The valley girl, the vocal fry and the signifyin’ monkey: Rethinking the Californian accent as possibly communicative genius

By Nick Dilonardo

It happens to me while I’m taking orders at Starbucks. I stand there, prepared to write on the cup: do they want a mocha? a latte? Most likely, it’ll be nonfat and sugar-free. I wait, and the answer comes: “I’d like a skinny vanilla latte?”

It’s a simple answer to a simple question. The hilarity comes in how it’s answered. Somewhere nearing the last syllable, a guttural inflection intervenes. Somewhere in the middle of the pretty girl across the counter ordering her coffee, her voice has inflected, simulating what has become known as a California cliche: the valley girl.

But the valley has grown far and wide. The technical term for this strange occurrence at the end of a sentence is “vocal fry.” It occurs, as Peggy Klaus for the New York Times notes, when one answers a question with what sounds like a statement, inflected to ask a question.

“Many women have also adopted an upward vocal inflection at the end of sentences, a regrettable characteristic popularized by the Valley Girl,” Klaus wrote. “It turns a strong declarative statement into a question, conveying weakness, uncertainty and a request for approval.”

Upon reading this, the strangeness of those moments behind the counter became somewhat more clear. It at least put words to the oddness of a woman ordering a latte, and at the same time, asking for one like it’s a question. For me, it brings to mind the infamous Saturday Night Live skit “The Californians” in which the very word avocado and a boy named Troy are the punchlines. It’s not what they say, it’s how they say it. “Oh my god, Troy?”

I sat on the tram up from the West Lot, and I heard a girl talking. She was speaking to her friend about the movie “Silver Linings Playbook,” specifically Bradley Cooper’s role in the film. The friend, who had not seen the film, vigorously inquired as to Cooper’s role, for, as she noted, he’s a total hottie. Dismayed however she was when she learned that Cooper did not play his hot self in the film, but rather the victim of mental illness.

She who had seen the film tried to communicate her disappointment to her friend in the most politically correct way possible, perhaps conscious of her words being heard on the tram. She settled on saying simply that, in the film, Cooper was, relative to his other films, “different.” She accented or fried her pronunciation of “different” in the way in which Klaus described earlier.

The use-value of the vocal fry is that it helps establish community. Community is achieved when you and I say something, and we both understand that to which you or I refer when you or I say a particular word. You say “tree,” and I think of something wooden, green leaved and bushy, perhaps. You say “chair” and conjured in my mind is something with four legs, a flat bottom, and a back to rest against.

Where it gets interesting is the gray area between. Palm trees, perhaps, or ferns don’t exactly have “leaves” but we call them “trees.” A bean bag doesn’t have any of the things I used to describe a chair, but it certainly could qualify as one. The point here is that in our most fundamental, basic effort to make ourselves understood, we paper over particular differences in the name of the general scheme of things. A palm is different than a fern, but we generally call them both trees. In the very will to community, in the very will to understanding, inherently, difference is excluded.

The point with how the girl on the tram used the word “different” then is multiple: not only did she use the word “different” to evoke strangeness, or other-ness in relation to Cooper’s previously established identity, or her experience of him; she also inflected or fried the very word different in order to make herself understood to her friend. As co-author of a study in the Journal of Voice explained in her report on the subject, the purpose of the fry is communal.

“Young students tend to use it when they get together,” Abdelli-Beruh says. “Maybe this is a social link between members of a group.”

It is a generic statement that makes the claim that birds of a feather flock together, or that you are who you are around, but what seems to be the case here with valley girls and any women or men who use the vocal fry is that they do so for the purpose of identifying community. Sarcasm works the same way. A good way to tell if a woman is right for you is if she gets your jokes, I’ve typically encountered. But sarcasm has its roots in what Henry Louis Gates Jr. had called the myth of the “Signifyin’ Monkey.” In ancient African myth, the monkey was a trickster character who would speak in multiple meanings when he opened his mouth. For example, when the lion would walk up to the monkey and demand to know where some tasty gazelle are lurking, the monkey, not wanting to sell out his friends, but not able to tell the lion to go screw himself for fear of the very real threat of being eaten, the monkey would answer dually: he would say one thing, but mean another. This is the essence of irony. The lion, not understanding the monkey to be sarcastic – for lions never need to speak ironically, for they have no need for censorship, having no fear of being eaten – takes the monkey’s words at their literal value, without attention to their subtext. You know the type.

Women, historically, are the classic monkey character. Women, having adapted to read facial expressions in order to avoid physical danger from men, are as Shakespeare’s Viola describes the fool Festy in Twelfth Night. They, like the clever fool, must be wise and excellent observers:
“This fellow is wise enough to play the fool;
And to do that well craves a kind of wit:
He must observe their mood on whom he jests,
The quality of persons, and the time,
And, like the haggard, cheque at every feather
That comes before his eye. This is a practise
As full of labour as a wise man’s art
For folly that he wisely shows is fit;
But wise men, folly-fall’n, quite taint their wit.”

The wit of the fool, of the monkey and of the woman are much the same. The inflection that makes the ends of statements warp into open ended questions, despite the valley girl “stupidity” it make evoke, is really an ingenious device of social expression for the purpose of feeling out other people to determine whether or not they belong to the same social group or community. This may help to explain why the vocal fry is ubiquitous among tightly knit groups.

However, as Klaus notes, and in the judgement I passed myself upon hearing a latte ordered as a question, there is an issue inherent to the vocal fry in terms of how it is understood by those outside of the community for which it exists. The fry demonstrates my belonging to a community. When it is echoed and exchanged, we are on the inside of a discourse. But when an irritable male barista hears it, he is confused, laughing, many things, but one thing he is not is inside the discourse.