In Defense of Valley Girl English, a guest post by Reilly Nycum

Reilly Nycum is an English and History double major in the Honors College at SOU.

In Defense of Valley Girl English: I’m, like, so totally gonna ace this paper.

When one hears Valley girl English, the eyerolls almost become audible. Images of skinny girls prancing around in short skirts at the mall are instantly conjured. In the early 1980s, musical artist Frank Zappa released “Valley Girl,” a song depicting stereotypical Valley girl English, thus forever immortalizing the term for users and listeners alike. In the song, Zappa chants “She’s a Valley Girl / And there is no cure” as a high-pitched voice whines about her superficial life in the Valley: “Like, OH MY GOD! / Like-TOTALLY / Encino is like SO BITCHEN” (Zappa). Zappa’s easily recognizable depiction of Valley girl English, the term specifically prescribed to the dialect spoken by those living in and around the San Fernando Valley, resonates with listeners in several ways. People attach a stigma to Valley girl English to such an extent that most seem to revile the dialect and label its distinctions as bad habits. Many fail listen past the parodies and satire to pay attention to what is being said. However, the characteristics of Valley girl English, such as vowel shifting, the quotative and non-quotative like, slang, and uptalk demonstrate the assets of a legitimate dialect that is spreading throughout the nation.

The vowel shifting observed in Valley girl English represents a change in language observed in many other American dialects. In a study conducted at the University of California, Berkeley, linguists noted that back vowels are shifting forward in Valley girl English, “front vowels have raised variants in some phonological environments and lowered variants elsewhere” (Bucholtz et. al 125). This vowel shifting has also been observed in dialects in Philadelphia and Detroit (125). Though other dialects are experiencing a vowel shift, people connect the change with Valley girl English. For instance, in “Valley Girl” Zappa satirizes the vowel shift in words such as “super” or “totally,” pronouncing them by fronting the /o/ sound. Do You Speak American?, a book studying various dialect trends across the United States, expands on the UC Berkeley findings by explaining how this vowel shift and other vowel shifts are a part of a larger trend in the United States: “These linguists also found some chain-shifting of vowels resembling William Labov’s Northern Cities Shift around the Great Lakes—black sounding like block” (MacNeil and Cran 161). Characteristics of the Northern Cities Shift, first defined by linguist William Labov, began far before the creation of the Valley girl dialect (38). When characterizing Valley girl English, it remains important to recognize that the vernacular borrows from the vowel shift but does not represent a completely new change in the language. Vowel-shifting, while an important trait in the Valley girl dialect, is not unique to the vernacular despite its cultural association.

The term like, often looked down upon as a meaningless interjection used by the younger generations, also did not originate from Valley girl English. In an article titled “Like and Language Ideology: Disentangling Fact From Fiction,” Alexandra D’Arcy, a professor at the University of Canterbury, calls attention to the myths surrounding like and concentrates on its tangible usage in the language (D’Arcy 386). D’Arcy systematically breaks down various stereotypes surrounding like, including the erroneous belief that the practice began with Valley girls (391). By analyzing many different speech patterns, D’Arcy gathered that the frequency of like usage does not correlate with the beginning of Valley girl English but only heightens with the advent of the dialect (405). Moreover, she points out that the term “Valley Girl” did not even come into existence until the 1980s: “Stated differently, outside its local milieu, “Valley Girl” was not an active model for association, linguistic or otherwise, until after 1980” (404). The assumption that like began with the Valley girls contradicts the fact that the use of like as “discourse marker, a discourse particle, and an adverb of approximation” came into existence far before the creation of the Valley girl dialect (405). In addition, D’Arcy’s identification of like as containing much more meaning than an empty conversation filler or a verbal tic shows the true range of expressions like has in the language. Her analyses also reveal that like has set significations that set out rules of when to use like or not (395). Instead of viewing like as a signal of uncertainty D’Arcy calls to mind that linguistic trends almost always have hidden rules that outsiders do not understand. Although the myths surrounding like attach original usage and a pointless meaning to Valley girl English, there is no logical basis for that assumption.

The use of quotatives such as be like, say, and go, carry a similar connotation as like but have a different purpose. Three scholars from Cornell University studied the phenomenon of be like as a way for speakers to introduce both “inner monologue or direct speech” to add a certain level of emphasis depending on usage (Blyth, et. al 215). After leading a study examining the dialects of a diverse group of people, the researchers came to the conclusion that “be like is functionally versatile and therefore may have more staying power in the lexicon” (225). Without an understanding of the intricacies of quotatives such as be like, listeners misunderstand the intention behind them. They only hear phrases unfamiliar to their vernacular and associate the change with a degradation of the language by younger generations. As with like, the quotatives be like, say, and go do not correlate with the advent of Valley girl English. In fact, some scholars classify the usage of be like as a convergence between Black English Vernacular and White English Vernacular (216). Additionally, say and go offer a much more complex range of expressions than outsiders generally apprehend. Outside listeners often think that go is a synonym for say and fail to see the difference between the two. Scholars notice that “the use of go correlates with only the dramatic use of historical present and direct speech” (216). Although many non-speakers identify the uses of these quotatives as a demeaned and illogical use of the language, the quotatives signify far more to speakers who comprehend the particulars of their vernacular.

