August 11, 2000

Strakon Lights Up

Whateverrr, I was there when it, liyeeek, all started!


I'm glad to see I'm not the only one who is sick and tired of hearing kids use "whateverrr" as a verbal weapon. In the August issue of Chronicles, "Humpty Dumpty" — who I assume is editor Thomas Fleming — delivers a fine little rebuke to the rotten whippersnappers who rely on it, which rebuke I recommend to your attention. (p. 12) Truth be told, the usage does much more than make me sick and tired. It terrifies me, because I can't get this scenario out of my imagination:

Fifty-something aircraft-maintenance supervisor: "When you put them bolts back on, make damn sure you get 'em on tight."

Twenty-something underling, shrugging and groping for the doobie in his shirt pocket: "Whateverrr."

As the high prophets of gibberish love to instruct us, it's just marvelous how English grows with the times. Even more marvelously, gibberized dialects of English grow, too — including the dialect of the kids who say "whateverrr." As it happens, "whateverrr" is just the most important usage to be introduced in the past 15 or 20 years. The dialect's original shibboleth is "like," properly pronounced "liyeeek." It is central to the dialect and is still going strong. In fact, I think it's so central that I've dubbed the whole dialect Likish. The history of Likish deserves some attention, because while the dialect has changed, the psychology behind it hasn't.

A few years ago one of my co-conspirators told me of a youngish acquaintance of his who returned somewhat chagrined from a sojourn to England. Apparently her hosts weren't as Americanized as we were given to believe most white foreigners were, and they found her conversation almost impossible to follow, peppered as it was with "like" and "y'know" and "um," all of them perfect Likish usages. This account is already starting to show its age — it's as hard to keep up with the American Imperial e-culture as it is to keep up with an avalanche — because now we're hearing globalized supermodels and actresses freely pepper their British and German and French accents with "like." There's even a Hindu supermodel who speaks Likish. But in any event, when I heard my friend's story, I swore to purge all such mannerisms from my own speech. I was never a major offender, but still, there I was in my late forties and no duuude, and the fact that Likish would be an issue with me at all furnishes clues to both the history and the ubiquity of the phenomenon.

Likish isn't just the Valley Speech we started to hear about in the latter half of the '70s — although it may have found its purest accent in the San Fernando Valley — and it isn't just a random collection of verbal tics that somehow crystallized into idiom as a result of unknowable historical factors. The factors are knowable.

Seemingly pointless iterations of "like" and "y'know" and "um" first entered the language of young college squirts in 1968 — at least on the Indiana University campus in Bloomington. (We lagged about two years behind the Bicoasts in such matters.) I sometimes did an impression — popular among my anti-Zeitgeist buddies — of those free spirits whom in that time we called hippies, and it depended heavily on "like" and "y'know" and "um." It also involved frequent iterations of "man," pronounced not as American blacks typically pronounced it but rather with a drawn-out "a" that ended just short of Jamaican. Most business and inorganic-chemistry majors were immune to Likish, at least at first, but it ran through us humanities slobs the way the Black Death ran through Europe. By the time I graduated in 1971, it seemed as if almost everybody who had gone to a big school and avoided ROTC was speaking Likish instead of English. Then it spread through the culture at large. Then it, liyeeek, started to worm its way into my own speech.

What was happening in the 1960s on American college campuses? And what happened a few years later almost everywhere else? The wholesale and irreparable smashing of all the eternal verities, that's what. Now, universities in the modern age are places where unformed minds are taught to confront comfortable assumptions (at least they were before Political Correctness was cemented in as the new religion beginning in kindergarten). And many of the eternal verities turned out to be neither eternal nor true, and deserved to be smashed, wholesale and irreparably. But by the early '70s it had become almost impossible to make a clear, unambiguous statement about anything. Woe betide him who was so bold as to utter such a thing in a confident tone of voice! Certainty and precision were suspect, not to mention, like, uncool.

The bare meaning of one's statements — assuming that was penetrable through the verbal underbrush — wasn't as important as the vague lushness of the underbrush itself. So you even heard stupid sentences such as, "Um, like, the war, y'know, is, like, bad, maaaahn," even though we all thought the Vietnam War wasn't merely like bad but bad, period. A modern equivalent you might hear is, "Like, what you said in the staff meeting was, like, racist, duuude," even though the person accusing you — if he has the authority — won't attempt to, like, wreck your career but wreck it, period.

By the early '70s, reason itself had come to have a "fascist" smell about it, maybe because it was associated with those chemistry and physics majors who spoke in painstakingly engineered formulae — at least in the flower child's imagination — and went on to pursue careers designing napalm and missiles. In any event, if you sounded too articulate or logical, or spoke too conventionally, or came off as too adult, you were probably both repressed and repressive. Precise, concise, conventional English was good for reporting body-counts but little else.

Likish remains more characteristic of youth speech than adult speech. It seems to vanish, pretty much, from most afflicted people's speech by the time they're 50, by which age many folks of my generation finally begin thinking of themselves as adults and set about cleaning up their act. On the other hand, I may be jumping the gun on that, because relatively few who are much older than 50 were ever afflicted. In any case, like the pre-Gorbachev Soviet gerontocracy with its seemingly inexhaustible supply of 70-year-old contenders for power, there's a seemingly inexhaustible supply of new kids who like to say "like," even though Flower Power and the Chicago police riot are as distant to them as the Hindenburg explosion was to me.

"Um," which in pure Likish replaces the standard pause-to-think "uh," was the dialect's most plainly childish and adulthood-rejecting element. I'm no longer hearing it that much except from young female artsy types on radio and TV. "Y'know" isn't so universal these days either, at least among whites. I don't know why "um" and "y'know" are losing their ubiquity, but the survival of "liyeeek" and the rise of "whateverrr" among the under-50s is enough to tell me that the Era of Subjectivism is still going strong, at least among those whose prostate hasn't started to swell. I predict Likish will perdure until people, both young and old, find something solid to believe in and a brave voice with which to profess it. Ω

August 11, 2000

Published in 2000 by WTM Enterprises.

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