‘A Corpus-Based Study of Quotatives in the American Sitcom, “The Big Bang Theory”‘: dissertation blogpost from Angharad John & Madison Allardyce

Big Bang Theory poster

Are you a student or otherwise nosy scroller, looking for some dissertation inspiration? Look no further! Here is a brief summary of our dissertation project, a corpus study of quotatives in The Big Bang Theory.

So, firstly, and most importantly, what are quotatives?

Quotatives are a linguistic device used to introduce or report speech and thoughts. There are many examples of quotatives, but the ones we examined in our study were the quotatives say, be like, go, and be all.

For some extra context, here are some examples of these words being used as quotatives:

Table 1. Quotatives and examples
say  We were walking and he said, “I want to go home”.
be likeShe was like, “Oh my god! What are you doing here?”.
goSo we’re just talking and he goes, “Aaah, my foot!”.
be allShe was all.. “Don’t you ever speak to me again”.

Our study examined the frequency of these quotatives in everyday speech. Collecting our own speech data would have been a lengthy process and beyond the scope of an undergraduate dissertation, so we decided to use a sitcom, a ready-made collection of speech. After discussing with our supervisor and conducting some research, we chose The Big Bang Theory. Thankfully for us, hundreds of fan-made transcripts can be found online, so we were able to download and edit files to build our corpus.

Once we had our corpus, we used a concordancing tool (a word searching program) to harvest our results, which are shown below. As well as finding out the overall frequency distribution of the quotatives, we also analysed them for verb tense, grammatical person of the subject, and discourse-pragmatic function. For this short blog post, we’ll focus on the main distribution results. The overall distribution of the quotatives showed that say was by far the most common, followed by be like, then go, then be all. This is illustrated in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Distribution of Quotatives per 1,000,000 Words

So, what does this mean for future studies? Overall, our study has provided a more modern take on the state of quotatives and highlighted the emergence quotatives in television discourse. Angharad concluded that the overall number of quotatives was much lower than that found in corpora of genuine natural speech, and so a future study could involve creating a corpus of multiple sitcoms, to examine whether including fewer quotatives is a characteristic of sitcoms or scripted language in general.

Whilst Madison acknowledged that even though say was the most prevalent quotative, be like was the most frequent innovative (or new) quotative, compared to go and be all. Interestingly, it is assumed that be like originated from America, specifically California, which is where The Big Bang Theory is set. Therefore, the results could imply that the higher frequency of be like was due to the geographical location of the sitcom. To test this hypothesis a future study on quotatives could be conducted on sitcoms across different regions of America, to identify whether be like remains the most popular new quotative or if other regions prefer using go or be all to introduce speech.  

We hope you have enjoyed learning about our project… thank you for reading!

Angharad and Madison 😊