The rise of the quotative "be like" and sociolinguistic stereotypes amongst young speakers

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2020

17 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 Evolution of the quotative be like based on Tagliamonte
2.1 Early use of be like by speakers born in the 1950s and 1960s
2.2 Be like on the rise: speakers born in the 1970s and the teenagers of the 1980s
2.3 Be like -natives: speakers born in the 1980s and 1990s
2.4 How can the rise of be like be explained?

3 The quotative belike in the 21st century
3.1 Assessment of be like ’s current status in the English language
3.2 Be like in slang and popular culture

4 Be like and language ideology
4.1 Teenagers are overusing be like
4.2 Be like stems from the Californian Valley Girls

5 Conclusion

6 Bibliography

1 Introduction

One hundred years ago, the quotative be like did not exist. Today, like ranks within the top ten words of linguistic corpora of teen language and be like is the most favored quotative of speakers younger than forty (cf. Barbieri 2009: 68). Hence, the present paper focuses on the quotative be like and its remarkablepathway of an emerging new linguistic feature of the mid-20th centuryto one of the core features of teen language and a potentially new standard quotative of the English language in general.

Linguistic evidence for the rise of be like presented in this paper is mainly based on the findings of Canadian linguist Sali A. Tagliamontewho analyzed teen language on the basis ofseveral corpora over the past decades. Her 2016 publication Teen Talk sets her apart from many other sociolinguistic studies on the quotative be like as a majority of them have been published in the late 20th century, rendering thempartly out of dateas be like is still on the rise. Tagliamonte’s work not only offers an insight into historic data but also takes the linguistic developments of the early 2000s into account which allows a timely assessment of the seemingly ever-changing quotative be like.In the second section of this paper, other linguists’recent study results will be taken into account to assess be like ’s status as a quotative of the 21st century.In a third step, differing sociolinguistic implications regarding be like will be illustrated by examining thesociolinguistic implications of be like.

The present paper hence aims at approaching possible answers to the question of how the rise of be like can be explained byillustrating different stages of development hinged on various generations of speakers based on Tagliamonte’s research. The current status of be like is assessed and put into context withpopular culture and social media.The emergence of be like will be put into context with stereotypes about teenagers’ impact on language change as well as with the so-called Valley Girl phenomenon. By examining the sociolinguistic implications linked to be like ’s current popularity, it will be shown that be like is not simply a phenomenon of teen language but might instead settle within the English grammar of the 21st century.

2 Evolution of the quotative be like based on Tagliamonte

In the chapter Quotatives: I’m like, „Oh my God!” of her2016 book Teen Talk: The Language of Adolescents, Canadian linguist SaliA. Tagliamonte analyzes the use of quotative be like as one of the core features of teen language.The findings presented in her book are, to a large extent, based on extensive studies and corpora she conducted and worked on together with her university students in Canada and England. In line with the idea that stories are an authentic way to analyze people’s language use, Tagliamonte’s Storytelling Corpora of 1995-2004produced an “eclectic collection of experiences, tales, and confessions” (Tagliamonte 2016: 11) told by friends and families of participating university students. The researcher states that personal narratives were“the prime locus for quotative verbs” and hence enabled her to detect the “new innovation, the use of like as a quotative verb, before most people knew it was rising” (Tagliamonte 2016: 12).

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Figure 1: Overall distribution of quotative verbs by speaker date of birth.

Source: Tagliamonte (2016: 72, Figure 4.2), originally Tagliamonte and D’Arcy (2007: 205, Figure 2)

As a result of the research conducted in the Storytelling Corpora, Figure 1 shows the overall distribution of the quotatives be like, say, think, go, and zero by speaker date of birth. Tagliamonte and D’Arcy analyzed speech samples taken from stories by nearly 200 Toronto natives, aged 9 to 87, in the years 2003 to 2005 (cf. Tagliamonte 2016:71).The results were published in 2007 and provide information on the linguistic behavior ofspeakers born between 1920 and the late 1990s. Thus, it needs to be noted that the use of quotatives by teenagers in 2020is not represented in this corpus. As language gradually changes, it is important to look at different points in time as well as generations if one aims to retrace the rise of be like. Based on Tagliamonte and D’Arcy’s research presented in Figure 1 as well asfurther findings, this sectionof the present term paper hence looks at the three generations that made way for quoting like entering today’s teens and tweens’ everyday language.

