of a changing standard of language, we are losing something special.

But in the words of the Dude, “Yeah, well, ya’ know, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.”

Yes, Dude, it is just my opinion.

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Illustration by Lara Kinne/The Louisville Cardinal

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