Monday, 3 June 2013

Quoting then and now

I was like “they’re coming at eleven o’clock “
I said “they’re coming at eleven o’clock” 

Do you use BE LIKE to report what someone said? Thirty years ago few people had heard be like used this way. For young English speakers today, though, BE LIKE has taken over from SAY as the most frequent quotative form. This means that researchers interested in how language changes spread through a language can compare its use by different generations of speakers.

Mercedes Durham and her colleagues note that the most detailed research of this kind comes from Canada. Researchers there have found a strong sex difference emerging as the frequency of BE LIKE increases, with younger generations of female speakers using the new form more often than male speakers. They also found that the kind of quote that BE LIKE introduces changes over the generations:  the first uses of quotative BE LIKE were with a sound indicating the speaker’s state of mind, as in I was like “ugh”, but it was soon also used to introduce reported thought (what someone was thinking), as in I was like “never again”. Only with later generations of speakers is BE LIKE used more often to introduce what someone said (direct speech) than what someone was thinking. 

Durham and her research team analysed the quotative forms used by different generations of undergraduates at the University of York in the UK, to see whether BE LIKE has followed the same pathways of change in York as in Canada. As in Canada, in York the frequency of BE LIKE had soared in just one generation of speakers. In Canada BE LIKE represented 13 per cent of the different quotative forms used by students in 1995; by 2003, the proportion had soared to 63 per cent. In York, too, there was a dramatic increase in the frequency of BE LIKE across the generations, from 19 per cent in 1996 to 68 per cent in 2006. In both locations, then, BE LIKE had taken over from SAY and other quotative verbs to become the most popular quotative form.

However, these figures hide different trajectories of language change. Unlike Canada, in York the difference in the use of BE LIKE by female and male speakers had decreased between 1996 and 2006 rather than increased.  And in York, students in both 1996 and 2006 used BE LIKE the same way – slightly more often to introduce reported thought than direct speech. Across the generations they also continued to use BE LIKE more often with first person subjects and more often in the present tense. In both 1996 and 2006 students in York used SAY and other quotative verbs more often in the past tense.

The researchers point out that the sex differences between Canada and the UK, though interesting, are unremarkable.  They fit with previous research showing that as BE LIKE spreads around the English-speaking world it acquires different social meanings that reflect local social contexts. This results in different social and stylistic patterns in the use of the form from one community to another.

The differences between Canada and the UK in the linguistic effects on the use of BE LIKE are important, though, for our understanding of how changes spread through a language. What has happened in York is consistent with the findings of many researchers working on other kinds of syntactic change in the history of English: successive generations may use a new form more frequently, but they continue to use it in the same linguistic contexts. This is known as the constant rate effect: in other words, as different generations of children acquire the form BE LIKE they also learn the linguistic contexts associated with its use.

Durham and her colleagues suggest, then, that what has happened to BE LIKE in Canada is an exception. They predict that as BE LIKE evolves and spreads in other English-speaking communities around the world it will follow similar pathways of change to what was observed in York: people will use it with increasing frequency but the linguistic effects that constrain its use will remain the same.

This sets an intriguing challenge, then, for researchers elsewhere in the English-speaking world – we’re like “we want to know what happens to BE LIKE”!

To listen to sound clips featuring BE LIKE and other quotatives go to our English Language Teaching Resources website  
 Durham, Mercedes, Haddican, Bill, Zweig, Eytan, Johnson, Daniel Ezra, Baker, Zipporah, Cockeram, David, Danks, Esther and Tyler, Louise (2012) Constant linguistic effects in the diffusion of Be Like. Journal of English Linguistics 40 (4): 316-337.

This summary was written by Jenny Cheshire

1 comment:

  1. I'd be interested to see quotative BE LIKE charted against quotative GO. If "So he goes, 'Take a walk'" is easily available, maybe it competes with "So he was like, 'Take a walk'" (as well of course with SAY and other options).