and they were like, “yeah, whatever, it’s the quotative like”

So here I was, sitting here with my laptop when I should’ve gone to bed. And having just finished a task of actual work, I continued to poke around on my laptop, looking around what other folks have written. And then (dude!), what catches my eye but a post on the quotative like.

As you may know, I’m all over the quotative like. So I couldn’t help but to check it out. And what’s more, I learned that there’s even a recent New York Times Magazine column on the topic. And I was like, “Woohoo! Quotative like is hitting the mainstream!”

The article’s a quick read, and generally fairly accepting of the quotative usage of like. However, I don’t entirely agree with the author’s categorization of the quotative like as a function word:

O.K., the new like is hot and it’s useful, but is it legit? Aren’t some rules of grammar or usage being broken here?

Linguists and lexicographers say no. It’s natural, they say, for words to take on new roles. In this case, a “content word” (one that means something) has become a “function word” (one that has a grammatical function but little actual meaning). Academics call the process “grammaticalization.” It’s one of the ways language changes.

I would tend to categorize the quotative “like” as a content word, not a function word. But it’s a bit tricky. But it does make me ponder the origins of the usage. I wonder if it arose from the hedge-like interjection form of “like.” You know, the one that, like, people toss in that doesn’t, like, add a lot of meaning? I can imagine an origin based on a usage like (such as) “…and then he said, like, ‘no way.'” or “I thought, like, ‘his use of that discourse marker was infelicitous in that context.'” If my hunch is right, then this would be a case of a word becoming more contentful…

4 thoughts on “and they were like, “yeah, whatever, it’s the quotative like”

  1. Very interesting, and I’m trying to understand what you mean without reading all of the articles right this second. In essence, I’m, like, guessing here (functional usage, right?).

    But,then, would this be more contentful? I read Alejna’s post, and I was like, “I am going to comment”. In that case, would the “I was like” take the place of “I said” and thus be contentful?

    I could be way off, but you don’t have to answer me. I plan on reading up on this a little later. What I would like to add is that when I lived in Southern California for a time, I was struck, and initially annoyed, by the the omnipresent usage of “I was all blah blah blah and then he was all such and such”. And now, irritatingly, I have found that “I was all” has crept into my own vocabulary. Functional, perhaps, but still annoying when I notice it.

  2. I see I’ve strayed into the company of specialists. I read your previous post Alejna and have added sociolinguistics to my vocabulary.

  3. Julia-
    Ah, the function word/content word distinction is a messy one. I perhaps should not have said “contentful,” exactly. Because the trick is that function words do contain content, and content words are also functional. It’s just that “content words” tend to have meaning that is a little less slippery than “function words.” But yes, the first “like” example you give is one that I’d be inclined to classify as a function word (though it’s probably debatable), and then your second example is the one I’m considering to be more likely a content word. Of course, what’s tricky is that the meaning “said” comes from the combination of the verb “to be” and “like.” So that makes like a weaker candidate for the label “content word.” It’s so very, very messy. I bet someone out there is looking into this question in more depth. I myself have only scratched the surface of the like literature.

    I actually spent some time growing up in California (though the northern part), and “be all” is definitely still in my vocabulary. I’m more likely to use that quotative than “be like.”

    Hello! And thanks for stopping by (and for posting about that NYT column). I’m not really, like, a specialist. At least I’m not a like
    specialist. But perhaps I could pass myself off as one at a cocktail party. Assuming that there weren’t any sociolinguists in attendance.

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