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The original lexical meaning of the word just was to mean ‘deserved’; as in:

He got his just reward

… And in other such idioms.

Today, however, it has become a discourse marker. A discourse marker is a word which has a function at a discourse (i.e. conversational) level, not within a sentence or clause.

For example, compare the use of the word like in the following examples

  1. I like chocolate
  2. My chocolate is like your chocolate, only yummier
  3. And I was like, ‘Oh, my God! This chocolate is amazing’
  4. And I, like, really, enjoyed eating it.

In number 1, we see the word like being used with it’s own lexical meaning, indicating that you find something pleasurable or agreeable.

As used in 2, like indicates that something is similar to something else.

As used in 3, it is an introducer of dialogue (You can read a separate a post on quotative verbs here).

As used in 4, however, it seems to have little function alone; on a conversational level, however, it suggests the speaker’s tone, their meaning. Indeed, they are communicating more than they are saying on a surface level.

Because of this ambiguity that comes with both discourse markers like and just they are a lot more stigmatised than other discourse markers (okaywellhowever). People think that they show poor planning, that they can be placed anywhere in a sentence, and that they have no meaning. This simply is not the case.

A discourse marker is created when the original lexical meaning of a word becomes semantically bleached. Rather than having this meaning, the word is more of a signpost in the discourse, indicating to the hearer where the conversation is going. This bleaching of meaning is one reason cynics don’t see the function of discourse markers; they don’t have direct meanings you can easily pin down.

However, they do have meanings. People like my father will not like the indisputable proof that they are not markers of lazy speech…

In fact, contrary to popular opinion, Anderson (2000) found that only 10% of the uses of like in his study were used as hesitation phenomena, to punctuate a pause while the speaker chooses the next word. Meanwhile, a quarter were used to link two separate sections of discourse. If you wanted to say something unrelated you would say, ‘Like, I hate cheese’, or something, with like signposting this as a discourse link.

Other uses of like, all at about 20%, included approximation (‘there were, like, tons of them’), exemplification (‘one of them, like, smelled funny’), metalinguistic focus (‘and it was, like, awful’: used to highlight a word; emphasise it in a way only spoken discourse really can).

Just, however? According to Erman, 1996,  just is extremely linked to a function. Perhaps the reason just is less stigmatised than like is that it is used a whopping 73% of the time as an emphasiser. It highlights the sentence, the strength of the feelings being expressed, and so on. For example, in the sentence:

I just wasn’t feeling up to it

The discourse marker just increases the strength of what the speaker is saying, in the same way as simply would if it were used.

Tagliamonte (2005) found that discourse marker just was used nearly half the time before a verb, which make sense if you consider its function as emphasising something, such as an action (‘I just walked’, ‘I just ate all the chocolate’, etc.).

Again, like wasn’t quite so circumscribed, but was used mostly before a noun phrase (i.e. when the headword/most important word of a chunk of a sentence is a naming word), as in:

And I didn’t think there would be, like, so much chocolate

Or at the start of a sentence:

Like, I feel ill from eating so much chocolate…

So, there you have it. These words are not markers of lazy speech, nor are they used anywhere in a sentence. They’re highly circumscribed words. They are also both constrained by gender and age, but that’s a whole other story I’ll tell you in another post in the future!

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