In Defense of the Valley Girl
We all know her. She’s the obnoxious girl who says “like” every four seconds while ordering a grande retro iced sugar-free vanilla latte with soy milk. Her voice draws attention to itself: Its pitch is abnormally high, and her statements sound like questions. She is the Valley Girl.
Over the past few decades, the speech pattern of young, upper-middle-class white girls from the San Fernando Valley has evolved into a full-blown accent, or even a dialect. You can hear it all over the English-speaking world: Valleyspeak. People love to hate on it. But have you ever asked yourself why you can’t stand it?
An accent is more than how a person talks. It’s also a marker of social identity. The way you speak can say a lot about where you come from, where you grew up, and, perhaps most important, how much traditional academic education you’ve received. But many of the assumptions we make about people based on their accents are wrong.
Consider the British accent. Most of us are familiar with the “BBC accent,” also known as Received Pronunciation or Queen’s English. Many people consider this to be the most elegant speech pattern in the world.
Two hundred years ago, Queen’s English didn’t exist. British citizens and American colonists had very similar accents. This late-18th-century speech pattern is closer to today’s American accent than the current British one. In fact, Shakespeare’s plays tend to sound better when the actors use an American accent because he wrote his characters with this voice in mind.
After Britain lost to the colonies, many British citizens looked for ways to distinguish themselves from the traitors of the Crown, including changing the way they spoke. Upper-class southern Londoners led this dissociation movement, which was only a small part of the transition to the BBC accent we now know.
Valleyspeak is special because it’s the first accent made popular by mainstream media.
The mainstreaming of this accent took off at the beginning of the 19th century, during the Industrial Revolution. People with low birth rank who’d become wealthy thanks to this new economy wanted to assert their new status by looking and sounding the part. They began to adopt non-rhotic pronunciation, dropping the Rs from most words (“cah” instead of “car”). This speech pattern spread across almost all of Britain. It is now a staple of the standard British accent, which is taught in most English classrooms in non-English speaking countries. It’s the accent you hear over loudspeakers in the Paris Métro. It’s also the accent you hear on American television shows to convey that the speaker is highly educated.
The mainstreaming of the posh, elegant, refined British accent we love was borne out of mimicking people who seemed to have it all: upper-class British men. Similarly, the mainstreaming of the annoying, grating, irritating Valley Girl accent we hate was borne out of mimicking people who seemed to have it all: upper-middle-class Californian women.
Fast-forward to 1982. A lot has changed, and Hollywood won’t shut up about it. New films promote new slang and very particular intonations. Thanks to singer-songwriter Frank Zappa, Valleyspeak skyrocketed in California and spread all over the United States.
This occurs much to Zappa’s chagrin, I might add, because he intended this song to mock the slang and behavior of Valley Girls. But as the internet has proven time and again, calling out something on a big platform will eventually spread the thing like wildfire regardless of original intent. The consequences can be unpredictable.
I once read a popular Tumblr post that asked, “When did we, as a people, start to use ‘I was like’ instead of ‘I said’?” It garnered hundreds of thousands of notes.
Mainstream media followed the trend. The movie Valley Girl came out in 1983. In the TV show Square Pegs, which debuted in 1982, Tracy Nelson played Jennifer DiNuccio, a typical Valley Girl. Classics like Clueless (1995) and Mean Girls (2004) have casts comprised of, primarily, Valley Girls. And let’s not forget about the Disney Channel. An entire generation grew up with this medium, which broadcasts shows with characters who use Valleyspeak. You can thank them when you catch yourself using “like” as a one-size-fits-all grammatical connector.
Eventually, Valleyspeak became more than a trend — the media has been using the accent for decades, so long that it is now a standard. Valleyspeak is special because it’s the first accent made popular by mainstream media. Still, Zappa’s scorn endures, and negative social connotations persist.
Millions of people still use ‘like’ and raise their voices at the end of a declarative sentence as an unconscious celebration of the culture in which they grew up.
Most of the famous characters who spoke with this accent were portrayed as obnoxious. It was part of the original Valley Girl stereotype—superficial, highly made-up, and loud upper-middle-class white women gossiping at The Galleria. If I could hear them today, I would probably ask someone to literally gag me with a spoon.
I’m a French student, and last year I was the secretary of English Club Bordeaux Montaigne, a student association that promotes English language and culture. At the end of August, we welcomed incoming Californian students as part of a buddy program. It was a blast. Once they were gone, we chatted among ourselves. I overheard a friend say, “You know the girl you were talking to? I don’t know what you were talking about, but she sounded so uninteresting and obnoxious I just wanted her to go away.” The speech pattern is so powerful that its social connotations transcend borders.
Black-ish is a sitcom about an upper-middle-class African-American family living in a predominantly white neighborhood. The show tackles issues like police brutality and racism via intergenerational discussions between family members. In the first episode of the second season, the N-word is discussed after an eight-year-old son uses it while singing Kanye West’s “Gold Digger” at his school talent show. The school expels him.
Family members react accordingly. The family’s grandparents think no one should use the N-word (even though they use it among themselves — mostly to insult each other). They maintain that the generation that followed theirs opened the floodgates with hip-hop and rap music, and now everyone (including white people) feels entitled to say the N-word.
The boy’s father argues that his parents’ generation used the word to express self-hatred and that his generation reclaimed it as a positive term. He agrees with his father, however, that non-black people should never use it.
The boy’s sister says that even her white friends use the word, and she’s okay with it. She insists they don’t mean any harm.
I won’t spoil how this episode ends, but it’s a very well-told story.
The stakes may not be as high with Valleyspeak, but the situation is similar. Older generations despise this accent because they find it synonymous with the ills of superficiality and conspicuous consumption.
Language is a never-ending race and culture is always in the lead.
Younger people grew up with it, however, thanks to the mainstream media that made it cool. Millions of people still use “like” and raise their voices at the end of declarative sentences as an unconscious celebration of the culture in which they grew up. They are not themselves superficial any more than those who speak BBC English are haughty. Rather, they are acknowledging their roots, and signaling a shared cultural heritage.
And now, we are living with a generation of people who know none of this. They were born hearing this speech pattern. To them, it’s not necessarily an accent. It’s just how they talk. The same goes for those who speak with the BBC accent.
And, as always, anew wave of critics claim our culture is over. They insist that most people can’t string two sentences together without sounding like total idiots, and that millennials keep making up words that don’t mean anything.
It’s a very popular argument, even among those who are part of the generation that is supposedly ruining the world. After all, every generation believes itself to be wiser than the next. (Even I hated on fidget spinners for a while.)
But when it comes to language, it’s always the next generation that keeps things exciting. We never stay put; we never abide by the status quo or dictionaries. And we should celebrate that.
The belief that people should sound a certain way—or should use only the words in the dictionary—is outdated. Language is a never-ending race and culture is always in the lead. Language needs an update from time to time, and we’ve always been here to deliver. We’ve been doing this for thousands of years already, and we will continue.