The Rise of ‘Be Like’

Like ColaWe dialect nuts scrutinize features of individual dialects, while perhaps ignoring features emerging in many dialects simultaneously.  One of these is the meteoric rise of the phrase ‘be like‘ in many types of English.  You may not recognize what these words mean, so examples of its conjugated forms may help:

‘It was like, really dark outside.’
‘There’s like, maybe two or three of them.’
‘She tells me she’s wearing that blouse, and I’m like, are you kidding me?’
‘He was like, ‘I really need you to talk to me.’

You’ll notice several things about ‘be like.’ First, it’s typically used in narrative contexts or hypothetical narrative contexts. That is to say, it’s a function of storytelling. Second, it often becomes a quotative verb, meaning that ‘be like’ takes the place of ‘I said,’ ‘She said,’ ‘They say’ etc. It’s a very flexible term.

There is a fascinating body of sociolinguistic research on ‘be like.’ In 1982, linguist Ronald R. Butters noted one of the more interesting uses of ‘be like,’ as a way of revealing ‘unuttered thoughts.’* As someone who uses ‘be like’ quite a bit, I recognize this in my own speech. For example:

‘She says she wants to have a meeting, and I’m like, ‘didn’t we just have a meeting?’

Here ‘I’m like’ suggests what I was thinking rather than what I said. ‘Be like’ reveals the inner monologues of storytellers.

Research has also shown** that ‘be like’ is no mere American phenomenon, but becoming salient in the speech of British youth. Whether this indicates American influence I can’t say, but it’s clear that the construction is on the rise in several world Englishes.  I can only speculate, of course, as to why this is the case. But for me, ‘be like’ is tremendously useful, although prescriptivist grammarians will (obviously) disagree.

I argue in favor of ‘be like’ because it implies an active relationship with one’s thoughts, feelings and statements. ‘Be like’ breaks down the boundaries between what you say, think and feel. ‘I thought it was scary’ or even ‘I thought, “it is scary”‘ do not have the same oomph as ‘I was like, this is scary.’ The latter suggest that I’m embodying that thought in a very personal way, that I’m simultaneously thinking, feeling and living it.

In a world that increasingly prizes immediacy, then, ‘be like’ is a very attractive tool in the linguistic box. The term dramatizes situations rather than simply repeating them, and allows us to access emotional states not easily captured by staid verbs like ‘I thought’ or ‘I felt.’

Still, that doesn’t quite answer the question: why is ‘be like’ so in vogue in so many parts of the English-speaking world?

*Butters, R. R. (1982). Editor’s note to Schourup (1982). American Speech 57, 149.

**Tagliamonte, S., and Hudson, R. (1999). “Be like et al. beyond America: The Quotative system in British and Canadian youth.” Journal of Sociolinguistics 3, 147–72.

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About Ben

Ben Trawick-Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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29 Responses to The Rise of ‘Be Like’

  1. Stan says:

    It’s very common in Ireland – especially in younger generations, where it’s all but ubiquitous. Why is it so in vogue? I don’t know. Maybe Buffy and other very popular and quotable TV shows used it a lot and helped propagate it. It’s also very handy, as your post neatly demonstrates. We exchange mini-narratives all the time, and “be like” fits a few useful conversational pockets.

    • trawicks says:

      I don’t often look to the media as a source of language change, but this may be an exception. ‘Be like’ emerged very rapidly in television and film in the 1980s and 1990s, and has become so ubiquitous in pop culture that it’s impossible to ignore.

  2. Aaron Bauman says:

    I think this post conflates two different uses of “like”.
    1. “be like” is well-described above.
    2. “like” as interjection similar to “uh,” “er,” or “um.”

    In your first two examples, I actually read the second usage rather than the first:

    ‘It was, like, really dark outside.’
    ‘There’s, like, maybe two or three of them.’

    (note the addition of commas to denote the usage as interjection, rather than adverb / quotative verb.)

    To me, these two cases are distinct from the others — “like” can be moved around in the sentence and retain the original meaning. e.g.

    ‘It was really, like, dark outside.’
    ‘There’s maybe, like, two or three of them.’
    ‘There’s maybe two or, like, three of them.’

