An Interview with Valerie Fridland, author of Like, Literally, Dude

Valerie Fridland is a professor of English at the University of Nevada in Reno.  She has has a PhD in sociolinguistics from Michigan State University, and is an expert on the relationship between language and society, her work has appeared in numerous academic journals. 

She has appeared as a language expert on a variety of media outlets such as CBS News, NPR and Newsy’s The Why and is regularly featured on podcasts and radio. Her language blog, Language in the Wild, appears in Psychology Today and her lecture series, Language and Society, is featured with The Great Courses

Fridland is the co-author, with Tyler Kendall, of the book Sociophonetics.  Her most recent book, Like, Literally, Dude: Arguing for the Good in Bad English is available from Viking/Penguin Press.  Publishers Weekly called the book “Scholarly yet accessible, and often very witty” and “a winning look at how language evolves.”

She lives with her husband and two teenagers in the beautiful Reno/Tahoe area.

Ed Battistella: What prompted you to write Like, Literally, Dude?

Valerie Fridland: On the first day every semester when I teach my sociolinguistics class, I ask my students to talk about what speech habit they find most noticeable and why. I don’t say anything about it being something that bothers them – it could be something wonderful about language – but, by far, something they perceive as a ‘bad’ speech feature is what they come up with, e.g., ‘like,’ ‘um,’ vocal fry. Likewise, these very same features have come up after every public talk I have given which suggests that people are curious about why these things come into our speech and what they do for us despite the fact that most people say they dislike them. So, I figured I would save a lot of time if I just recorded my answers in book form.

EB: Is there a particular way the tittle should be pronounced, intonation-wise?

VF: It’s been great fun listening to all the different intonational patterns that people have used when saying the title, but I usually put the emphasis on the first syllable of literally: Like, LITerally, dude! But I want people to pronounce it however captures the vibe for them.

EB: You point out that there is a logic and history to the bits of language that become the targets of peeves. Why do you think some folks get so snarky about things like like, literally, dude, vocal fry, g-droppin’ and so on??

VF: We definitely have firm convictions about language. A fundamental reason we are so vested in believing in ‘good’ language and ‘bad’ language is that we have been taught that such forms exist and that we should aspire to them since we were very young. Every year from early childhood on, this idea is reinforced by parents and by English teachers. Because we hear these norms framed as the ‘correct’ ones all our lives and with such unanimity, we forget that grammar books essentially describe the norms of formal language and writing, not conversational speech, and that prescriptivism itself has only been around since the 18th century, which is when we first started to concern ourselves with notions of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ mainly on the basis of class standing. It is important to note that my goal here is not to wipe away everything people have come to know about language from English class, but to provide an additional viewpoint based on using a historical and scientific approach to language that offers a bit more insight into why we say the things we do and how they are surprisingly purposeful and powerful, despite what the naysayers think.

I think people get snarky about it because language revolves around shared conventions for use and, when someone defies those conventions in ways that are unfamiliar and especially if those doing the defying are from less favored social groups, it can really rub people the wrong way. In other words, speech has a strong social component and, like fashion, what’s ‘in’ changes over time, but those of us who still cling to our shoulder pads and Farrah bangs might not welcome the change.

EB: Do you have any pet peeves? There must be something that peeves you.

VF: Ha! None that I would ever admit publicly! In all seriousness, of course, there are things that make me cringe reflexively, for example, the dropping of –ly on adverbs. I do notice when people do that, but the linguist in me knows that dropping the -ly doesn’t change the fact that listeners recognize it still as adverbial modification, not to mention that I know that –ly derives from and is a clipped version of the –like suffix (as in slow-like) so it is just a continuation of a shortening process begun long ago.

EB: Age and gender seem to be big factors in linguistic innovation. Who is on the leading edge of change?

VF: Yes! When we look at both historical and contemporary data, there are some very clear and consistent patterns that emerge. Almost all new forms and features – from using ‘going to’ instead of ‘will,’ ‘have to’ instead of ‘must,’ the preference for ‘really’ over ‘very,’ and the increasing use of ‘like’ – start in the mouths of the young. And it is young women, far more than young men, which seem to drive this train forward. Women tend to be at least a generation ahead of men in leading changes – as they are in all the changes just mentioned. Why? Because women seem to be very sensitive to the small differences in the pool of language forms around them and subconsciously pick up on these features as they come to take on whatever social qualities are associated with the speakers in whose speech they first emerge. Stylistic leaders, most of whom are young women, then transmit these forms (usually without conscious awareness) to others within their social network and beyond as long as whatever quality those features represent is attractive beyond the initiating group.

