Change in the syntax & semantics of 'be like' quotatives
Before the 1980s, the expression “I’m like” was not used to introduce direct speech, but in the last 35 years or so this so-called be like quotative has been spreading like wildfire across the English-speaking world, supplanting more traditional quotatives such as “say”.
Semantically, a quotative verb like “say” is used in an eventive sense: it reports an event of someone actually speaking.
- I'm like, "oh my god!"
An interesting thing about be like is that it can also describe the speaker’s feelings at the time, through 'reported thoughts', in a stative use:
- "And if you were nursing the baby while you were skydiving the baby would be like, okay."
Here, be like describes a state of mind, i.e. how someone felt about something rather than something they actually said (small babies can't talk). Earlier research suggests the origin of be like was this stative use, for “reported thoughts”, but that be like only afterwards took on the eventive function of traditional quotatives like “say”.
Has the meaning of 'be like' really changed to include a true eventive meaning?
Has the new eventive meaning of 'be like' replaced the older stative meaning, or been added to it?
How can you investigate a change in meaning?
It can be difficult to use corpus data to investigate meaning because the interpretation that the speaker intended (stative or eventive) cannot always be easily identified from the context.
In this study, the authors carried out a controlled judgment experiment. They presented speakers with a set of specially designed test sentences and asked them to rate how “good” (i.e. acceptable) the sentences sound.
- For sentences constructed to encourage an eventive reading, many younger speakers found the be like sentences just as acceptable as those with say. The authors conclude from this that the eventive meaning has indeed entered the grammar of younger speakers.
- Comparing responses from younger and older participants, the authors found that neither group treated be like differently in state- or event-biased sentences. This suggests that the interpretation of be like as a direct quotative is not displacing the older stative meaning.
- Be like is thus now multi-functional; speakers can use it to introduce both “reported thoughts” and “direct speech”.