Undergraduate Spotlight

Undergraduate spotlight: Olivia Yung wins her category in the SLC Writing Contest

March 22, 2024

Olivia Yung has won First Prize in the Middle Years category of the 2023 Student Learning Commons Undergraduate Writing Contest. Her winning paper, Like, Whatever: The Syntactic Evolution of a Morpheme, was the result of months of hard work. Linguistics Communications recently sat down with Olivia to engage in a lively discussion about her love of linguistics and her recent win. Here we learn more about her research and gain insight into her writing process.

What first inspired you to study Linguistics?
I have always enjoyed the written word. I love how expansive languages are and how they not only evolve with time, but also mark time. You can define an era with speech. The field of Linguistics is not an exact science, but rather a blend of scientific methodology and the study of humanity. This combination is what I’m drawn to.

Which aspect of syntax fascinates you most?
I love the shifts a word can make in terms of meaning and category. Slang is one aspect of language that I enjoy analyzing—how it comes to be, how the meaning of a word evolves, and how it morphs into something completely different. I think I’m a “meaning” nerd: Why is this word here and for what reason? Why did it change from one category to another? Every day I fall down another syntactic rabbit hole.

How would you summarize the main argument?
The use of like has so many layers to it. Everyone has an opinion about people who use it, don’t use it, or overuse it. There are so many opinions about this one tiny word, some of which have been historically misogynistic and erroneous. The main argument is that like exists in speech for a reason, because language isn’t random. It is unlike any other word that we have in the English vernacular, since it can move almost anywhere throughout a sentence and still make sense. It provides so many different functions. It’s the hardest working word in show business!

Tell us about the research and writing process for this paper.
I love melding pop culture with academia. It’s my sneaky way of trying to bring interest to a subject in which the general population may not be initially interested. I started with the idea of using sentences from popular TV, movies, and music from the past few decades as data. I read a lot of journals and articles to see what the arguments were. From there, I was able to formulate an idea that like just loves to move; the paper intended to prove its function and its purpose. Dr. Alexandra D’Arcy has a mammoth dissertation on the word like that truly goes in-depth on the topic. This is a shorter paper and I wanted to introduce the topic and spark discussion in a way that is easily comprehensible to non-linguists.

How does it feel to win the contest?
It’s an honour, truly. If someone learns a little bit more from my words, then I’ve done my job!