Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Further Developments of Quotative Like

Posted by Neal on December 30, 2015

More than ten years ago, back when my blogging still consisted of guest posts on my brother’s blog, I wrote about my then-five-year-old son’s interesting use of quotative like. I provided this example, which was Doug saying what had just happened when he had done something or other that confused our cat:

He was like, “Why’d you do that?” That’s what he was like, Daddy.

The innovation was in the second sentence, where he used be like to form a wh-question. I wrote at the time, “I predict we will all hear a lot more of sentences like [that one] as members of Doug’s cohort grow up.” It’s been a while since I gave a lot of thought to the development of quotative like. Doug seems to have outgrown it, and I’ve never heard it from my younger son Adam. But I was thrilled to read a recent blog post from Stan Carey which embedded a Twitter conversation between like-expert Alexandra D’Arcy and linguistic anthropologist Sarah Shulist. Shulist began by tweeting D’Arcy to say,

friend’s 4yo just asked “what’s Ernie like?” After some offers of attributes etc we realized she meant “what’s he saying”

You can read the rest of the conversation by clicking on the last link, but I liked one detail that Shulist offered:

her frustration when we couldn’t understand – “No, what’s Ernie like ON THIS PAGE?” suggests adults don’t get it

I decided it was time for a new look at the syntactic regularization of be like into wh-questions, with better search tools and a wealth of social-media text that didn’t exist in 2005. I began by searching Twitter for the string “what * was like when you”, and got a lot of irrelevant stuff

A search on Google for “what was * like when” and “what * was like when” at large got me a few good examples. One was item #22 in a quiz called “Does he REALLY like you?”:

What was he like when you embarrassed yourself?

  1. Pretended not to notice
  2. Laughed his head off and made fun of u
  3. Made a funny comment to get you laughing about it

Another was in a comment on a picture of someone sleeping with his arms wrapped around a new video game system as if it were a stuffed animal. The commenter wrote:

That’s what I was like when I got that same ps4 because Xbox can’t run 1080p correctly

Still, there was a lot of irrelevant stuff to get past, like “what was she like when you knew her?”–in other words, the ordinary, non-quotative use of be like. (Side note: Even that usage is a bit unusual cross-linguistically. What is he like? calls for a description as an answer, not a noun naming a thing that he resembles. For more on this, check out this episode of Lexicon Valley, which discusses this paper by Anne Seaton.)

Eventually, it occurred to me that one productive source of quotative like comes from an internet meme that uses quotative like in conjunction with African American English habitual beas a preface to describe various cliché behaviors and catchphrases associated with a specific group of people.” The habitual be indicates that we’re not talking about permanent qualities of someone; we’re talking about temporary (although habitual) states. This is useful, because it means that when you search for “what * be like” instead of “what * was/is like,” you’re more likely to hit pay dirt.

Unfortunately, “cliché behaviors and catchphrases associated with a specific group of people” means stereotypes, and in this case we’re talking misogynistic and racist stereotypes. The canonical form of the meme begins with “Bitches be like,” which is the name that the website Know Your Meme (quoted above) has given this family of memes. Ickiness aside, this meant that I could get more results more efficiently by asking for specific racist and misogynistic nouns: “what {bitches, hoes, niggas} be like”. So I did. Here’s a sampling of what I got:

On the other hand, searching for “be like” without the A search for “what black/white * be like” turned up these:

I also did a few searches for stereotypical “be like” examples without the overtly racist or misogynistic language, asking for “what * people/guys/girls/women/men be like,” and am happy to report that some of the examples I turned up, rather than being racist/misogynistic, comment on the racism/misogyny of these memes:

I also did a few searches for stereotypical “be like” examples without the overtly racist or misogynistic language, asking for “what * people/guys/girls/women/men be like,” and That search also got this beauty, where the what is extracted from an embedded clause. In other words, it’s not just “what people be like”, it’s “what they think people be like”–further documentation of the journey of be like into syntactic regularity:

there are plenty of videos of white people acting out what they think “black people be like…” and men acting out what they think “girls be like…” in gross stereotypes.

