MED Magazine - Issue 26 - January 2005

Not funny but useful
by Richard Cauldwell

A favourite riddle

I was a bookish child, and one of my favourite riddles was 'Where does Thursday come before Wednesday?' The answer was 'In the dictionary'. The key to this riddle are the words come before which seem to be referring to an ordering in time (the week), but is in fact referring to alphabetical order: Thursday comes before Wednesday in the dictionary because the letter 'T' comes before 'W'. This is a riddle that all dictionary users can relate to, though not all will find funny.

Not funny but useful

Here is a riddle, which is not funny at all, that relates to the Macmillan English Dictionary (MED): 'What comes between a disease of rabbits, and the fourteenth letter of the alphabet?' The answer is 'The Language Awareness section'. This is not at all as funny as my childhood riddle and it requires a little bit more explanation. The disease of rabbits is myxomatosis, which is the last entry for 'm' (page 924 in the American English edition; page 938 in the British English edition), and the fourteenth letter of the alphabet is 'n' which is (of course) the first entry for 'n' (pages 925 and 939). In between these two entries in the dictionary lie 24 pages of Language Awareness material. Not at all funny, but very useful.

The Language Awareness pages focus on twelve topics ranging from Numbers (how to say and write them) through Computer Words to Business English. But the section I want to focus on is the Spoken Discourse section which has special commentaries on words oh, well, like, er and OK.

A puzzle

Before we delve into looking at this section, let me give you a little task – not quite a riddle, more of a simple puzzle. The Spoken Discourse pages of the Language Awareness section focuses on the words oh, well, like, er/erm (uh/um in the American edition) and OK. Which one (one only!) of these words can go in place of the underlined words in the extract below?

We cover for example sport psychology we cover for example biomechanics which is er the study of erm you know erm angles and things you got geometry physiology which is similar to you know your chemistry and things such as that and stuff ...

Think about this for a moment.

Streaming Speech

While you are thinking, let me tell you a little about the recording from which this extract comes. It is taken from the forthcoming American/Canadian edition of Streaming Speech: Listening and Pronunciation for Advanced Learners of English. This is the North American version of the electronic publication which won a British Council Innovations in ELT award (an ELTON) in March 2004. The words are spoken by Travis, a student from Watertown, South Dakota in the USA, talking about the components of Sport and Exercise Science, which he is studying at university. It is an unscripted recording so, in the words of Professor Michael Hoey who wrote the pages on Spoken Discourse, 'do not be surprised by the use of incomplete sentences and repetitions'. Other clues to its unscriptedness are the use of you know (twice) and vague language such as and things and and stuff. (Interestingly enough, vague language is itself a sub-topic of Pragmatics in the Language Awareness pages). As you will hear shortly, Travis has a gorgeous young male voice.

Back to the puzzle

Back to the puzzle I set you. Below is an interactive version of the extract – click on the speaker icon to hear the whole extract, and click on each line to hear that line on its own.

You will have noticed that the answer to the puzzle is the word like. It occurs six times replacing the words for example (twice), erm (twice), similar to and such as. Before I go on to say more about these 'likes', I need to say something about the presentation of the lines of the transcript. Skip the next section if you are already familiar with such conventions, or are not interested.

Interpreting the transcript

Some of you might be familiar with the work of the late David Brazil. If so, you will recognise some of the Discourse Intonation conventions used above. First, each line represents a speech unit (a tone unit, in David Brazil's terms). A speech unit is a chunk of the stream of speech, normally larger than one word that has at least one prominent syllable, and no more than one tone. The numbers down the left-hand side are reference numbers for each speech unit (this extract, in the full publication of Streaming Speech has a total of 132); the double slash '//' indicates a speech unit boundary; the arrow indicates the tone of the speech unit which starts on the underlined syllable; the upper case (capital) letters represent prominent syllables; lower case letters represent non-prominent syllables. The three digit number at the end of each line gives the speed in words per minute of the speech unit: thus speech unit 091 is the fastest at a speed of 360 words per minute; and 096 is the slowest with a speed of 50 words per minute. The extract comes from Chapter 7 of Streaming Speech, and the preceding six chapters have gently introduced the learners to this notation.

Six likes

It is (of course) difficult to be precise about the meanings of items of vague language such as like – they clearly take much of their meaning from the context, and what the speaker is doing in that context. Here Travis is listing the components of his course of study (sport psychology, biomechanics, geometry, physiology) and is having to buy time to think what to say next. And after listing two of the items (biomechanics and physiology), he gives a brief explanation of what each entails – 'which is er the study of like you know like angles and things' and 'which is like your chemistry and things like that and stuff'. Clearly here, like is associated with both listing, and buying time to think how to formulate his explanations. There are also a couple of 'likes' that have stronger meanings. In speech unit 097 which is like it appears to mean 'is similar to' and in 100 and things like that it appears to mean 'such as'.

Sixteen likes

The Macmillan English Dictionary actually lists many more meanings for like than we have covered in this short article. In the main sequence of the dictionary, meanings are given for like as a function word, verb, and noun. We have been considering four of the function word meanings (the dictionary lists nine). I'd like to be able to show you longer stretches of text which illustrate these other meanings, but space does not permit. However I can show you the fifteen speech units in which Travis uses like as function word. Click on each line to hear each speech unit (note that speech unit 121 has two occurrences of like). I have included a brief analysis of what I believe each like might mean – these analyses broadly match the meanings listed in MED, with the exception of two: the four 'likes' which are associated with listing; and the one like which I see as roughly equivalent to you know.

The glory of function words

Function words such as like are often seized upon by people who are obsessed by rules appropriate for the written language as signs of laziness or sloppiness in speaking. But for me they are a sign of expert speakers at work – used appropriately, they show sensitivity to the person being spoken to, and they allow speakers to plan what they are going to say next while they are saying what they have just decided to say. It is important to resist the temptation to criticise, ridicule or laugh at speakers who for a brief period increase the frequency of function words, in the way that Travis does here. When Travis and I made this recording, I was attending to what he was telling me about his career as a student. In the real time of the interaction I did not notice the high frequency of 'likes' that occurred in this stretch of the recording. As a cooperative listener, my attention was on the meanings he was conveying, not on the words he was using, and he conveyed his meanings charmingly, and with great effect.

Function words aren't funny, they are useful.

Further reading

Streaming Speech: Advanced Listening and Pronunciation for Learners of English, R.T. Cauldwell (Birmingham, UK, 2002). For a sample unit, visit:
A wish beyond words, R. T. Cauldwell, Issue 21, MED Magazine, July 2004

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