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Of late, I have been noticing a lot of casual memes floating around, particularly on Facebook, that involve this phrase. Typical constructs could be like the following examples:

B*&^%$# be like...I need a break.

Niner fans be like...but we won five times!

Liberals be like...I hate guns.

I understand these are strictly informal constructs. But I'd need a native speaker's (American English because most such memes seem to originate in the US) take on:

  1. how casual these phrases are, i.e. if they can be used in semi-formal fiction writing?
  2. how this usage originate and if it has any affiliation to a particular dialect group, e.g. Midwest, African-American, Southern American, etc.
  • 7
    The be sounds like the Habitual Be Construction in AAVE. The like is a different construction in American English, including AAVE. BTW, "Native American" doesn't mean "Native English speaker", except accidentally; it's a group identification for groups Canadians call "First Nations". And "AAVE" means "African-American Vernacular English". – John Lawler Dec 6 '14 at 18:07
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    Be like = are always sayin'. AAVE is emulated by non-AAVE speakers, dog. So it depends on whose mouth it's coming from. – TRomano Dec 6 '14 at 18:51
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    @TRomano "Sayin'" is I think too narrow: quotative BE like implies not just words but behaviors and is followed by a representation of an action. – StoneyB Dec 7 '14 at 17:15
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    @StoneyB: By no means have I studied this carefully, but it seems to me that when "like" is included ("be like...*), we find some form of spoken expression afterwards. E.g. Yuppies be like, I gotta take my kid to his violin lesson rather than "Yuppies be like taking their kid to his violin lesson." – TRomano Dec 7 '14 at 17:48
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    @TRomano Yes, the complement is never a predication of an action; it is a representation of the action. That action may be--perhaps usually is--speech; but even then it is not merely a report of the words uttered but a re-enactment of the speech act, often with exaggerated emphasis and complex gesture. And it may not be speech at all, but an expressive characterization of the act: "He was like Wham! flat on his butt" or, as in my son's example quoted in my answer "J.J.Watt be like doodly-whomp!. – StoneyB Dec 7 '14 at 18:25
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There are two, maybe three, different things going on here:

  • Habitual be, as John Lawler and J_LV observe, is characteristic of AAVE; it now appears to be spreading from that dialect into the speech of ‘Millennials’, and I am informed by my 24-year-old son that the use is not entirely ironic: it is marked as non-standard but employed unselfconsciously. For instance, the common catchphrase Haters gonna hate may be paraphrased Haters be hatin.

  • ‘Quotative’ BE like, with a finite form of BE representing a singular event, is another matter. In the 1950s the very old dialect use of like as a ‘discourse marker’, with only a very remote sense of similitude, experienced a sudden upsurge among the ‘Beats’, and indeed became a conventional sign in the representation of the speech of jazzmen and their followers. By early sixties it had been widely adopted among white teenagers across the US (I cannot say when it gained currency in other speech communities), and it was about that time that I first remember encountering ‘quotative’ BE like.

    Since then BE like (and bare like) has been in continual use. It is particularly associated in popular imagination with the speech of teenagers, particularly the Southern California dialect called Valspeak, but in fact it is not restricted to any region or sociolect: I hear it every day in casual use by people of every origin and every calling.

    It is true, however, as J_LV says, that it is strictly a casual usage. It is not used in writing except where dialogue is represented; in fact, it would have no point in writing, since its characteristic use is to represent what follows not merely as a quotation of someone’s words but as a representation, a mimesis, of that speaker’s performance. And in speech it is still more characteristic of teenage than adult speech, because as people grow older they achieve a firmer grasp of formal speech and avoid casual use when there is any sense that it may be inappropriate.

  • The utterances you quote marry these two senses: be is employed as a finite verb signifying habitual or generic application and like to mark what follows as a representation of behavior. The answer from teenager Farooz Masroor confirms that this is employed across ethnicities to “mock a certain stereotype of any group of people”.

There is also (my son patiently explained to me) another be like usage which marries both of these: X be like Y employs a mimesis of X’s just-occurred singular performance of Y to express that that Y is characteristic of X. “Watt be like doodly-whomp!” for instance states that J.J. Watt’s brutal sack of the quarterback is the sort of thing he does all the time. This may also be expressed as “Watt be all doodly-whomp!” —But this is only for immediate responses; with past events, the verb reverts to ordinary finite form.

  • May I ask how popular you feel it generally is to replace are by be? Do you exclusively hear be like every day or does that statement apply to other cases in which be + verb/adjective is being use as well? I am wondering, cause I thought be like was just one of many variations of be + [X]. – J_LV Dec 6 '14 at 19:53
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    @J_LV What I hear every day is not be like but finite forms of BE like: am, is, are, were, was. Using be in contexts where 'standard English' (whatever the hell that is) employs finite verbs is restricted to AAVE and occasional uses among Millennials. – StoneyB Dec 6 '14 at 20:05
  • Thank you, after reading your edit I now finally understand that what you were referring to differs from what I was referring to. Amazing answer by the way - well-phrased, elaborate and yet concise. – J_LV Dec 6 '14 at 20:18
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It's the "invariant be" - see section 3.1.2 of this paper.

