1. How is English "like" — as in "you look like a monkey" — generally analyzed these days? I can think of two ways to go here. I'm tempted to call it either a preposition, or some sort of funny adverb that necessarily takes a complement, and off the top of my head, both views would have advantages. And of course, there might be a third possibility I'm not thinking of, or there might be ongoing debate with no emerging consensus....

  2. Are there words in other languages that have the semantics of English "like," but that are analyzed as a different part of speech? For instance, if the consensus is that English "like" is a preposition, are there languages where its closest counterpart is an adverb (or a verb, or a relational noun, or...)? If "yes" (and I suspect the answer will be "yes," given how diverse languages are generally), can you give some specific examples?

  • Though some style books deplore this usage, it is sometimes used as a conjunction as well: I felt like he was mocking me. – Cerberus Aug 5 '12 at 19:03
  • Great question actually! I always run into this when I'm thinking about parsing and parts-of-speech, or trying to implement / represent it in NLP/CL. – hippietrail Aug 7 '12 at 9:55

Before answering this question one must agree upon a definition of parts of speech.

I will assume that we define POS not semantically (which would give rise to an almost infinite number of categories), but structurally, i.e. by the way they behave morphosyntactically.

It is nowadays evident that POS (as any construction) cannot be established cross-linguistically. Some languages do not even distinguish between nouns and verbs, at leat not in the way English does. But even if two languages seem to share the same POS category, despite the similarities it is almost never going to be the exact same. Verbs in Russian inflect for aspect, while German ones don’t, for example. When we talk about "verbs" or "nouns" we always have in mind some prototype category that we compare language-specific categories with. When we ask "does language X have category Y", we are actually looking for something similar to Y, so the answer doesn’t have to be "yes" or "no", it will often be "somewhat".

To answer the question about "like" one must consider how it behaves. Of course, it doesn’t behave like an adverb (it takes a complement), so that is ruled out by any traditional notion of "adverb". It seems to behave more like a proposition in that regard; interestingly its complement is also in the oblique case ("like him", not "like he") very unlike German for example (note however that the oblique case has long spread to constructions like coordination as well).

On the top of my head I cannot think of structural features that contradict the preposition theory, but it is possible there are some (I’ve never studied English grammar in detail). There is no a priori reason why the word couldn’t be in a category all of its own.

Note also that I didn’t consider the uses of like as subordinator or discourse particle. These would be other lexemes.


In Answer to #2, Korean has two forms which could conceivably be translated as the English "like" or "as".

The first is 처럼 (cherem), a particle, and 비슷하다 (pisuthata), an adjective.

비슷하다 (pisuthata) can be translated as "similar". It can be used on it's own...

메리가 어머님과 비슷해요
Meyli-ka emenim-kwa pisuthae-yo
Mary-SUB mother-AND similar-POL
Mary is [generally] like [her] mother

... or as an adverb.

메리가 어머님과 비슷하게 요리를 잘 해요
Meyli-ka emenim-kwa pisutha-key yoli-lul cal hay-yo
Mary-SUB mother-AND similar-ADV cooking-OBJ well do-POL
Mary is good at cooking like [her] mother [is good at cooking]

메리가 어머님과 비슷하게 예뻐요
Meyli-ka emenim-kwa pisutha-key yeybbe-yo
Mary-SUB mother-AND similar-ADV beatuiful-POL
Mary is beautiful like [her] mother [is beautiful]

처럼 (cherem) can be translated as "like" or "as" and, unlike 비슷하다 (pisuthada), cannot stand alone...

*메리가 어머니처럼
Meyli-ka emenim-cherem
Mary-SUB mother-AS
*Mary like [her] mother

but can operate in similar circumstances to the adverbial 비슷하게 (pisutha-key):

메리가 어머님처럼 요리를 잘 해요
Meyli-ka emenim-cherem yoli-lul cal hay-yo
Mary-SUB mother-AS cooking-OBJ well do-POL
Mary is good at cooking like [her] mother [is good at cooking]

메리가 어머님처럼 예뻐요
Meyli-ka emenim-cherem yeybbe-yo
Mary-SUB mother-AS beatuiful-POL
Mary is beautiful like [her] mother [is beautiful]

But they aren't interchangeable:

메리가 한국 사람처럼 한국어를 잘 말해요
Meyli-ka hangwug salam-cherem hangwuge-lul cal malhay-yo
Mary-SUB Korea person-AS Korean Language-OBJ well speak-POL
Mary speaks Korean well like a Korean [speaks Korean well]

?메리가 한국 사람과 비슷하게 한국어를 잘 말해요
Meyli-ka hangwug salam-key pisutha-key hangwuge-lul cal malhay-yo
Mary-SUB Korea person-AND similar-ADV Korean Language-OBJ well speak-POL
Mary speaks Korean well similar to [how] a Korean [speaks Korean well] (marginal reading)

However, I am no where near proficient enough in Korean to tell you the exact difference.

In your question you give "look like" as an example. The use of 처럼 (cherem) with 보이다 (poida), to appear (passive form)/to be seen, gives a similar expression:

메리가 어머님처럼 보여요
Meyli-ka emenim-cherem poye-yo
Mary-SUB mother-AS appear-POL
Mary looks like her mother
Mary is seen like [her] mother [is seen] (impossible reading)

EDIT: The previous revision of this answer stated that the verb 보이다 (poida) is capable of taking a secondary argument using the AND particle 와/과 (wa/kwa), but to native Korean speakers, it sounds ungrammatical and does not convey a looks-like" argument:

?메리가 어머님과 보여요
Meyli-ka emenim-kwa poye-yo
Mary-SUB mother-AND appear-POL
Mary looks like [her] mother (impossible reading)
Mary and [her] mother [both] are seen (marginal reading)

메리와 어머님이 보여요
Meyli-wa emenim-i poye-yo
Mary-AND mother-SUB appear-POL
Mary and [her] mother [both] are seen

메리가 어머님과 함께 보여요
Meyli-ka emenim-kwa hamkkey poye-yo
Mary-SUB mother-AND together appear-POL
Mary and [her] mother both are seen

?메리가 어머님과 봐요
Meyli-ka emenim-kwa pwa-yo
Mary-SUB mother-AND see-POL
Mary sees like [her] mother (impossible reading)
Mary and [her] mother [both] see (marginal reading)

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