    Further, “like” used in this way is not tied to “to be.” Rather it’s used as any other interjection:

    ‘Call me, like, Ishmail.’
    ‘Like, ask not what your country can do for you.’
    ‘I have a, like, dream.’

    • Ellen K. says:

      Seems to me incorrect to insert a comma when there’s no pause in speech. And I definitely can imagine those said with no pause. And I think this pause-less version, “It was like, really dark outside” is different from one with a pause, “It was, like, really dark outside”. I don’t think the pauseless version is equivalent to um/uh/er. I think Trawicks is correct in linking it with the quotative like.

    • Cclinton says:

      Yes, I feel the same way. More properly though, the second “like”usage should probably be called a “Discourse particle,” because interjection implies that I should be shouting it. Same goes with “um, er, uh” (all really more or less the same word) and they all fall together with other particles like “y’know,” “right,” etc.

      Also, a couple of your examples feel a little ungrammatical for me. For me, the discourse particle “like” is a hedge modifier; it tells me or others that the phrase following it is uncertain, that the words used don’t/can’t fully describe the situation, that “hedging” had happened in my words. Therefore, the first example you described as to its movability is okay to me, but the last feels a little odd because there is uncertainty in all the numbers (though “There’s two or maybe, like, three of them” is okay). In that way, the last three examples don’t work for me either.

      • Cclinton says:

        Feel same way as Aaron, not quite (but kinda) with above

      • Aaron Bauman says:

        To clarify, I’m not making any proscriptive claims about the grammatical correctness of “like”‘s use as an interjection, particle, hedge, or whatever. I’m just pointing out that its usage is not explicitly tied to “to be,” and that descriptively the examples I provided are perfectly acceptable and understandable uses.

        I based my example on wikipedia’s definition of interjection, which includes more than just those that must be shouted. Whether particle or hedge is more appropriate, my point still stands.

  3. trawicks says:

    That definitely not in MY edition of Moby Dick. 😉 Point well taken, though. The grey area for me is that ‘be like’ in a sentence like ‘There’s like, two or three of them’ seems to serve a specific purpose: it implies a degree of uncertainty, replacing words like ‘perhaps’ or ‘maybe.’ Even ‘be like’ in ‘He was like, “I really need you to talk to me”‘ might be argued to retain this sense, in that in may be interpreted as saying “He said something along these lines.”

    I guess the bottom line for me is that ‘like’ in all of these examples indicates uncertainty, even when used as a discourse particle, e.g. in ‘I want to go to, like, the mall’ (forgive the Valley Girl stereotype!)

    • trawicks says:

      I see Cclinton beat me to the punch with the connection between ‘like’ and tentativeness!

    • Aaron Bauman says:

      Point taken, but, like, p’shaw.
      I still contend that “like” does not, like, always imply uncertainty.
      Like, its usage has jumped the banks on that count.

      (Ironic personal pet peeve: using “like” in the interjection / particle sense, in spoken language and especially in written language.)

      • trawicks says:

        I’m not the biggest fan of ‘filler like’ either, mostly because I do it myself without thinking. It’s definitely an direct result of anxiety for me: the more nervous I am, the more I tend to ‘like’ it up.

    • ASG says:

      I don’t think that there’s any trace of tentativeness in a lot of my own uses of the word “like.” Like Kee below, I often say things along the lines of, “and the bouncer, was, like, huge” which does not express any doubt whatsoever about the bouncer’s hugeness. The “like” adds an (artificial, maybe) pause for dramatic effect, an invitation to the listener to buckle her seat belts for what’s coming up.

      I think that the idea in your original post (I’m faced with the bouncer’s hugeness in the real world and, simultaneously, mentally overwhelmed by it) is exactly right. There’s an inner dialogue that’s being expressed when I use “like” in a sentence like that one. But tentativeness has nothing to do with it in those cases.

  4. IVV says:

    Does “be like” show tentativeness in a way “be all” doesn’t?

    ‘She tells me she’s wearing that blouse, and I’m all, are you kidding me?”
    “He was all, ‘I really need you to talk to me.’”

