By JAN HOFFMAN
Are you still making fun of young women for talking like Valley Girls?
Do you assume that because their statements end in a hesitant, rising quaver (“My name is Brittany?”) they are shallow, scattered or uncertain? Even that they sound — how to say this politely? is there any way? — intellectually your inferior?
Is there nuance hidden inside “Valley Girl speak” — and is it used exclusively by women?
For years, sociologists and linguists have studied that lilt, referring to it as “uptalk” or “high-rising intonation.” They found its presence in large pockets throughout the English-speaking world — Australia? England? New Zealand? Some date it to the 1950s, others say it is centuries old.
In America, it became popularized during the 1980s as Valley Girl Speak, presumably inspired by Frank Zappa’s hit 1982 song “Valley Girl,” a derisive reference to the young white women of California’s San Fernando Valley who spoke it as their own dialect.
Sure, the Valley Girls at the new Sherman Oaks Galleria Mall on Ventura Boulevard were white, but they were women (or pre-women) so that means noticing anything about them is ist.
In reality, uptalking, which happened in a lot of places (Minnesota, Canada, Canton, Dixie, etc.), was just one small part of the rich insanity of Valley Girl speech. Let's go to the videotape:
Films like “Heathers” and “Clueless” perpetuated and parodied the stereotype of the speech and its purported lifestyle.
The researchers gave the speakers two tasks: using a map to give directions to a listener, and describing a sitcom clip they had just watched.
Generally, the women did use uptalk almost twice as often as men, with their rises beginning later in a sentence and hitting higher pitches. But even in making a simple, declarative statement such as, “My appointment is at 9 o’clock,” which a non-uptalker (downtalker?) might end with a falling intonation, the men and women in this group used rises with similar frequency.
When giving directions, a non-uptalker would use a declarative sentence, without a rising inflection. But uptalkers did use rises, as if they were implicitly asking the listener to confirm that they were being understood: “Go all the way to the right in the middle where it says Canyon Hills?” Both the men and women in the study used uptalk 100 percent of the time in these so-called “confirming” statements.
Uptalk, the researchers found, could also serve a strategic purpose through a technique known as “floor-holding,” in which the speaker, anticipating an interruption by the listener, tries to stave it off by using a rising tone at the end of a statement. Floor-holding is the vocal equivalent of holding up your palm, as if to say, “Wait, I’m not finished!”
In the study, women spoke with the floor-holding rise nearly 60 percent of the time: “O.K., so go toward Warren” (pronounced as a high-rising “Waa—REN?”). Men used it only 28 percent of the time, tending instead to maintain steady voices, in a plateau. Amalia Arvaniti, a co-author of the study who is now head of the English language and linguistics department at the University of Kent in England, said, “It could indicate that young women were generally interrupted more than men and so it’s a defense mechanism.”
Or it could be that young women like to talk more and thus use strategies to hold the floor. Or it could be that they develop insider lingo to exclude outsiders.
Or maybe it was fun.
Consider two similar sentences. The downtalking version:
I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.
That's kind of a conversation stopper.
It's really not all that conducive to either the listeners or the speaker saying anything further, other than maybe, "When I hear that whistle blowing, I hang my head and cry."
The uptalking version:
I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die, you know?
Presumably, the uptalker has lots more to say about himself beyond that incident in Reno, and if he flags, he's expecting his listeners to jump in to encourage him to tell them more with their own uptalking interjections like "Really?"
I am become Death? The destroyer of worlds, you know?
I was raised in the mid-west and moved to Hollywood in 1973 when I was 14 years. A year later I moved to Sylmar, in the San Fernando Valley. I knew kids from all over the valley, and yes, girls there did uptalk different than I'd ever heard before, even in Hollywood. It was much more pervasive among the more affluent neighborhoods in the South Valley like Encino, Tarzana and Woodland Hills, but it crept North, into Granada Hills and Northridge, even into Sylmar which was still somewhat rural at the time.
The San Fernando Valley back then was like that Bedouin village that's so inbred that it has high rates of deafness, and therefore the deaf children had enough other deaf children around to make up their own sign language. The Valley was the same thing (minus the deafness, inbreeding, and camels): if you get enough kids together, they'll develop their own ways of communicating.
By the way, here is the 1953 song "Crescent City Blues" by Gordon Jenkins and sung by Beverly Mahr. (The song follows some scene-setting talk -- it was part of a proto-concept album.) "Crescent City Blues" resembles "Folsom Prison Blues" to the tune of the $75,000 settlement Cash paid Jenkins in the 1970s. But the melodic differences between the two songs -- chiefly in the extreme downtalking that ends Cash's choruses -- are illustrative of male and female personality differences: