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.


Phillip Minden said...

Catherine Tate's valley girl?

DC said...

Comedic exaggerations do point to genuine linguistic trends, but they mustn't be taken to reflect what actually goes on in informal speech.

Anonymous said...

Cows generally go "moo" rather than saying "moo".

Rick Sprague said...

When you noted that go is often followed by an interjection or vocal effect, I thought you were about to observe an additional difference: that go is just more general in meaning, in that it can announce any kind of oral behavior, including whistling, screaming, or tsk-tsking--for all of which say would be nonstandard. For that matter, can't go introduce any kind of self-expression at all, including shrugging the shoulders or doing a face palm, and even non-speech-substitute behavior such as demonstrating a punch in the nose?

Is there some reason to single out quotative go as different from these other uses? Or should we turn it around and say that a former distinction is being eroded by the extension of go's scope to demonstrating speech acts as well as other forms of self-expression?

DC said...

Interesting point. I think it would be unusual to encounter go with nonverbal behaviour without some sort of accompanying vocalization.

David Crosbie said...

In the OED that isn't a supplement, there's a section on use of go+SOUND EFFECT. The difference is that that it's not human agents making the noise but things. In the earliest quote it's a part of a human:

1791 W. Cowper Retirem. 79 His noble heart went pit-a-pat.

The second quote after the Dickens in the 1993 Draft Edition is actually an example of this non human noise-making, but used as a metaphor for a human — a chorus girl whose vocal effects only resembled bird chirping.

She was a dear little dickey bird, ‘Chip, chip, chip,’ she went.

So there's a direct line from a thing producing a noise (still extremely common) to a human producing a noise (76% of that sample) to a human producing words (not yet universal, but common enough to be noticed).

For those who don't know the song, the rest of the chorus goes:

Sweetly she sang to me, Till all my money was spent
Then she went off song, We parted on fighting terms
For she was one of the early birds, And I was one of the worms

Cathy said...

I have to agree with Rick. Come to Bognor Regis, and you'll often hear conversations that contains only the words "and she goes ... and he goes ... and she goes ... and then he goes ...", followed up uproarious laughter. Only if you're watching can you follow what's actually happening - at least half of it is facial expressions, actions and gestures.

Penny said...

And, of course, we shouldn't forget quotative 'like', which can be used for recounting unspoken thoughts and feelings too, e.g. "And I'm like, what am I doing here?"

DC said...

Of course not. But this post focused only on go. and other quotatives tell a different story.

Florian Blaschke said...

Rick and David Crosbie make great points. I agree that it is quite apparent from these examples that "go" introduces depictions, descriptions, or imitations of both verbal and non-verbal "behaviour" or events traceable to an "agent" or object, a far more general function than that of "say", which *exclusively* introduces (approximately) literal quotes of verbal behaviour originating from human or anthropomorphised agents. Another example I thought of, to illustrate the combination animal + sound effect, is the phrase well-known as a song title, "Pop! goes the weasel".

Anonymous said...

While 'go' is a dynamic verb, its really rare to find a dynamic verb acting as a discourse particle! ('Like' likewise)

sophomore said...

Good evening! Where can I find full information about your point of view on the functions of English intonation? I know that according to your work there are emotional, grammatical, informational, textual and psychological functions.
Sincerely yours Valery from Yakutia, Russia.

DC said...

My main publication here is Prosodic Systems and Intonation in English (Cambridge University Press, 1969, but still in print). There are also some relevant papers in the section on English on my website, from the 1960s and 1970s.

Gregory Lee said...

Paul Kay (who dud the work on Basic Color Terms with Brent Berlin) remarked to me some years ago that he had noticed his teenage daughters using "go" with quoted speech where Paul could only use "say". Old style, "go" reports a noise or sound which might be an expression of language, but need not be, but "say" in both direct and indirect speech is reserved for reporting language expressions. New style, "go" is used where "say" used to be.