Sunday 4 March 2012

On quotatives (he goes)

A correspondent writes about the use of goes for says in conversation, as in And so she goes 'Wow...'. 'Nobody seems to say anything any more', he comments sadly, and asks 'Why is it happening and when did it start?'. This is his explanation: 'It's as if people are trying to describe the emotions of the other person behind the words or to imbue them with some intent instead of simply and accurately reporting on what the person plainly said.'

That's exactly right, though it's not the whole story. First, the historical point. This use of go has been around for quite a while. The online OED has a draft addition which reflects its recent increase in frequency, but the earliest recorded instances are over 150 years old. It defines it thus: 'to utter (the noise indicated) with direct speech... now often in the historic present', and cites Dickens 1836:

'Yo-yo-yo-yo-yoe,’ went the first boy. ‘Yo-yo-yo-yoe!’ went the second.

Past tense and present tense uses are found throughout the 20th century, with the present tense usage increasing.

This use of go is technically called a quotative - a form that acts as an introduction to direct speech, functioning in a similar way to the use of quotation marks. Not having punctuation marks available when we speak, we've devised various ways of alerting listeners to the fact that we're about to say something which would need quotation marks in writing, such as making a gesture in the air with the first two fingers of each hand, or - more conveniently - using an introductory word such as like, says, or goes.

Say is the traditional form, of course, as my correspondent notes. So why has an alternative usage developed? An analysis of actual usage provides the clue. Here are some examples:

Two minutes in, he goes, 'Wow, this is strenuous' and stopped.
And he goes, 'Gosh, I've never seen you in one of those'...
And I go 'Hello, this is odd...'
And John goes '[whistles]'...

Note how the direct speech begins with an interjection or similar vocal effect. In one study, it was found that 76 percent of uses of quotative go occurred with a following vocal effect, often with accompanying gestures or facial expressions. The function is sometimes described as 'mimetic' - the speaker is trying to recreate exactly the audio-visual character of the discourse being reported.

A longer extract from the corpus used in that study shows something different (I omit the addressee's reactions). The speaker is telling a story about how he was mistaken for a woman because of his long hair:

the other day I went into a bar and this guy asked me to dance, and all he saw was my hair, and he goes 'do you wanna dance' ? I turn around and go 'what' ? and he goes 'do you wanna dance' ? I go 'no no'. he goes 'oh oh I’m sorry'. I go 'yeah you better be'...

Here we see some other features that motivate a go usage. It's a dramatic narrative, which the speaker is trying to make as vivid as possible. The speaker is critically involved in what went on. The interaction involves a high level of emotion. And this, I think, explains why the usage has developed: it offers a dramatic alternative to say. Say is used when the language is more factual; go when the speaker in the narrative is more involved in the action.

(1) So John says, 'It's time we were leaving'
(2) So John goes, 'It's time we were leaving'

In (1), the speaker is reporting what happened. In (2) there's a greater dynamic force: something has just happened to make John say this.

I see the quotative use of go as the language developing a fresh expressive option in informal speech. It becomes noticeable because, when people are telling a conversation they find dramatic, they tend to use go repeatedly - just as they would with say in less dramatic circumstances. I'm not sure if the usage is sociolinguistically restricted - it certainly isn't only heard among young people - but I don't find in it any reason to be sad. It's an increase - a tiny one, but an increase nonetheless - in the expressive richness of the language.