Monday, 21 November 2011

It’s like “Oooh, no!”

A closing statement such as It's like 'mmm' often acts as an evaluative comment towards someone or something 

Most people reading this will be familiar with the use of I’m like, he’s like or even constructions such as my brother’s like to introduce reported speech, as in expressions such as I’m like ‘wow, I didn’t know that’ or my brother was like ‘don’t touch my DVDs’. The use of the verb be + like is prevalent, particularly among young people, in spoken language and has been studied extensively by linguists. However, it has been common practice in these studies to exclude instances of be like when it occurs with the neuter pronoun it. The reason for its exclusion is that it does not generally occur with other forms of reported speech introducers (or ‘quotatives’ as linguists call them) such as say or think. There is therefore no basis for comparison and researchers consider that it’s like should be treated separately.

That is exactly what Barbara Fox and Jessica Robles have done. They report solely on what they call the ‘nearly’ quotative use of be like with the non-human subject it and refer to these uses as ‘it’s like-enactments’. They examined over 10 hours of naturally occurring American English speech recorded since the mid-1980s and extracted all instances of it’s like which reported thoughts, feelings and attitudes. They found 22 examples of it’s like-enactments and examined the functions which they performed in the interaction. They found several recurrent patterns.

Firstly, they found that the function of utterances framed by it’s like are what they refer to as ‘affect-laden assessments’; they arise as a responsive attitude, thought or feeling to what has just been said previously and so they often occur at the end of a story as a closing assessment. For instance, the researchers provide an example in which a mother talks about a situation in her home town and closes with it’s like ‘mmm’ as a final closing negative assessment of that situation. The researchers also note that affect is demonstrated by changes in pitch and bodily reactions such as smiles and head movements when uttering it’s like-enactments.

Secondly, they found that the form of many (though not all) of the it’s like- framed utterances tended to be response cries such as oh no, wow, mmm and oh, expressions that generally have very little semantic content but which express feeling. Fox and Robles suggest that these response cries are the prototypical form for it’s like-enactments.

The third pattern which the researchers refer to is the syntax of it’s like-enactments. They argue that the use of the impersonal it pronoun allows for ascribing the response not just to the person speaking but to anyone in that particular situation.

Although the researchers examine only a small number of cases, they provide a first step in understanding why speakers produce a thought, feeling or attitude without actually attributing it to a particular source. Their central finding is that it’s like-enactments are affect-laden responses to an event, action or previous utterance which could be understood as a response which ‘anyone in this situation’ would give.
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Fox, B and Robles, J. 2010. It’s like mmm: Enactments with it’s like. Discourse Studies 12(6): 715-738.

DOI: 10.1177/1461445610381862

This summary was written by Sue Fox

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