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American Speech 20.1 (2002) 3-31

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She say, She go, She be like:
Verbs of quotation over time in African American Vernacular English

Patricia Cukor-Avila
University of North Texas


Since the early 1980s, when Ronald Butters published his initial observations about the use of go 'say' by speakers born after 1955 to introduce direct speech in narratives (Butters 1980) and subsequent observations about the use of be like in narratives to quote "unuttered thoughts" (Butters 1982), there has been a steady stream of research investigating the ways speakers re-create the speech and thoughts of themselves and others, both in narrative discourse and in free conversation. 1 This research, outlined in the appendix, has come from varying data sets (some with examples of be like only, others with data from the full range of quotative forms), has been gathered with varying methodologies, has been analyzed in varying ways, and, not surprisingly, has resulted in different conclusions about the effects that gender, grammatical person, and discourse context have on quotative use across generations of speakers. There is a consensus in the research listed in the appendix, however, that go and be like are used more often by teenagers and young adults, while say occurs more frequently in data from speakers born before the 1950s. 2 In addition, be like has been shown to occur primarily in narrative contexts in American English (Tannen 1986; Blyth, Becktenwald, and Wang 1990; Ferrara and Bell 1995; Dailey-O'Cain 2000; Singler 2001) and Canadian and British English (Tagliamonte and Hudson 1999), and recently has been shown to have a Swedish equivalent, ba, that occurs in the narratives of preadolescents and adolescents (Eriksson 1995), and a German equivalent, undich so/und er so, that marks climactic events in the stories of college-aged speakers (Golato 2000).

Research on the origins of quotative be like has suggested that it developed (or grammaticalized) from "focuser like," as in We watched this John Wayne movie that was like really bad (Underhill 1988; Romaine and Lange 1991; Eriksson 1995; Ferrara and Bell 1995; Buchstaller 2001). 3 However, what has not been adequately addressed in the literature is the demographic and racial diffusion of this new quotative form. As Ferrara and Bell (1995, 277) point out, the typical model of language diffusion involves [End Page 3] language spread from centers of influence, typically urban, what Trudgill (1974, 1986) and Bailey et al. (1993) refer to as "hierarchical diffusion." Demographic information from the most prolific be like users in Ferrara and Bell's study reveals that all but one speaker come from major metropolitan areas or their suburbs—use of be like by rural informants in their corpora was rare, less than 3%. Thus, they suggest that the use of quotative be like is an urban phenomenon that is slowly spreading to rural areas. However, information on quotative use in rural vernaculars is sparse since all of the existing research on these forms includes few if any rural speakers in the data sets; in fact, the majority of these data come from urban middle- and upper-middle-class whites.

Two recent studies, however, begin to address the ethnic diversity gap in the literature on quotatives. Ferrara and Bell (1995) include African Americans and Hispanics living in Texas, who comprise 6.5% and 14.0% of the data, respectively, from their Corpus Two collected in 1992. They report that both African American and Hispanic females and males are participating in the spread of be like (277); however, they do not provide details about use by grammatical person or discourse context or the distribution of be like within the quotative paradigm. Research by Sánchez and Charity (1999) on quotative use in a predominantly African American neighborhood in Philadelphia suggests that be like has become the most frequent quotative for Philadelphia African American Vernacular English (AAVE) speakers under age 30, occurring almost 67% of the time, while say, which is the most frequent quotative for speakers over 30, occurs at a rate...


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pp. 3-31
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Archived 2005
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