2.1 Early use of be like by speakers born in the 1950s and 1960s

According to D'Arcy (2017: 18), the first speech samples that featured like in quotative position have been observed with speakers born in the middle of the 20th century. As can be seen in Figure 1, quoting like made up less than 5 percent of the quotative verbs used by study participants born in the 1950s and 1960s. Hence, this was not the generation through which be like was made popular in North American English, but the one that made way for implementing like in a newmanner as like ’s original meaning of ‘for example’ seems to have shaped its entry into language as a quotative: “When it first introduced quotation, it collocated primarily with say, the default verb of direct quotation at the time.” (D’Arcy 2017: 18). He said like, “Stored water is just like stored dollars”,is an example sentence for say like by a 1935-born male featured in the Synchronic Corpus of Victoria (D’Arcy 2017: 18, 19b). Accordingly, one can see in Figure 1 that say accounts for the most preferred quotative of study participants born in the 1950s and 1960s, ranging between 50 and 60 percent. Tagliamonte comments: “You can see that a person over 40 in the early 2000s is very unlikely to use quoting like. Instead, this is where you will find lots of quoting say or said.” (2016: 71) Based on the analyzed speech samples, Tagliamonte (2016: 71-72) concludes that over 40-year-olds mainly use say to quote other people and think or go to quote their inner thoughts. In addition, Tagliamonte (2016: 74) found that if quoting like is used, it is most likely to be used with existential it which means that there is no reference to an object. An example would be the phrase It was like, “great”, uttered by a 51-year-old participant (Tagliamonte 2016: 74, 57c). These categories, i.e. quoting inner thoughts, quoting other people, and existential it will become important when comparing the use of quotative verbs to other generations in the following sections.

2.2 Be like on the rise:speakers born in the 1970s and the teenagers of the 1980s

The first distinct peaks in quoting like could be observed in speech samples from those born in the early and late 1970s: as can be seen in Figure 1, their overall use of like made up 20-30 percent of all used quotative verbs. From a mid-2000s standpoint, Tagliamonte concludes that despite the common notion of teenagers being the inventors of be like, the 30-year-olds were to be held responsible, i.e. “the generation who were born in the 1970s and became teenagers in the 1980s” (Tagliamonte 2016: 73). She supports this argument by the fact that the first time the academiclingusitic journal American Speech reported on quotative like in North American English dates back to 1982 (Tagliamonte 2016: 67).

Furthermore, based on the Canadian and British speech samples of 18- to 28-year-olds in the 1995-1996 Storytelling Corpus, Tagliamonte (2016: 68) found that the underlying criteria for utilizing quoting like were the same as with American young people: the analyzed teenagers and university students used quoting like in three different referential ways when referring to either sounds, gestures, or expressions (1a), themselves (1b), or the inner thoughts of the storyteller (1c), as shown in the following examples taken from Tagliamonte’s corpora (2016: 68, 46a; and 69, 47c, 48c):

(1) (a) It’s just like “Drip, drip.”
(b) And I’m like, “Oh my goodness!”
(c) I was like, “Yeah, right!”

In addition to these referential functions, quoting like was also observed to pair up with the existential pronoun it as was already observed in the aforegoing generation. An example from Tagliamonte’s corpus is the utterance of a 20-year-old study participant, It’s like, “[breathing sounds repeated 3 times]” (Tagliamonte 2016: 69, 49b). Tagliamonte (2016: 69) contrasts existential it plus be like to it says and argues that the latter could only be used to refer to a non-animated entity such as posters, advertisements, or books, e.g. it said, “buy 2 for 99”,but not outside this referential function. Therefore, existential it plus be like seems to be a uniqueness among the quotative verbs.Tagliamonte (2016: 74) suggests that older speakers’ habit of only usingthis version of quoting like is the reason for them sounding old-fashioned to teenagers of the early 2000s.When compared to the aforegoing cohort of over 40-year-olds, i.e. speakers born in the 1950s and 1960s, Tagliamonte (2016: 71) argues, however, that this does not mean that the under 40-year-olds were simply replacing the standard forms of say and think with be like. Instead, she points to a distinction made that the graph in Figure 1 does not show as it lies within the quotatives’ referential functions:

[The] system of quotative verbs used by the over 40-year-olds has a distinct patterning from the one used by the under 40-year-olds. Once, people used say for speech, think for thoughts, and go for either one and/or sounds. Now […] quotative verbs are no longer organized the same way. Be like can be all of the above, but most especially for first-person inner dialogue. (Tagliamonte 2016: 73)

Conclusively, the under 40-year-olds and 1970s-born speakers are the “generation in flux” (Tagliamonte 2016: 73) who use both say and like and are, thereby, slowly breaking up the before-established patterning of introducing direct quotes. What follows then with speakers bornon the verge ofthe 1980s is what Tagliamonte calls an “impressive crossover” (2016: 71) as say drops below 30 percent and like rises above it, turning the latter into the most used quotative of the upcoming generations.Tagliamonte suggests social desirability as the driving force of this period of transition: she mentions that, at the time, both “Street cred” as well as the “social category […] young, urban, savvy” (2016: 76) were to be found in California which caught the spirit of the 1980s teenagers and is, hence, often depicted as the breeding ground for be like (see section 4.2).

