Sisterhood Blog

The Redemption of Valley Girl Speak

By Elissa Strauss

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IMDB // The Valley girl characters Cher Horowitz and Dionne Davenport in “Clueless”

Like, yes. Like totally. Like finally. The Valley girls of the world have been redeemed.

In what I hope is the last and final word on girl speak, the New York Times recently ran an oped by prominent linguist and literature professor John McWhorter in which he makes a case for the use of “like” and “totally.”

He speaks of the nearly universal sense that our language is being eroded by text-friendly grammar, pop music slang, and, last but not least, women like me who, like, totally say “like” a lot. And “totally.” As McWhorter sees it, the proliferation of “like” has actually made our language more sophisticated and polite because it reveals a degree of consideration and subjectivity from the speaker. McWhorter writes:

“‘Like’ often functions to acknowledge objection while underlining one’s own point. To say, ‘This is, like, the only way to make it work,’ is to implicitly recognize that this news may be unwelcome to the hearer, and to soften the blow by offering one’s suggestion discreetly swathed in a garb of hypothetical-ness.

As for “totally,” well it totally does something similar. The phrase “contains an implication: that someone has said otherwise, or that the chances of it may seem slim at first glance but in fact aren’t. As with “like,” “totally” tracks and nods to the opinions of others. It’s totally civilized.”

I was raised in the San Fernando Valley in the 80s by a bunch of transplants from Queens, New York. This is all to say, I never stood a chance at blending in, speech-wise at least, with any prep school crowds. As I have written about before, in my 20s I tried to cleanse myself of this verbiage, mostly of the many “likes” and “totallys” that naturally pepper my speech. I had been told, by more than one older white man on more than one occasion, that my natural way of speaking made me sound less intelligent. All the while, however, I suspected there was something unfair, if not wrong, about this widespread condemnation of Valley girl speak. I knew that when I said “like” it wasn’t because I was stupid or insecure, but rather because it gave me a way to signal that I was thinking out loud, had yet to draw any conclusions and was open to other approaches or opinions on the topic. I hadn’t thought about in terms of messaging subjectivity, but that is exactly what I was trying to message: I think, like, one thing, you might think another, and that is totally cool. How totally civil is that!

I eventually got over the whole Pygmalioning myself thing, and stopped worrying so much about sounding one way or another. (Hooray for one’s 30s.) So glad to hear an argument that says I am better for it.


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