department of lingustics

A Defense of Valley Girl Linguistics

Photo: Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection

People love to get judgmental and dismissive over certain speech patterns often used by young women — i.e. Lake Bell’s hatred for vocal fry, or a disdain for those who toss “I feel like” into every sentence. But as a chronic abuser of vocal tics that infantilize or “dumb me down,” I’m always sympathetic to the girls who employ these same linguistic characteristics. Maybe I just watched Clueless too many times as a child, or maybe that’s just like, the way I speak, and it doesn’t have to mean anything. Who’s to say really?

In the Chronicle of Higher Education, a linguist and English professor, Allan Metcalf, writes a surprising academic-ish defense of the OG “dismiss me misogynistic world” vocal tic “like,” derived from Valleyspeak or, language of the bubbleheaded.

The Oxford English Dictionary says that “like” is “often used to convey the speaker’s response to something, or to introduce segments of an ongoing conversation between two or more speakers. Sometimes also used to introduce a gesture or facial expression evocative of the speaker’s feelings.”

Metcalf agrees, admitting that we need “like” in moments where we want to “show as well as tell.”

Like allows us to introduce not just what we said or thought, but how. Instead of merely saying words, ‘like’ with ‘be’ allows us to enact the scene. And that, I think, is because it’s an extension of a longstanding use of “like” to indicate manner: March came in like a lion, He raged like a madman.

So maybe Valleyspeak serves a linguistic purpose, other than to signify insecurity or an inability to form thought. Well according to the New Republic, our use of “like” is rarely so highbrow and, as far as the over-45 set goes, is a huge annoyance. In fact, it makes us sound bad to the two types of people we should really want to impress — our bosses and parents — in addition to the whole of Western civilization.

But really, like, whatever.

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A Defense of Valley Girl Linguistics