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Like Totally Cool Lexicon, Dude

Experts say the Valley should be proud of the dialect that was born there.

October 29, 2002|Kristina Sauerwein | Times Staff Writer

If the San Fernando Valley manages to break away from Los Angeles with next week's vote, it would redraw the political geography of Southern California and introduce a host of new political leaders to the region.

But while the Valley would have to start many institutions anew, it would begin life with a culture and even a dialect all its own.

That is a mixed blessing for the Valley. The quintessential American suburb gave birth to the "Valley Girl," and for a generation that icon has symbolized Southern California's shallow materialism. Today, when young people refer to a look or an idea as "so 818," it's a reference to the Valley's area code, and it's not meant kindly.

If those cultural identifiers are derisive, though, they also are recognizable and unique to the community -- which is more than most suburban areas can claim in terms of cultural impact.

"How many other parts of the country can set an international trend?" asked Kevin Starr, the state's librarian and a USC professor. "The Valley should be proud of the Valley Girl."

Mel Wilson, a candidate for mayor of a new Valley city, agrees.

"People say we have no culture here," he said. "But the Valley Girl vocabulary is part of our culture. It sets us apart."

*

Musicians Frank and Moon Unit Zappa catapulted Vals to fame in their 1982 hit song "Valley Girl." In it, Moon Unit, Frank's teenage daughter, imitated classmates talking about shopping at the Sherman Oaks Galleria, visiting the orthodontist, cutting toenails and being forced to do the dishes:

"It's like so gross. . .

Like all the stuff like sticks to the plates,

And it's like, it's like somebody else's food, y'know

It's like grody,

Grody to the max.

I'm sure.

It's like really nauseating,

Like barf out.

Gag me with a spoon."

Improbably, those lyrics helped identify and extend the Valley's international image.

From Tarrytown, N.Y., to Tokyo, teenagers sought to become Vals, middle- to upper-class suburban girls who stretched their vowels, ended sentences in high pitches and made up words such as tripendicular (as in, "Like, check out that tooe-taa-leee tri-pen-dic-u-lar dude at the Hot Dog on a Stick.").

Like other Valley Girls, Christina Conley wore her hair permed and teased and her sweaters off the shoulder. She listened to the Stray Cats, and giggled lines such as: "Grody to the max, to the big max, to the quarter-pounder."

Today, Conley has outgrown her teenage mannerisms. She is an articulate 36-year-old with shiny, straight hair. She left a successful career in pharmaceutical sales to become a married stay-at-home mom on a leafy street in Pasadena. She gently scolds her nieces for using "like" too much.

"It took one of my nieces 12 'likes' to get to the point," Conley said, as she drove her Saturn past the Northridge Mall, where she and her friend, Heidi Jorgenson, used to walk, talk and shop. "But I know it can be fun. It's like Valley Girls put the Valley on the map."

She paused. Then laughed.

"I'm, like, totally, a Valley Girl."

*

Others have found "like" a hard habit to break, too. In fact, the word has become an object of popular and academic interest.

Even Oprah Winfrey sounded like a Valley girl one day on her afternoon talk show.

" ... And I'm like, 'Well, which one is she? Which one is she?' OK.," Winfrey said during a show last February. "Because she was like, you were like another girl. And she had on jeans, and she was blond, and somebody else, and I was like, 'Which one is she?' "

Winfrey and other "like" lovers have nothing to be ashamed of, according to linguists who study Valley vernacular, also called mallspeak. "It's a strong, powerful little word," said Muffy E.A. Siegel, an English professor who teaches linguistics at Temple University in Philadelphia. She published a study on the word last summer in the Journal of Semantics.

"Like" is a discourse particle, a term linguists use to describe words that fill in a sentence, such as "well," "uh" and "oh."

"There are many ways to use like, but the meaning is basically the same: I'm going to say something, but don't hold me to it," Siegel said. " ... No other word in the English language does so many things."

For instance, linguists cite:

* Like as a hedge, an approximation invoked when someone is unsure: "I'll finish writing my article by, like, 10."

* Like as a paraphrase, a verbal indirect quote: "She said she wants to, like, paint pretty murals on freeway overpasses."

* Like as a substitute for said, introducing a verbal quote: "She's like, 'I want a refund.' "

* Like signaling an exaggeration: "She has, like, a million shoes."

* Like as a time buyer, used when the speaker is thinking on the fly: "I don't have my, like, homework because, like, my bichon frise, like, ate it."

Siegel's study found that, the more time people took to consider a question, the less likely they were to rely on "like." Boys used the word less because they tend to pause before responding.

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