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My CCS Div I, Continued: Sociolinguistics of Like

My boss Abby asks me today if I’m a Valley Girl. Yes, I say, and then reconsider, and say No.

There are reasons to say Yes, most of them simply linguistic. A former Humboldt County-area boyfriend of mine, visiting my hometown for the first time, remarked with alarm that I turned into a Valley Girl when I returned from college. I do lapse into “like”ness, and my speech does speed up, when I get back to the Land of Smog. I’d like to note, however, that I know kids from Jersey who sound more like your stereotypical Valley Girl than anyone I knew back in Pasadena, and anyone who’s paying attention will notice that kids in the Bronx and rural Maine now say “like” as much as anyone else; it’s more a youth thing than anything else.

I have been known to call myself a Valley Girl, more as a regional identifier than anything else. I had this dumb thing about how I was a double Valley Girl because I also went to college in Massachusetts’ Pioneer Valley. I generally told people there I came from LA, to spare the poor ignorant New England micro-mini-state residents from asking whether I hung out on the Haight; saying I was a Valley Girl made it clearer that I hadn’t even been in LA proper. But even in that sense it’s not geographically correct: Pasadena is in the San Gabriel Valley, and if I remember correctly the Valley in question is the San Fernando Valley.

All that aside, something snagged in my mind when I was talking to Abby. When she asked why I said No, I told her that I went to private school. “Well, weren’t there Valley Girls in private schools?” she asked, wrinkling her forehead in confusion.

And it came back to me, suddenly, that Valley Girl was my classmates’ shorthand for White Trash. All of us spoke quickly and our speech was crawling with Likes and we tended to pronounce R-E-A-L-L-Y as “rilly,” but we made the distinction anyway, distancing ourselves from people we knew did not speak proper English. We fully expected to grow up to speak the standard radio English of our parents. Most of us knew how to tone it down and talk right.

Parents would even attempt to get us to code-switch. I specifically remember one time my dad and stepmom drove me and my friend Michelle to music camp. Michelle and I hadn’t seen each other all summer, and so we were speaking excitedly. Dad and Jill were giggling a little in the front seat, and out of nowhere Jill calls out, “Forty two.” Forty two? “You’ve said ‘like’ forty two times since we got in the car,” she pointed out, with inordinate glee. That settled us down quick.

I did my cognitive sciences distribution requirement at Hampshire on the syntax of the word “like.” I went back just now to see if I’d mentioned the social ramifications of the word, but aside for railing against prescriptivist grammar I hadn’t, probably because I didn’t do most of my thinking about code-switching, language, and power until later that year when I started working with Martin Espada.

I think what jarred this thought loose was spending this last weekend among some people who were working on reclaiming the word “redneck,” thinking about the ways that people make cultural others along class lines. Also, being with the Second Maine Militia I was blissfully bathed in the Maine accent, which just fascinates me. I spent maybe half an hour transfixed, listening to Carolyn Chute’s (apparently, that’s “Choot,” not “Shoot”) husband, Michael, talk about the “guvuhment.” Then I spent the rest of the weekend calling James and Jen “Deah” and finding excuses to talk about rhubaaab and baaahns. I’m not making fun, really, I swear; I’m just cutting my teeth on new sounds for the sheer joy of it.

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