Slang also plays a large role in distinguishing Valley girl English. Terms such as those used in the influential 1995 film Clueless characterize the vernacular in the eyes of those who hear and speak it (MacNeil and Cran 157). Although movies and television do not change people’s speech, Clueless does seem to influence Valley girl English, especially in relation to slang, and may act as an exception to this rule (157). Linguists Robert MacNeil and William Cran endeavored to catalog Valley girl slang by conducting a study on teenagers from Irvine (159). After giving the teenagers cameras to record their speech for several days in both personal and formal environments, MacNeil and Cran asked the teens to help them compile a dictionary of the terms they used throughout the footage (159). In this dictionary, MacNeil and Cran notice “Ten of the twenty-two expressions listed above are borrowed from black talk, or, as a student called it, ‘the ghetto fab vernacular that many teens use today’” (161). Just as with the quotative be like, slang terms get appropriated in the Valley girl dialect. This carrying over of linguistic characteristics complicates the current opinion on Valley girl English. Much of the vernacular does not show any original movements in language; however, the dialect does call to attention the changes that are happening. While many correlate slang terms and other linguistic trends to the creation of Valley girl English, this may only be due to the massive media coverage of the dialect.

Uptalk, much like other language developments related to Valley girl English, tends to be overexaggerated by the media and thus labelled as yet another horrible trend led by the younger generations. James Gorman coined the term uptalk in a 1993 New York Times article titled ON LANGUAGE; Like, uptalk? (Warren 6). According to Gorman, uptalk is defined by a rising intonation at the end of a sentence that transforms the sentence into a question (Gorman). Although Gorman correctly defines uptalk, his further account of the trend reveals his bias against the tonal shift: “Nobody knows exactly where uptalk came from. It might have come from California, from Valley Girl talk … Some twentysomethings say uptalk is part of their attitude: cool, ironic, uncommitted” (Gorman). While it seems extremely doubtful that “young twentysomethings” consider uptalk as a part of their “cool, ironic, and uncommitted” attitude, Gorman’s comments certainly reflect the popular perception of uptalk. People interpret uptalk as an act of doubt and stupidity, characteristics also imbued onto Valley girl English. Gorman states later in his article the idea that “Uptalk won’t be uptalk anymore. It will be, like, American English?” (Gorman). While Gorman does not condone the spread of uptalk, he hits on an interesting aspect of the trend. Uptalk is spreading amongst all genders, ages, and areas. While people regularly connect uptalk with Valley girl English, uptalk extends into many other dialects and languages.

People tend to instill negative implications on uptalk, in part due to portrayals in the media and articles like Gorman’s; however, it remains a lasting and prevalent trend. In a book titled Uptalk by Paul Warren, an Associate Professor at Victoria University, Warren thoroughly investigates the mechanics behind uptalk as well as the media’s depiction of the shift. In a sample examining 182 media portrayals of uptalk, Warren noted “a sizable minority (78) were clearly negative or condemning of uptalk … If speaker sex was mentioned, then it was almost always to indicate that uptalk was a typical female trait” (Warren 129). The way the media depicts uptalk creates a general distaste for the intonation which fosters an unhealthy view of the quickly spreading trend. The misrepresentation of uptalk as being a feature only found in young, female speakers shows misrepresentation of a trend that is used by many different types of people, including men and the older generations. While Warren did notice that females and younger people tend to use uptalk with a higher frequency, men and older people use uptalk far more than most people acknowledge (111). Furthermore, rather than defining uptalk as a feature of indecisiveness, Warren suggests that it may indicate “openness, only in this case they are inviting the listener to participate in the conversation, or to indicate their understanding of what has been said. It is used to share information rather than to tell (or to question)” (188). Warren’s findings on the intentions of uptalk challenges negative views on the trend and give a less biased perspective on uptalk as a whole. The confusion around the purpose of uptalk and its association with a small subset of speakers severely understates the real impact of uptalk on modern dialects and people.

