A constructional approach to the structure of "be like" and related quotatives in English

Lieven Vandelanotte

University of Namur (FUNDP) - English Unit, Belgium

WS146: New Perspectives on New (and old) Quotatives

In the literature, innovative quotatives such as be like (1) and go (like) (2) have mainly been approached in terms of their sociolinguistic spread and the attitudes they are associated with (e.g. Tagliamonte and Hudson 1999). Their diachronic origin has been linked with the meaning evolution of the OE adjective gelic (Meehan 1991). One question that is generally not broached is how precisely this construction is syntagmatically composed, and how it relates to more canonical forms of speech and thought representation.

(1) I’m like How does that look nice on you I’d never wear it. (Cobuild corpus)

(2) And then he goes like, sorry man, close the door and get out. (COLT corpus)

In earlier work, I have argued that in canonical reported speech and thought constructions like direct speech/thought, it is the reporting clause as a whole, and not just the reporting predicate, which has the reported clause as its complement. More specifically, I have argued that the reporting and reported clause show the type of A/D asymmetry discussed by Langacker (1987: Ch. 8) for complementation structures, in that the reporting clause is conceptually incomplete and therefore dependent on the more autonomous complement. This line of analysis does not run into the various problems which the traditional ‘verbal complementation’ analysis raises, such as the occurrence of intransitive predicates (e.g. insist, reflect, smile) in reported speech/thought constructions. Innovative quotatives as in (1-2) pose a similar problem, since one can hardly view be like or go as (transitive) ‘reporting predicates’ which take a ‘direct object’.

In my analysis of the structure of innovative quotatives, I will argue with reference to crosslinguistic and diachronic data that clauses like I’m like are apprehended as reporting clauses on the basis of a conceptual correspondence between, roughly speaking, a ‘speech clause’ and an ‘imitation clause’. Once thus apprehended, like ordinary reporting clauses they need a conceptually more autonomous reported complement for their semantic completion. In a final step, it will be shown on the basis of different alternation patterns that the ‘accommodation’ of be like and similar constructions into the direct speech/thought construction is not equally advanced for the different innovations, which can perhaps be related to the diachrony of their emergence (e.g. go appears to be an ‘older innovation’ than be like). For instance, a clause such as he went seems to allow a postposed alternate (he wasn’t too sure about that, he went), whereas the clause he was like seems not to (*he wasn’t too sure about that, he was like).

Langacker, Ronald W. (1987) Foundations of Cognitive Grammar. Volume I: Theoretical Prerequisites. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Meehan, Teresa (1991) It’s like, ‘What’s happening in the evolution of like?’: A theory of grammaticalization. Kansas Working Papers in Linguistics 16: 37-51.

Tagliamonte, Sali and Rachel Hudson (1999) Be like et al. beyond America: The quotative system in British and Canadian youth. Journal of Sociolinguistics 3 (2): 147-172.

Session: Workshop (part 1)
New Perspectives on New (and old) Quotatives
Friday, April 4, 2008, 10:30-12:00
room: 02