    I guess so. “I’m like, are you kidding me?” is an internal thought, while “I’m all, are you kidding me?” means the thought was expressed to her. To “be all” adds a level of insistence that “be like” does not.

    • AL says:

      To me, “be all” is for cases where the person actually spoke those inner thoughts.

      “I was like, are you kidding?” (I thought to myself, “are you kidding?”)
      “I was all, are you kidding?” (I said to him, “are you kidding?”)

  5. Catriona says:

    Augh! ‘Be like’ is nearly as annoying as ‘sort of’ and the use of ‘feel’ in the place of ‘think’.

    All suggest tentativeness and an unwillingness to take ownership of opinions or answers and this really makes me worry about younger generations’ ability to express themselves, particularly young women.

  6. lynneguist says:

    In slang terms, though, the cited research is pretty dated. A lot of work is being done on quotatives these days, including Jenny Cheshire’s team noticing interesting things happening in Multicultural London English. I hope this link can take you to a pdf of a paper of theirs.

    • trawicks says:

      That’s a neat presentation. It’s interesting that be like‘s cousin, ‘go’ (i.e. ‘And I went, “Are you serious?”) is waning in Inner London but still seems the preferred ‘say’ alternative in the suburbs/Outer London. Or perhaps it’s on the rise in Outer London and never took hold in the Inner City. Either way, it seems to be the major distinction, quotatives-speaking, between ‘Anglo’ and ‘non-Anglo’ (or ‘non-Anglo-influenced’) London speech.

      • dan says:

        Isn’t there also an increase of another one like “be like”: “This is me…”?

        It would appear in similar slots to “be like”, so you’d get exchanges that would go:
        “And she’s like why didn’t you phone me, and this is me – I never said I’d phone you – and she’s like yeah you did….”

        I kept hearing it from my (mostly black and working class) south London A level students a year or two ago, but I’m now working somewhere away from London so it’s not anything like as common among my current students.

        It seems to be a way of dramatising, or re-enacting events with a bit more precision (or exaggerated flair, maybe a bit like that esprit d’escalier when you reply is better in your head than it was actually was at the time) than “be like” which always suggests to me a bit of poetic licence or even vagueness.

  7. lynneguist says:

    (and when I say ‘paper’ I mean ‘powerpoint’)

  8. Kee says:

    I’d say the only example sentence with any degree of uncertainty or tentativeness in it is: ‘There’s like, maybe two or three of them.’ And that is more from the “maybe” than the “like” (or just the “two or three”). “Like” doesn’t suggest tentativeness any more than uptalk suggests the speaker is asking a question (the way I hear it, uptalk seems a strategy to mark “I’m still talking” vs. “okay, your turn to talk now”). It is a great tool for storytelling since it emphasizes emotions or reactions that weren’t necessarily part of the exact words or action being narrated but are very important for the reason the story is being told. I’m a fan of it

    ‘It was like, really dark outside.’
    I’d actually expect the “like” in this sentence to make it more emphatic. In my (SoCal) accent, it would change the rhythm of the sentence so there was more stress on “really”.

  9. boynamedsue says:

    In nortern English dialects it works as a marker tagged on the end of sentences to indicate surprise, contrast or emphasis.

    “It were daft, like”
    “They don’t live here anymore, like”

    As well as the buffyspeak uses.

    • trawicks says:

      That’s quite common in Irish and Welsh English as well. To an American, that ‘like’ almost sounds as if it comes after a hyphen (i.e. “It’s really difficult-like.”)

  10. AL says:

    When I was in high school (1996~2000), I hated the use of “be like” and would actively avoid it. Somehow going through college and grad school in the post-2000 years, it has crept into my speech. I use “be like” and “I feel like” all the time now.

  11. Danny Ryan says:

    Last year on holiday in Greece I was asked by a young American woman: “Are these like the stairs to the rooms.” – And I responded: “They’re not just like the stairs to the rooms, they actually ARE the stairs to the rooms.” She didn’t get it.

  12. Zeek says:

    Excelent post. Reminds me of this poem:
    http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/index.php?date=2011/04/07
    (What She Said by Billy Collins)