2.3 Be like -natives: speakersborn in the 1980s and 1990s

Prior to Tagliamonte and D’Arcy’s research that Figure 1 is based on, Tagliamonte cooperated with her college students from 2002 to 2003 and analyzed speech samples taken from stories told by a cohort of 10- to 19-year-olds. After comparing these to the earlier Storytelling Corpora’s speech samples of 1995/1996, she found that “quoting like increased by more than four and a half times in seven years” (Tagliamonte 2016: 71). Accordingly, in 1995, like only made up 13 percent of the quotative verbs used by the analyzed 18- to 28-year-old Canadians whereas the number rose to 60 percent among the 10- to 19-year-olds in 2002/2003 (cf. Tagliamonte 2016: 68, 70-71). Conclusively, within the latter age cohort, this resulted in a downfall of the quotative verbs go, think, zero, and especially say which decreased from being the most frequent one to representing only 11 percent of the overall used quotative verbs (cf. Tagliamonte 2016: 71). These results are in line with Figure 1 that documents the ongoing rise of quoting like after its crossover with say.

Moving on to the speakers born in the 1990s, of the 200 analyzed participants by Tagliamonte and D’Arcy, they are the ones using be like the most (cf. Tagliamonte 2016: 74). Say is used even less than the zero quotative, i.e. below 20 percent. Compared to the under 40-year-olds we looked at in section 2.1, who use a mix of both say and like but the latter mainly to express inner thoughts, the participants born in the 1990s “now use like for everyone […] [and] for every type of quote, whether inner thoughts, gestures, sound, or speech” (Tagliamonte 2016: 74). What can be observed is that by the time this 1990s age cohort started using be like, it not only broke the long-established patterning of the aforementioned over 40-year-olds, it has swept the complete underlying system of quotative verbs (cf. Tagliamonte 2016: 74).

2.4 How can the rise of be like be explained?

As D’Arcy (2017: 19) argues, be like can introduce all types of content as be is pragmatically unrestricted: “be like ’s flexibility is a historical inheritance, a reflex of its source verb form and the meaning of the marker in quotative frames.” (D’Arcy 2017: 19)What enabled be like ’s rise, however, is not only its flexibility as a quotative verb; instead, it is rooted deeper in the evolution of linguistic behavior. Simply said, people today talk more about themselves than people at the beginning of the 20th century. “Indeed, the advent of large diachronic speech corpora has revealed that until the mid-twentieth century, the quotidian function of quotation was direct speech.” (D’Arcy 2017: 20) Accordingly, in the second half of the 19th century, speech made up 99 percent of the direct quotations observed in the ONZE corpus (cf. D’Arcy 2017: 20). This is a distinctively high number that stands in stark contrast to today where quoting one’s own internal dialogue as well as perceived attitudes and implications of speech by other speakers are normal. Hence, the gradual change of quotative verbs that have been observed by Tagliamonte and the answer to the question how be like became so popular among young speakers seems to be a case of timing: as the quotative system was reorganized by the progression oflanguage use, be like “did not cause the changes; rather, it filled an emergent niche” (D’Arcy 2017: 21). Seeing how rapidly language changes and how long say took on the role of being the most frequent quotative, the emersion of a new and, for that matter, more flexible quotative seems less surprising than it would first appear – especially against the background of speakers implementing less direct quotes and more inner thoughts in their speech behavior. In hindsight, it can be subsumed that the emergence of be like was progressive as well as observable over time and generations; its popularity, however, can only be reasoned for to a certain extent as language change is influenced by social groups and identities, globalization, political decisions,digitalization, new technologies, and many other surrounding factors. Hence, be like demonstrates “the possibility of significant random events outside the predictable structures and processes in language” (D’Arcy 2017: 23) and bears witness to the incalculability of linguistic change.


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The rise of the quotative "be like" and sociolinguistic stereotypes amongst young speakers
Christian-Albrechts-University of Kiel  (Englisches Seminar)
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be like, quotative, like, sociolinguistics
Quote paper
Leona Sedlaczek (Author), 2020, The rise of the quotative "be like" and sociolinguistic stereotypes amongst young speakers, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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