Despite the fact that the California dialect finds representation in many songs, movies, and television shows, relatively few scholars have studied the range of dialects in the area. Carmen Fought, a professor of linguistics at Pitzer University, was the first to conduct a study in 2002 to help gain clarity on the dialectology of California (Fought 113). In her study, Fought handed 122 respondents, 112 of them from California and therefore included in the analysis, a blank map of the United States (114). She told the respondents, students in an undergraduate linguistics class, to mark the boundaries between where they thought people starting speaking distinct dialects (114). The methodology that Fought utilizes in her study acts as tool for linguists to help them understand not only how people distinguish different dialects but also how they perceive their own dialect. After examining the maps she received, Fought noticed that “California is associated with good English, but never proper … It seems that California is a state caught between a general aura of desirability and a specific association with negative linguistic stereotypes” (133). The slight distinction between ‘good’ and ‘proper’ reveals the confusion Californians feel about their dialect. Additionally, in perceptual dialectology it has been found that people rate California very highly in respect to ‘correctness’ or ‘politeness’ but rate the Valley Girl dialect as a signal of low intelligence (127). While Californians have the same “local preference factor” as others, they do not see their dialect as something that could be considered ‘correct.’ Although Fought’s study operates under the constraints of a small sample size, the results reveal a significant aspect about the biases Californians hold about their own speech patterns.

Other studies have been conducted since Fought’s that reveal information about the way Californians and non-Californians view dialects. In a study published in the Journal of English Linguistics titled “Hella Nor Cal or Totally So Cal? The Perceptual Dialectology of California,” undergraduate field workers at UC Santa Barbara used the blank map methodology with an included survey to help distinguish how people see their home state’s dialect as well other dialects (Bucholtz et. al 329). The survey also asked respondents to identify the places they thought spoke the best and worst English (329). The results generally showed a high degree of salience in the Los Angeles region, most likely due to the fact that the largest group of respondents identified the Los Angeles area as their home state (338). Researchers also documented that while nonresidents thought they had a greater degree of confidence when labelling California, their responses reflect biases found in the media: “Nevertheless, this higher degree of salience does not necessarily lead to a higher degree of accuracy in the perceptions of nonresidents, which focus on the most stereotypical and highly visible aspects of California’s language and culture” (349). Even if people live and grow up around those who speak Valley girl English or other well publicized California dialects, they still carry the prejudice reflected in popular media about the dialect. Still, despite this data people are still inclined to rate California as speaking ‘good’ English (348). This study and others reveals the role of perceptual dialectology in revealing the perceptions people hold due to the vast influence of media and other cultural phenomena.

The way people think about Valley girl English finds a basis in many facets of popular culture. Popular culture, however, tends to overstate the qualities of Valley girl English and transform the vernacular into something inexorably linked to materialism and superficiality. This presents many issues when attempting to understand the dialect because it fosters an inherent predisposition against its characteristics. In addition, this prejudice causes people to understand Valley girl English as a dialect only spoken by a certain type of person, the Valley girl. This simply does not account for the wide usage of the facets of Valley girl English, such as the quotative be like and uptalk. While one may feel that Valley girl English sounds ‘dumb’ or ‘air-headed,’ its features are not unusual and may even be appropriated from other vernaculars. Furthermore, the changes observed in Valley girl English are growing increasingly apparent in other dialects across the United States. When people dismiss dialect patterns as purposeless and annoying, they fail to recognize the ways in which people utilize the patterns as a valid way of communication. Studies on Valley girl English offer a glimpse into an important dialect trend and call attention to the generally one-sided view of the vernacular in popular media.

Works Cited

    Blyth, Carl, Sigrid Recktenwald, and Jenny Wang. “‘I’m Like, ‘Say What?!’: A New Quotative in American Oral Narrative.” American Speech, 65.3, (1990): 215–227. JSTOR. 19 Feb. 2017.

    Bucholtz, Mary, Nancy Bermudez, Victor Fung, Lisa Edwards, and Rosalva Vargas. “Hella Nor Cal or Totally So Cal? The Perceptual Dialectology of California.” Journal of English Linguistics 35.4 (2007): 325-352. Web. 19 Feb. 2017.

    D’Arcy, Alexandra “Like and Language Ideology: Disentangling Fact From Fiction” American Speech, 82. 4 (2007): 386-418. Web. 20 Feb. 2017.

    Gorman, James. “ON LANGUAGE; Like, Uptalk?” The New York Times. The New York Times, 15 Aug. 1993. Web. 19 Feb. 2017.

    Fought, Carmen. “California Students Perceptions of, You Know, Regions and Dialects?” Handbook of Perceptual Dialectology, Volume 2, edited by Daniel Long and Dennis Preston, John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2002, pp. 113-134.

    Hinton, Leanne, Birch Moonwomon, Sue Bremner, Herb Luthin, Mary Van Clay, Jean Lerner, and Hazel Corcoran. “It’s Not Just the Valley Girls: A Study of California English.” Annual Meeting of the Berkeley Linguistics Society [Online], 13 (1987): 117-128. Web. 28 Feb. 2017.

    MacNeil, Robert, and William Cran. Do You Speak American? Harcourt, Inc, 2005.

    Warren, Paul. Uptalk. Cambridge University Press, 2016.

    Zappa, Frank. “Valley Girl.” Ship Arriving too late to save a drowning witch, Barking Pumpkin Records, 1982.

About Ed Battistella

Edwin Battistella’s latest book Dangerous Crooked Scoundrels was released by Oxford University Press in March of 2020.
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