The Valley-Girl Lift

I thought the Valley Girl thing was dead and gone. After the movie Clueless (an astonishingly good, if bizarre, rendition of Jane Austen’s Emma) had its run, and commentators had exhausted themselves venting over the injection of the word “like” in between every spoken word (I’m talking about the late 90s through, oh, say, 2007, rather than the Bohemian love of the word “like” in the 1950s), English seemed bored with the whole thing, and on the road to recovery. Sentences, it seemed, were beginning to return to a calmer state — less hysterical, less frenzied, less packed with filler words and meaningless inflections.

So it was with deep shock that I heard myself lift my voice at the end of a declarative sentence the other day. In class, no less! Professor Fendrich, who never went through the “like” phase, and for whom the word “like” is the least-favorite preposition, had stood in front of 20 students and said, without irony, “This part of the project is required?” As soon as I heard that lift at the end of the sentence, I thought, “Who said those words?” Perhaps the sky would fall. But nothing happened. No one giggled. No one even blinked.

I’ve been told that Terry Southern attributed the source of the Valley-Girl Lift at the end of sentences to southern women. Saying, “I’m from Dallas?” while stretching out the word “Dallas” and lifting the pitch helped the listener understand that part of being a woman included not being certain about one’s home town. In general, I find that turning declarative statements into questions reveals an unexplainable lack of confidence in one’s opinions and a radical uncertainty about one’s place in the world.

Earlier in the week, I listened to a couple of lectures given by colleagues, in their 30s or 40s, lift their voices on several occasions at the end of declarative sentences. They’re hardly alone. Not only do I hear that wretched, habitual lift at the end of declarative sentences in many of my students, and on the street, I hear it even from newscasters — especially, but not exclusively, from women. The Valley-Girl Lift is leeching from the speech of the young into the speech of the old.

Lifting the voice at the end of an English sentence is supposed to be an indication that you are asking a question for which you expect an answer. In Valley-Girl-speak, however, it signifies nothing other than that you are a Valley-Girl type — i.e., an empty-headed clotheshorse for whom the mall represents the height of culture. Although Valley-Girl “like” may finally be fading from speech patterns,” the Valley-Girl Lift is alive and well. As for me, if I hear myself do that wretched lift even one more time, I think I’ll give in and go shopping.

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