In recent months, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand has used it; musician Buddy Guy has used it; Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson used it in grand jury testimony, as did his victim Michael Brown’s friend Dorian Johnson. A friend used it in an instant message chat to me, describing her attitude toward her sick boyfriend: “i’m like STAY OVER THERE.” It’s called the “quotative like,” and over the last 25 years, it’s become one of our language’s most popular methods of talking about talking. The use of “I’m like” or “he was like” to introduce a quote, a thought, or a feeling has spread through English worldwide, from Jamaica to New Zealand.
One American dialect has rapidly adopted an even less by-the-book variation. In African American English, or AAE, a grammatically distinct variety, you can say not just “she was like,” but “she be like”—a version of “quotative like” with special powers of its own. At the Linguistic Society of America’s annual meeting this month, researchers Janneke Van Hofwegen of Stanford and Charlie Farrington of the University of Oregon presented a paper that found that “be like” is now so widely used it accounted for 20 percent of similar uses of the verb “be” among a group of young AAE speakers in North Carolina. An analogous group studied in the 1980s didn’t use the term at all.
Despite their prevalence, “I’m like” and “I be like” are still stigmatized as informal or even incorrect. But although some may find them jarring, linguists see these expressions as something like the Swiss Army knives of reported conversation. Their versatility and usefulness means they’ll probably be around for a long time.
“I’m like” first emerged in American English in the second half of the 20th century, originating from other uses of “like,” according to Patricia Cukor-Avila, a linguist at the University of North Texas. “We already had ‘like’ as in, ‘she acts like this,’ so it’s a really easy step to go from something like that to introducing a thought,” Cukor-Avila said. When linguists first noticed “I’m like,” in the early 1980s, it was primarily used to report inner states, not direct speech, as in, “I was like, Oh my god.” The term was probably born in California, as Frank Zappa’s 1982 parody “Valley Girl” song suggests: “She’s like oh my god /like bag those toenails...”
In the 1990s, said Van Hofwegen, “[‘I’m like’] just took the world by storm. In a matter of a few years, every English speaker in the world was using it.” Studies in American cities in the mid-90s found young people using “I’m like” well over half the time to describe a quote. Around the world, it absorbed slightly different connotations. In the United States, for example, the term has long been associated with middle-class girls, while the similar but older “I go,” research in the 1990s showed, had a male, blue-collar association. But English people associate “I’m like” with working-class girls, according to a 2006 paper by linguist Isabelle Buchstaller.
In American English, “I’m like” conveys giddiness, casualness, youth—but not exactly ambition or polish. Movies and TV shows from “Clueless” to “New Girl”—whose pilot episode began with a monologue in which Zooey Deschanel dropped it three times in a row—have used it to suggest these traits. Meanwhile, the African-American version, “I be like,” shows up in song lyrics (Rich Homie Quan’s “I be like blah blah blah blah”) and Internet memes, but it would surely be an example of the “regional expressions or informality” warned against in a recent article about “Sloppy Speech Habits” on the job-hunting site monster.com. “Both constructions started with young people, and people tend to hear novelty in language as ‘wrong,’” John McWhorter, a Columbia linguist, wrote in an e-mail.
But both “be like”s are brilliantly functional grammatical accommodations. “I was like” is neither just “I said” or “I thought,” but an opening into either direct quotation or inner condition, as well as a much wider range of dramatic reenactment or, especially on the Internet, visual representations of feeling. In 2009, linguistic anthropologists Graham M. Jones and Bambi B. Schieffelin studied the IM messages of American college students and found that “I’m like” had spread to an unprecedented degree and was now being used with text expressions of gesture and emotion: “and he’s like::moans:: Nooo.” Users of the blogging site Tumblr use it to connect GIFs and images to their state of being: “when someone insults my fandoms I’m like” writes “not-so-spooky-dork,” over a GIF of an anime character spewing flames from his mouth.
“I be like,” in African American English, offers a second linguistic innovation. AAE is a dialect distinct from what linguists often call Mainstream American English, with its own grammar, vocabulary, and regional variations. AAE has a verb tense known as the “aspectual” or “habitual” be, in which “be,” not conjugated, describes action that occurs on a regular basis. Because of this, “I be like” can have a slightly different meaning from “I’m like.” “When I say, ‘My mama be like, Clean your room,’ it means that she tells me it all the time,” said Van Hofwegen. It’s a far more efficient way of expressing that condition than exists in mainstream English, which relies on adverbs to do the same work.
As the recent studies show, the spread of both flavors of “be like” is a result of the phrases’ dazzling variety of uses. “I’m like,” in particular, has clearly taken firm root, with even Michelle Obama using it recently on “The Tonight Show” to talk about the problems of going out on a date with the president’s entire motorcade: “He’s like, ‘I’m going to take you, and we’re going to go out on a romantic dinner.’ And I’m like, ‘Is the ambulance coming?’” As Cukor-Avila said, “I tell my students, eventually all the people who hate this kind of thing are going to be dead, and the ones who use it are going to be in control.”
Britt Peterson is an Ideas columnist. She lives in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter @brittkpeterson.