Walt Wolfram contends that usage of the invariant be is age-related, in that young people cease to use it as they grow older. The earliest reference in that paper is a survey of non-standard English by the US Department of Education in 1968 (Labov et al. 1968).

However, that's almost certainly not the first use of the invariant be, but rather when linguistics researchers started to see value in describing African American Vernacular English (AAVE). I suspect that origins of a lot of AAVE, including the invariant be, is irrevocably lost.

The meaning is really interesting, because this is not a simple case of subject-verb disagreement. According to this paper, the invariant be functions as present simple tense in which recurrence is explicitly indicated. Taking an example from the question, "Women be shopping" indicates that women habitually shop, similar to "women shop", except that the habit is explicitly indicated by be.

The present continuous "Women are shopping" indicates that a group of women are currently shopping, i.e. not the same meaning as "Women be shopping".

Based on my reading about AAVE, I would say the archaic usage is unrelated. In archaic usage, "be" is the dynamic verb (e.g. "there be vermin") of the present simple tense, whereas invariant be is a static verb in the AAVE usage.

  • I remember learning something at school about young people imitating Jamaican Vernacular English. Must be a young people thing. – marcellothearcane Aug 23 at 20:26
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Teenager here!

Be like is used to mock a certain stereotype of any group of people, mocking what they say or do by posing it as their opinion. Eg. Teachers be like 'have this homework over the break.'

It's only encountered in casual speech between teenagers (or at least not between students and teachers). You could use it in fiction writing if it's in a quote, eg. "'Teachers be like 'have this homework over the break,'' said Bob." But you cant say, "Professor McCarthy was like 'have this homework over the break'" (unless your story is narrated by such a teenager who feels the need to speak casually and you feel the need to stay in character). I have no information about its origins but at this point nearly every ethnicity can be found to use it sometimes in casual speech. I have also seen "N***as be like, blabla" sometimes when talking about a black person, or if the speaker is a black person.

Edit: Turns out that I myself made a facebook post a while ago using 'be like.' Context: last year as a freshman I had a challenging history teacher who loved to put strange compare and contrast questions on his tests. My post reads, " be like 'To what extend is Adam Smith's capitalism inherently Machiavellian as it relates to the historical trajectory of Yuan dynasty China?'"

  • Merely pointing out that the reason you may have heard black people use the term nigga is because it is very common in general for a black person to use the word nigga when in any way referring to another black person. – J_LV Dec 6 '14 at 22:24
  • Actually, it's an old surfer/stoner idiom that has apparently been resurrected. – Hot Licks Dec 7 '14 at 15:03
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    +1 Habitual be married to quotative BE like with generic sense; I hope you will not mind if I add that to my answer (duly credited to you). – StoneyB Dec 7 '14 at 17:05
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I'll give you my take on it. I feel like I can provide some insight even though I am not a native speaker.

These are very casual. As in, they're as far from formal as it gets.

I have seen lots of US TV-shows and the like and I've seen this meme being used exclusively by African-Americans, as in black people. And even though be like does not seem to have an age-limitation, I am under the impression that it is predominantly used by teenagers and younger adults.

I am not sure whether it really is a "meme" either. There are lots of other AAVE constructs where be replaces are such as:

He be trippin'

We be rollin'

Search for those strings with Google and you'll see they yield quite a few hits.

  • 1
    This is not slang but AAVE. – Jon Purdy Dec 6 '14 at 20:10
  • @JonPurdy God.. I'm such an ignorant. Never heard that term in my entire life. I'm sincerely sorry if calling it slang offended anyone. Editing now. – J_LV Dec 6 '14 at 20:13
  • Don’t worry about it! It’s not common knowledge, but I think it’s important to share. – Jon Purdy Dec 6 '14 at 21:07
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It is the dialect of African American Vernacular English:

Lexicon Valley: Why We Be Loving the “Habitual Be Slate Magazine

Who be eating cookies? That’s the question that the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Janice Jackson asked children in a now-famous study on “the habitual be.”* Have you heard of this creature? Though it sounds like the yellow jacket perpetually hard at work on your hydrangea, it is not. It is but one way in which African-American English (AAE, to linguists) adds nuance to traditional verb forms, and it is the reason that “she be walking the dog” signifies differently to different listeners.

  • Spoken AAVE: early 17th C
  • Written AAVE: early to mid 19th C
  • Can you give the actual nuance of this habitual 'be' in your answer? As is, you only give a label for it. – Mitch Aug 23 at 23:09
  • you mean supply examples ... from the article??? – lbf Aug 23 at 23:42
  • Lbf, sure examples, but more importantly don't just cut and paste, add some explanation that addresses the OP, what the meaning of 'habitual be' is (as different from the usual). – Mitch Aug 24 at 1:42

protected by tchrist Jan 25 '17 at 22:44

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