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Social Saturdays’ posts look at the social side of language. After all, language isn’t just a way to communicate, it is communication.

It was once said that language change cannot be studied in progress. That it was the job of the sociolinguists to come along after the fact and study what happened.

The be like quotative proved that statement wrong.

Be like is this new, annoying quotative which appeared in the English language a few decades ago, and has since become the most widely used quotative for certain demographics.

Instead of saying “I thought, ‘shut up!'”, people say “I was like, ‘shut up!'”. Instead of saying “She said to me, ‘you can’t do that'”, people say “And she’s like, ‘you can’t do that'”.

You’ve all heard it used. You’ve all probably been frustrated by its use – even if you’re a user of the form yourself.

Here’s what we know:

  • It’s used in narrative. That mean people use it to tell people a story. If you look at the contexts it’s used in, that makes sense.
  • It can be used in present or past historical tense. “I was like” and “I’m like” are both options for something that happened in the past. Past historical is often used to make things seem more dramatic, and this seems to be the rule here too.
  • It can be used in first or third person, and for any number of people. “I was like”, “he was like”, and “they were like” all make sense. However, this wasn’t always the case. I’ll go into this a bit more in a bit.
  • It can’t be used in second person, but people don’t generally tell stories about someone who was there, so this might just be because of the contexts it’s used in.
  • It can only be used for direct quotes. Things like, “and she was like that I need to stop doing that” can’t be used.
  • It can be used for bot lexical and non-lexical sounds. That means, “he was like ‘brrr'” makes sense.

If any new form is introduced into the language, it goes through a set of steps. These steps are not uniform, and are very generalised, but the case of the be like quotative has helped sociolinguists learn how changes happen.

Be like started in California, for what linguists can tell. “Valley girls” (a term I was previously unaware of) introduced the form.

Women are generally the innovators of new forms – perhaps because they are expected by society to be “ladylike” and therefore to speak “properly”, perhaps because, throughout history, they have been denied simple things like education, the vote, and so have had to speak properly to become a lady – usually through marriage.

Men are now using the term as much as women – at least in America. We would expect for the next step in the change to be women dropping the form. Once men use it a lot, it becomes stigmatised in a way women don’t want. Initially indicative of middle-class, female American youth, the form will start to be indicative of men in some way. This means that women will try and drop it some something less stigmatised – say go (“and I went…”), which is used in the same way, so is easily adapted to, but is also less stigmatised.

The form then spread to other parts of the English-speaking world; Canada, the UK, New Zealand. It did this in the way you would expect – to the geographically closest first. What’s interesting is that it has maintained all the rules I detailed above, despite only travelling to places like the UK through the television and radio.  We’re still not sure how this happened.

One thing we can take from the geographical spread of the form is that changes don’t always occur in the was way. In Canada, be like is used less than in the UK. When they first found this out, linguists thought this mean that the form had traveled to the UK first, and minds, ladies and gentlemen, were boggled. However, it appears that the number of quotatives (words/phrases used to introduce a direct quote) be like had to compete with was higher in Canada than in the UK. In the UK, it initially only had to compete with think, whereas in Canada it had to compete with say and think. This means it had an easier job working its way into British English.

The term started off its life being used for inner dialogue. When someone said “I was like…”, it meant they thought this utterance, they didn’t say it aloud. Then the term spread to non-lexical utterances (“oooh”, “mmm”, “woo!”), which led to it being used for external dialogue – things actually said out loud. Along with this movement came the inevitable movement into third person – when it can be used for things you say out loud, it can be used for things other people say out loud.

What sociolinguists do to study the change in progress is interview people across a range of ages. Assuming the community’s language stays constant, an 80 year old’s speech will be a window into how the community spoke 60 years ago.

They find graphs which show, for an innovative form, more use in younger people, and for a form which is less favoured, more use in the older speakers.graph

As well as these expected findings, there’s also a peak at the 20-25 range. This is taken to be the age at which an individual’s language is stabilised. This makes sense: they’ve left home, so no longer influenced by the language of their parents, left school, so no longer trying to use “cool” school-aged language.

The rate at which the form is moving into the language is obvious from the graph. This data is from New York; the 57-62 year-olds don’t use a single instance of it, whereas is makes up 20% of the quotatives for 20-25 year olds.

It may be annoying, it may seem impossible to remove it from your speech, but it provides an opportunity for linguists to do something previously impossible: study a language change from start to finish.