5.30.2005

a speaker and a listener walk into a dialogue... ouch.

Language lives only in the dialogic interaction of those who make use of it. -- Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics
Our recent discussions of "like" have prompted some interesting ideas about what the function of such a word actually is.
Whenever a sentence contains words that are not attached to the grammatical structure in some functional way, those words generally serve as interjections. A "damn" or an "oh shit" doesn't change a sentence's meaning, but it certainly injects emphasis or feeling, giving us a clue to the emotional state of the speaker. Likewise, gratuitously used, "like" significantly modifies the tone, and perhaps the inferred context of the sentence (i.e., the audience's perception of the speaker). When I hear "like" used indiscriminately, the subjective impression is roughly equivalent to "duh."
Not to pick on Tangents any more than we already have; but the above quote and the entirety of his treatise on the non-standard use of "like" reveal some deeply-seated prejudices that we believe many (most?) people hold.

The lynch pin of Tangents' argument is found in the most seemingly innocuous part of the paragraph: the parenthetical. Perception is a one way process, but communication is not. The speaker also perceives the listener before he begins to speak, and the speaker's pattern of speaking can be altered by a perceived reaction from the listener. "Like" doesn't actually "modif[y] the tone," it marks the speaker's understanding of what the context of her speech should be. Listener and speaker are caught in a constant feedback loop. As Gary Saul Morson and Caryl Emerson paraphrase Bakhtin, who relies on a dialogic model of speech, in Mikhail Bakhtin: Creation of a Prosaics, "The process of active understainding is anticipated by the speaker; he counts on it at every point, and could not coninue to formulated his utterance without it."

In the dialogic model that Bahktin proposes, the idea that words can "attach to the grammatical structure in some functional way" or be "gratuitous" collapses, since all words must work together to create a functional whole that inhabits the space between speaker and listener.

In our previous posts, we have proposed the example of a college student speaking in a classroom. Our student frequently uses "like," and this usage establishes the relative authority of the speaker, the speech, and the listeners. In his previous post, Scott used the phrase "projected authority," to indicate the level of confidence a speaker, and it's important to note that the verbal tics that represent a lack of projected authority are as conventially defined as the meanings of any words. Tangents feels that the use of these tics (such as "like") betray the speaker's stupidity. In a dialogue, both speaker and listener understand them to mark a lack of confidence, which is appropriate in some settings and between some participants.

Blogging, for example, is founded in a community of people (not necessarily experts) wishing to share ideas quickly. Readers of this blog understand that the unrefinedness of our writing does not indicate lack of intelligence (we hope!), but a low level of projected authority, which we hope invites readers to join in a dialogue with us about our ideas.

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