EB: What was the most fun fact you came across in researching your book. For me, it was the connection of “Yankee Doodle Dandy” with the history of dude. Who knew?

VF: Hmmm…that is a little bit like asking a mother to pick a favorite child but I do find the history of the –ing progressive ending (as in walking or walkin’) to be one of the most fascinating evolutionary speech tales I uncovered. It turns out the –in’pronunciation (walkin’) is closer to the original Old English participial ending (which was –ind, as in Old English “sprecende”, or speaking)) while -ing was actually from a completely separate Old English ending for nouns. Over time, both the -ing and -ind endings were affected by sound changes that lead to the dropping of the final consonant which resulted in both being pronounced as ‘in’ up through the Early Modern period. An -ing pronunciation did not become common until the 19th Century when, with increasing literacy, seeing the ending written as –ing led people to think they were supposed to have a ‘g’ on the end. This is also when we start to see the apostrophe added in writing to the -in form, branding it as colloquialism.

EB: You note that critics get it precisely wrong when they say that uh and um are signs of inarticulate speech. How are uh and um used to facilitate communication?

VF: Filled pauses are a great example of how social benefits and linguistic benefits sometimes don’t align. Filled pauses are essentially flags of a greater cognitive processing load, so research finds that they occur most often before longer syntactic structures (such as at the beginning of a sentence) as well as before more abstract, less common, or more difficult words – which shows we tend to use them most when we are putting effort into what we are about to say. They also play a communicative role as they indicate to a listener that a speaker does not intend to give up the conversational floor, but just needs a sec and, even more fascinating also provides a hint as to how long a delay they should expect with -uh- preceding shorter delays and -um- preceding slightly longer delays. To top it off, several psycholinguistic studies have found that when words were preceded by a filled pause in word recognition experiments, it helped participants identify words more quickly and boosted recall of those words in later tests. Not too shabby for something we think of as bad speech.

EB: I have to admit, the snarky or discourse marking Um was something I hadn’t, um, considered before. Can you say something about that?

VF: Sure. Think about how many tweets we see nowadays that begin with ‘um’ before saying something silly or snarky – this seems to reflect an increase in using this particular filled pause metaphorically. Up through the 1950s and 60s, we don’t really see filled pauses (um and uh) at all in writing, but, since the 2000s, they have occurred more and more frequently in this way to indicate that something is to be taken as tongue in cheek, to offset something potentially disagreeable (e.g., “Um, not on your life.”) or as a sign of something being a bit indelicate (as in, “He was, um, a tad bit indecent.”). This seems to be a use of ‘um’ to communicate the meaning of thinking or pausing in an intentional way, rather than just as a more automatic cognitive flag. Even more interesting, this metaphorical ‘taking a pause’ um that has made inroads into speech and writing seems to have been propelled by its increasing use in speech for this type of signaling by young people and, particularly, women. This trend is not only true of English, but a number of Germanic languages including Dutch, Faroese and German, all of which show an increase in the use of “um” forms led by young women.

EB: Did writing about these linguistic innovations your speech at all? When I talk about um and like in classes, it seems that students use it more often. Or maybe they are just noticing it more.

VF: My students and I always laugh at how often we notice ‘like’ or ‘um’ for the rest of the class period once we discuss it as a linguistic feature. This likely is not so much an increase in our use of these forms as an example of what’s been called a frequency illusion – which is that, once you notice something, you notice it seemingly everywhere. But I have also found that, when giving interviews in person or via zoom, the interviewer starts to be a little paranoid about every time they say ‘like’ or ‘um’ or ‘you know’ for the rest of the interview. I seem to have what I call the “like -um” effect on people, which is not exactly the kind of awareness I am generally aiming for.

EB: Thanks for talking with us. Congratulations on Like, Literally, Dude.

VF: You’re so welcome! Language is such an amazing and fun topic – I had a great time writing it.


About Ed Battistella

Edwin Battistella’s latest book Dangerous Crooked Scoundrels was released by Oxford University Press in March of 2020.
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