The study of linguistics or language has been under the microscope for quite some time now. Our ability as human beings to interpret and communicate with each other has astoundingly evolved over centuries with improvement and declination as barriers on our paths to progression. Language and linguistics say a lot about a person and in some particular areas it generalizes a certain demographic of people. The way we speak, what we speak about, and how we speak to others phonates who we are as individuals or as a body. Language also measures intelligence and influences which governs us. Different languages separate regions, various dialects divide natives or foreigners, terminology opens the doors to a wide range of careers and opportunities and slang transcends into everyday conversation whether it is at the dinner table or with a random stranger. There is no doubt that language is generally a deep realm of subject matter but where exactly can individual linguistics be improved? In 2014 it has become apparent that great vocality and strong vocabulary have slowly deteriorated interpersonal communication much like the obsession of smart technology such as the iPhone and Galaxy 4S. From field observations alone, the use of similes in American English, the murmur of “um” or “uh,” and the repetitive habitude of adjectives such as “totally” or “grody to the max” as referred by young starlets of the 1980s and 1990s, are what steers potential employers and suitors away from this particular demographic. Since its inception during the early 1980s, sociologists and linguists have contentedly studied that range of lilt, dubbing the speaking pattern as “uptalk” or “high-rising intonation.” The form of vernacular is found frequently in spacious pockets throughout the English-speaking world which includes Australia, the United Kingdom and New Zealand. Some scholars have verified the sociolect register has dated back as far as the 1950s, while others have claimed it is nearly centuries old.
In United States, it became popularized during the 1980s as “valleyspeak” was presumably inspired by experimental musician Frank Zappa’s hit 1982 record, “Valley Girl,” a derisive reference to the young white women of California’s San Fernando Valley who spoke it as their very own dialect. Major Hollywood films like Heathers and Clueless perpetuated and parodied the stereotype of the speech and its purported lifestyle. But scholars have found that the rising inflection ultimately suggests a range of nuanced meanings in different geographical areas and conversational contexts.
Entering the new millennium valleyspeak has intensified in all facets of culture, however the reception of the speech pattern has become predominantly negative in recent years. Scholars have clearly identified the traits and behaviors spread across North America, metamorphosed into a caricature of unapologetically spoiled “ditzes” and “airheads” more consumed with excessive shopping, personal appearance and maintaining social statuses as opposed to intellectual development and personal achievement. Sadly, this form of sociolect is commonly associated to women in which the term “dumb blonde” or “Essex girl” have evolved into a stereotypical perception featured in American popular culture.
Now, while the image and the form of sociolect are relatively harmless it is no laughing matter when this lifestyle threatens job security or opportunity in the corporate world especially due to the persistent usage of the word “like.” While the word itself is a simile that bridges comparison, it is inappropriately misused in sentence structures and conversation. In the 1995 film Clueless, this specific lingo is spoken by the parody’s central protagonist, Cher Horowitz, played by Alicia Silverstone. Silverstone portrays a good-natured, but rather superficial high school girl who is attractive, popular, and extremely wealthy. The character’s simplistic dialogue consists primarily of valleyspeak mumbo jumbo. For an example, in one of the film’s iconic scenes, Silverstone’s character tries contriving a full-scale response using uptalk:
”So, like, right now for example. Like the Haitians need to come to America. But some people like are all, ‘What about the strain on our resources?’ Well it’s like when I had this garden party for my father’s birthday, right? I put R.S.V.P. ’cause it was a sit-down dinner. But some people came that, like, did not R.S.V.P. I was like totally buggin’. I had to haul a** to the kitchen, redistribute the food, and squish in extra place settings. But, like, by the end of the day it was, like, the more the merrier. And so if the government could just, like, get to the kitchen, rearrange some things, we could certainly party with the Haitians. And in conclusion, may I please remind you it does not say R.S.V.P. on the Statue of Liberty. Thank you very much.”
Now doesn’t that annoy the heck out of you? Silverstone’s character used the word “like” approximately ten times and neither usage was correct in explaining her ordeal. As painful as it may sound, while valleyspeak isn’t physically or mentally corrosive it certainly depicts a male or female as being less intelligent which may prove detrimental given the implications. If that form of sociolect were to be used specifically in a crucial presentation for a company in attempt to encourage future clientele, he or she may find their credibility and reliability tarnished from the start. Then again, many who use this type of jargon may not even avast the initial career interview.
Now researchers at the University of California, San Diego, who wanted to learn more about when and how local speakers use uptalk, have done a close acoustical analysis of 23 Southern Californians from diverse backgrounds, ages 18 to 22, including 11 men. Exchanging the derogatory label valleyspeak for the relatively neutral “California English,” they found that both men and women persistently use uptalk, although with some gender-based differences.
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 do use uptalk almost twice as often as men, with their rises beginning later in a sentence and hitting higher pitches. However even in making a simple, declarative statement such as, “My appointment is at 9 o’clock,” which a non-uptalker or 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.
Because the research analyzed vocal patterns, it did not address whether men are using uptalk because they picked it up from women. Moreover, linguists and sociologists disagree about the extent to which, at least in Southern California, it began as “girl talk.” Women do appear to use it more than men, although there’s no hard proof for that. Nor is there consensus about when men began using it, though certainly in popular entertainment, women have been ridiculed far more often than men for uptalking.
Researchers continue to puzzle over the myriad relationships between gender and speech. Last year, Thomas J. Linneman, a sociologist at The College of William and Mary, studied 100 episodes of the television show Jeopardy, noting that male and female contestants used uptalk, over all, about 37 percent of the time.
In a study published last year in Gender and Society, he found that, “Men use uptalk more when surrounded by women contestants, and when correcting a woman contestant after she makes an incorrect response.” He concluded, “The more successful a man is, the less likely he is to use uptalk; the more successful a woman is, the more likely she is to use uptalk.”
There’s even the possibility that uptalk is now so widely used that its disdainful stereotype will disappear, its intonations lingering as a kind of regional accent, the California version of a Southern drawl, however, some researchers note that American uptalkers are not confined to the West Coast. Perhaps some of the negative perceptions of uptalk may be driven by generational divides, but I digress. Will this linguistical trend fade away in the years to come? – It is highly unlikely. As long materialism and social media remain in effect and popular lingo and proverbial slang exist on the same playing field, I’m afraid the abundance of “like” will only grow in numbers. The only way to completely abolish the word “like” from our vocabulary is to keep learning and keep engrossing ourselves in our education but sadly in this day of age, that my dear reader is only what is to referred as a pipe dream.
Drew Mattiola is a third-year student majoring in communication studies. He can be reached at RM814408@wcupa.edu.