Wednesday 8 September 2010

English "like" can, like, function like Sanskrit "इति"

In a recent blog post, "How Old is Parasite 'Like'?", Oxford Etymologist Anatoly Liberman explores the history of (modern) English like when used as a type of filler/discourse-marker. However, modern English like has another function, which I think is often conflated with filler like (presumably because it commonly occurs in the speech of people who also use filler like): namely, as a sort of quotative marker (also noted by commenters Mike Gibson and Charles Wells).
She was like OMG! And then I was like wow!
The above sentences might be "translated" as:
She said, "Oh my god!" And then I said, "Wow!"
Or (since there seems to be some ambiguity):
She said, "Oh my god!" And then I thought, "Wow!"
This use as a sort of quotation mark is a separate function from its pragmatic discourse-marking use (which Liberman focusses on) in examples like:
You wanna, like, go see a movie?
Which might be uttered by a teenage boy asking a girl out on a date , where like can either act as a "hedge", foreseeing the possibility of rejection ("'s ok if you don't want to"), or to allow for the possibility of other activities ("...or get some ice cream").

Both uses of like are stigmatised; again, the stigmatisation of "quotative" like is probably via guilt-by-association with the discourse-marking/filler like. I'll admit that, like Liberman, I find both uses rather aesthetically displeasing (which doesn't mean that I never use them---they are, as Liberman suggests, somewhat viral). But the "quotative" like is interesting. Though Liberman remarks that:
Particularly disconcerting is the fact that the analogs of like swamped other languages at roughly the same time or a few decades later. Germans have begun to say quasi in every sentence. Swedes say liksom, and Russians say kak by; both mean “as though.” In this function quasi, liksom, and kak by are recent. The influence of American like is out of the question, especially in Russian. So why, and why now? Delving into the depths of Indo-European and Proto-Germanic requires courage and perspicuity. But here we are facing a phenomenon of no great antiquity and are as puzzled as though we were trying to decipher a cuneiform inscription.
Interestingly, however, the "quotative" function of English like has a couple of parallels in Sanskrit. One is these---the one most closely resembling English "quotative" like, at least in its frequency---is the Sanskrit particle iti (इति).

Both Sanskrit iti and English like can occur in the following contexts:
A. When quoting words actually utttered, alongside a verb of speaking:
(Skt-1) kathitam avalokitayā "madanodyānam gato mādhava" iti
"Avalokita had told me that Madhava was gone to the grove of Kama." [Mālatīmādhava I, p. 11; cited from Speijer[1]:§493a]

(Eng-1) "She said like 'I want to go too'."

B. Expressing the contents of one's thought:
(Skt-2) manyate pāpakam kṛtvā "na kaścid vetti mām" iti
"After committing some sins, one thinks 'nobody knows me'." [Mahabharata 1.74.29; cited from Speijer[1]:§493b]

(Eng-2) “And I thought like 'wow, this is for me'.” [OED, 2nd Supplement[2]; 1970, no earlier citations]

C. More general setting forth of motives, emotions, judgements etc.:
(Skt-3) vyāghro mānuṣam khādati iti lokāpavādaḥ
"'The tiger eats the man' is slanderous gossip." [Hitopadesha 10; cited from Speijer[1]:§493c]

(Eng-3) "I was like 'wow'!"
There are obvious differences between English quotative like and Sanskrit iti, including the fact that English quotative like precedes the "quotation", while Sanskrit iti follows it (in conformity with the general left-branching nature of Sanskrit syntax).

Further, Sanskrit iti doesn't have any of the other functions or meanings associated with English like. English like derives ultimately from Proto-Germanic *lîko- "body, form, appearance", while Sanskrit iti is built from the pronominal stem i-. In fact, iti still has pronominal uses, even in Classical Sanskrit, as in the following example.
(Skt-4) tebhyas pratijnāya nalaḥ kariṣya iti
"Nala promised them he would do thus." [Nala 3,1; cited from Speijer[1]:§492]
Amusingly, I find that (pretending that a parallel development has taken place in English) replacing "quotative" like with thus actually seems grammatical to me---though wholly unidiomatic, e.g.:
(Eng-4) "I was thus: 'Wow!'"
(Somehow I imagine that if thus had been recruited as a quotative in English rather than like, the use of a quotative marker wouldn't be so stigmatised, since there would be no association with filler like and, moreover, thus is largely used in formal registers of English.)

However, there is another element in Sanskrit which---though not as frequently used in this function as iti---actually is more similar to English quotative like in its syntax and semantics: yathā. Yathā is, properly speaking, a relative pronoun and is often part of relative-correlative constructions of the form yathā X...tathā Y "As X...., so Y". However, it can occur without correlative tathā, and in fact can have the meaning "like", as in the following example:
(Skt-5) mansyante mām yathā npam
"They will consider me like a king." [Mahabharata 4.2.5; cited from Speijer[1]:§470a]
Yathā can also function as a sort of quotative, but---unlike iti and like like---it precedes rather than follows the quoted discourse:
(Skt-6) viditam eva yathā "vayam malayaketau kimcitkālāntaram uṣitāḥ".
"It is certainly known (to you) that I stayed for some time with Malayaketu." [Mudrarakshasa VII; cited from Speijer[1]:§494]
(Or, maybe: "You certainly know, like, 'I stayed for some time with Malayaketu'.")
(Yathā and iti (since they occupy different syntactic positions) can also co-occur.)

So there is at least one antique parallel for the development of modern English like as a quotative marker.

Returning to the more commonly used iti, the following Sanskrit example---occurring when one of the heroes of the Mahabharata has performed an act of generosity so great that even the gods are impressed---I think is a great parallel for examples like "I was like, 'Wow!'":

(Skt-7) tato 'ntarikṣe vāg āsīt "sādhu sādhv" iti
"Then a voice in the sky was like 'Wow! Wow!'" [Mahabharata 14.91.15]
This line might be more usually translated as "then a voice in the sky said 'Bravo! Bravo!'", but there is actually no verb of speaking: āsīt means "was".

[1] Speijer, J.S. 1886.
Sanskrit syntax. Leiden: E.J. Brill. [reprinted, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1973.]
[2] The Oxford English Dictionary, September 2009 rev. ed.


  1. Nice; I read this blog post and then I was, like, all thus: 'Bravo! Bravo!'

  2. I'm not so sure I believe in quotative like; I think it is quotative be, which can then be decorated with filler like.

  3. Even in the Sanskrit constructions iti is usually optional. But I would take this to likely represent something like a phonologically-null quotative, rather than quotative be. I think the same is true for English. Especially since in both the case of Sanskrit and English, the "quotative" can occur with verbs other than be.

    Further, at least for me, like isn't fully optional:

    (i) I was like 'Wow!'
    (ii) I was all 'Wow!'
    (iii) *I was 'Wow!'

    That is, (iii) is ungrammatical for me. I checked via Google-search and found that apparently (iii) is grammatical for some speakers.

    However, I still don't think this is evidence for quotative be + filler like, since I think quotative like and filler like have different intonational properties.

  4. This was a fascinating post, thank you! Normally, my only reaction to Sanskrit is annoyance at the way its sequipedalian great-great-grandkids turn up in highbrow or allegedly "shuddh" Hindi, taxing my learner's tongue beyond its limits. Somehow, you made this particular topic so interesting I actually wanted to read the Sanskrit in devanagari, to get a better feel for the words. If anyone pursues this इति यथा (यठा?) from Skt through to its modern descendants, THAT would be a riveting read, especially if it turned out that was any connection to Hindi's use of मतलब as a "low-information-content filler".

  5. @maxqnz: Thanks. I actually learned Sanskrit long before I learned Hindi; but I too dislike "shuddh" Hindi. Often my knowledge of Sanskrit actually hurts me, because the Sanskrit imports often seem to have senses which are not what I would expect them to be based on their usage in Sanskrit (or at least the Sanskrit I'm used to).

    इति and यथा (it's definitely यथा with a dental "th" and not यठा with a retroflex "ṭh") have no descendants in Hindi, I'm sad to say. इति does have a reflex in modern literary Sinhala as yi (යි), where it (still) functions as a quotative.

    यथा's nearest semantic equivalent in Hindi is जैसा/जैसे. Note that the latter can be used by itself, without a correlative (just like यथा), in the sense "like, just as, as if" you can get things like लड़की जैसी चीज़ "something like a girl". But I haven't noticed any form of jais- being extended to form quotatives....