AT LEAST A FEW of you, dear readers, weren’t yet born thirty years ago when Frank Zappa and his daughter Moon Unit recorded “Valley Girl.” At that time I thought it was a clever piece of work, but that it must be an exaggeration, maybe even a fabrication, of San Fernando Valley speech. I’d never heard anyone talk that way in the small Canadian town where I grew up, and I expected I never would.
For those who are unable to summon this song to mind, I’ll provide you a sampling:
Like, oh my god!
Encino is like so bitchen
There’s like the galleria
And like all these like really great shoe stores
I love going into like clothing stores and stuff
I like buy the neatest mini-skirts and stuff
Its like so bitchen cuz like everybodys like
Its like so bitchen…
Even if you don’t know the song, you know “Valspeak” because you’ve heard someone talk this way very recently. With only some slight alteration — for example excision of the word bitchen — the above passage reproduces exactly how most North American people under the age of thirty now talk. Only last night I was out for fresh air, and I overheard a conversation of two young women which brought to mind the Zappa record of so long ago. How is it that a sub-regional dialect, satirized as the affectation of materialistic airheads, came to be the generational norm? This is, I think, a question worth investigation.
Let’s first dispense with the idea that we are considering only shallow people. There are of course degrees of Valley speech, and at the extreme of proliferation the word like suggests a frivolous character. There is no getting round the fact that it is very hard, if not impossible, to project intelligence while making verbal sausage of the phrases “I was like” and “oh my god that’s so totally.” From this fact alone I infer that part of the taking up of Valley speech (as I’ll choose to call it) must have something to do with not wanting to appear either too intelligent or too confident in one’s assertions. In other words, there may be a democratic impulse at work, and along with this an appeal for group inclusion. Valley speech is now a lingua franca, and can therefore be reasonably depended upon to smooth one’s passage into the crowd.
This general observation however does nothing to explain the specific words which have been taken up with such eagerness. They are:
– oh my god
Also noteworthy, and probably related to what I have said thus far, is the inflection of Valley speech — the phrasing of everything as a question. To achieve this effect, one must raise the pitch of the voice at the end of every sentence. This fits very well into the theory that definite assertions must be avoided in Valley speech, and that speaking this way is above all else about being cool and in no way offending one’s listeners.
Here is where the word like serves a revealing function, and where those who mock its supposedly improper usage overlook an important detail. Like, as a part of speech, can serve both an adjectival and adverbial function. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, like describes something
“In or after the manner of; in the same manner or to the same extent as; as in the case of. Also (const. dat.), in the manner characteristic of. Like that: in that manner. It is a mimetic.”
The giveaway is “mimetic,” for this act of imitation is exactly the use into which like is habitually pressed. You must have noticed, as I have, that like almost invariably occurs alongside speaking of (non-present) others:
And I was like, “What are you talking about?” Oh my god, I can’t believe how like totally ridiculous he is. And he’s like, “Well, I don’t know, I just thought it was okay.” Whatever, that’s like so lame.
Nothing quite promotes the solidarity of present company as does setting up an absent buffoon for all to heap with calumny. It is this note of easy contempt, coupled with the inflections and vocabulary of easygoing camaraderie, that one over and again discerns. Considered as a speech act, this demotic way of talking has evolved to allow the frisson of being at once callous and jolly, inclusive and exclusive, judgmental and obsequious, and an overall delightful stabber of backs. I am not suggesting that this is always the case, but just as the words swell, attaboy, jeepers and chap set apart the generation born around 1920, so too the preponderance of like and whatever tells us something about people born around 1980. It is clear, to me at least, that the usual explanation (dimness or vapidity) is insufficient, and that there must be more going on than has thus far been unearthed.