Friday, April 27, 2007


Languages handle quoted speech in different ways.

Spoken English quotes indirectly:
(1) Alice said that she was sleepy.
(2) Alice said she was sleepy.

It's understood here that what Alice actually said was, "I'm sleepy." But in Standard Spoken English, we use the indirect quotative almost exclusively.

Standard Written English indicates direct quotation not through grammar but through punctuation:
(3) Alice said, "I'm sleepy."
(4) "I'm sleepy," said Alice.

Notice that if (3) were spoken, it would be indistinguishable from

(5) Alice said I'm sleepy.

which means that the speaker, not Alice, is sleepy. And (4) is not found in natural spoken English-- when spoken, it's usually in a formal situation such as reading or reciting written text aloud.

In spoken English we can also indicate quotation through body language; notably the use of "air quotes"

(6) Alice said [air quotes] I'm sleepy.

This sentence means that Alice is sleepy.

Other languages use direct quotation in spoken language quite easily. Notably in Aymara the direct quotative is obligatory and indirect quotation entirely absent:

(7) Iki.w purit siwa.
sleep.personal knowledge arrived she said.
' "I'm sleepy," she said.'

siwa (from the verb sana 'to say') is obligatory in any context where you're discussing what somebody else has said. In fact, in Aymara you wouldn't even say "she has a headache" but rather, "I have a headache, she said." This sounds odd and forced in English but in Aymara it is quite standard.

Standard Spoken English lacks a direct quotative. But many nonstandard forms of spoken English have at least two quotative verbs:

to be like
to go

(8) Alice was like, I'm sleepy.
(9) Alice is like, I'm sleepy.
(10) Alice goes, I'm sleepy.

In all three of these sentences, it is Alice not the speaker who is sleepy. Oddly, while to be like can be conjugated past or present (but retains a past meaning either way), to go can normally be conjugated only in the present.

(11) *Alice went, I'm sleepy.

doesn't sound right to most native speakers. However, many native speakers do accept a past conjugation if the quoted response is one of surprise or disbelief:

(12) Alice was like, I'm sleepy. And Mary went, no way.

There's a third English direct quotative accepted by some native speakers:

to be all

(13) Alice was all, I'm sleepy.

Native speakers generally agree that to be all indicates doubt or suspicion on the part of the speaker. In sentence 13, the speaker probably thinks that Alice is pretending to be sleepy in order to get out of responsibility:

(14) So it's Alice's turn to help out, but she's all, I'm sleepy.


Blogger Matt said...

This post is faxcinating. Is "to be like" thought of by most scholars as good English usage? I ask because I have been teaching my children that it isn't. If it is I need to stop correcting my kids.

10:38 PM  

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