This search also pulled in the best example of quotative like in wh-questions that I’ve found yet, so I’ll end with it. “Them Girls Be Like” is a song released last year by a group called Fifth Harmony.

It has plenty of clear examples of quotative like in declarative sentences, but in the chorus, we also get “That’s what we be like” as a response:

Them girls be like
Them girls be like
Them girls be like
Them girls be like
Oh hey
Hey
That’s what we be like
(That’s what we be like yeah, lovin’ this life cus we really don’t care)
Oh hey
Hey
That’s what we be like
(That’s what we be like yeah, lovin’ this life cus we really don’t care)
(Lyrics taken from musixmatch.com)

So it looks like my prediction came true. What does that make you like?

UPDATE, Jan. 3, 2015: Based on the reasonable comment made by the “White Girls Be Like” blogger, I have made a couple of revisions seen above. The additions are shown in green.

10 Responses to “Further Developments of Quotative Like

  1. […] is what I was like. Neal wrote about this in 2004, and has followed up on my post at his own blog, Literal-Minded, where he documents ‘the journey of be like into syntactic […]

  2. I’m not sure I buy your first two (new) examples, the one from the quiz (“What was he like when when you embarrassed yourself”) and the one about the PS4 (“that’s what I was like when…”). Neither of these necessarily involve “like” as an introduction to a quote, even an implicit one. Instead, “like” seems to introduce a behavior, whether spoken or not; “what we he like” seems to mean “how did he behave,” and “that’s what I was like” seems to mean “that’s how I behaved.” Of course, speech is a kind of behavior, so these senses are related. But I think the behavior-like might actually have preceded the quotative like, because to me the behavior-like is closer to the original usage of “like” to introduce an attribute.

    • Neal said

      It’s true that “quotative like” is something of a misnomer, because although it can introduce actual quotes, it can also introduce thoughts or even meta-linguistic stuff like a shrug or some other behavior. With that said, I stand by my calls, and it sounds like we actually agree.

  3. I’m like, “Glad I’m not the only one who notices these shifts.”

  4. I understand your reasoning for demonstrating the racism and misogyny utilized by the “meme culture”, so to speak, in discussing the evolution of language with the quotative like. However, upon reading the other articles and such to which you compare my blog post, I have to wonder how my writing fell under the “racism/misogyny/etc” category, and how out of all the “What White Girls Be Like” drivel on the internet you would use mine as an example? I actually enjoyed your article and agree with you; in fact, I incorporated the quotative like into my humor blog title for the simple reason that it is a popular juvenility among my generation. I see that you are clearly well-educated and to be respected, especially being on your city’s school board, which saddens me as I am currently in college to become an English teacher as well, after which I hope to get my MFA. With all due respect, I find it rather imprudent that you would take my silly lighthearted humor blog and compare it to such ugly and hateful examples of your topic. If you read my blog, you would see it certainly should not be on your list of racist results.

    • Neal said

      Excellent point. I’ve made some revisions to more clearly separate the actual racist/misogynist stuff from writing that comments on it or (like yours) pokes fun at it. As for why I chose yours out of all the material out there: It’s true that there are plenty of examples “white/black/… girls be like X”, but examples of the phrase “WHAT white/black/… girls be like” are harder to come by.

  5. Diego Kast said

    Nice post . I loved the information ! Does anyone know if my assistant might locate a template UK EEA4 form to type on ?

  6. yamikuronue said

    It’s strange to me to see this attributed to the African-American community (ala “Bitches be like”) and no mention of the older, “Valley Girl” stereotype from the 90s (“and I was like, duh, and he was like, OMG, and I was like, totally.”) . Even Wikipedia lists the “use of like as a discourse marker” as a major component of “Valleyspeak”, citing this 2002 article: http://jos.oxfordjournals.org/content/19/1/35.abstract . Thoughts?

    • Neal said

      The construction be like has indeed, been around since the Valley Girls of the 1980s (yes, 1980s, not 1990s). The thing I was attributing to Black English was the use of the specific form be to indicate habitual action, which is a regular feature of Black English, not just where it intersects with the expressions be like.

      I’ve actually summarized some people’s research on quotative and hesitation-filler like in an episode of the Grammar Girl podcast.

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