We all know her. She’s the obnoxious girl who says “like” every four seconds while ordering a grande retro iced sugar-free vanilla latte with soy milk. Her voice draws attention to itself: Its pitch is abnormally high, and her statements sound like questions. She is the Valley Girl.
Over the past few decades, the speech pattern of young, upper-middle-class white girls from the San Fernando Valley has evolved into a full-blown accent, or even a dialect. You can hear it all over the English-speaking world: Valleyspeak. People love to hate on it. But have you ever asked yourself why you can’t stand it?
An accent is more than how a person talks. It’s also a marker of social identity. The way you speak can say a lot about where you come from, where you grew up, and, perhaps most important, how much traditional academic education you’ve received. But many of the assumptions we make about people based on their accents are wrong.
Consider the British accent. Most of us are familiar with the “BBC accent,” also known as Received Pronunciation or Queen’s English. Many people consider this to be the most elegant speech pattern in the world.
Two hundred years ago, Queen’s English didn’t exist. British citizens and American colonists had very similar accents. This late-18th-century speech pattern is closer to today’s American accent than the current British one. In fact, Shakespeare’s plays tend to sound better when the actors use an American accent because he wrote his characters with this voice in mind.
After Britain lost to the colonies, many British citizens looked for ways to distinguish themselves from the traitors of the Crown, including changing the way they spoke. Upper-class southern Londoners led this dissociation movement, which was only a small part of the transition to the BBC accent we now know.
Valleyspeak is special because it’s the first accent made popular by mainstream media.
The mainstreaming of this accent took off at the beginning of the 19th century, during the Industrial Revolution. People with low birth rank who’d become wealthy thanks to this new economy wanted to assert their new status by looking and sounding the part. They began to adopt non-rhotic pronunciation, dropping the Rs from most words (“cah” instead of “car”). This speech pattern spread across almost all of Britain. It is now a staple of the standard British accent, which is taught in most English classrooms in non-English speaking countries. It’s the accent you hear over loudspeakers in the Paris Métro. It’s also the accent you hear on American television shows to convey that the speaker is highly educated.
The mainstreaming of the posh, elegant, refined British accent we love was borne out of mimicking people who seemed to have it all: upper-class British men. Similarly, the mainstreaming of the annoying, grating, irritating Valley Girl accent we hate was borne out of mimicking people who seemed to have it all: upper-middle-class Californian women.