I’m sitting in Small World Coffee, downtown Princeton’s most popular cafe. Even after the morning rush the place hums to caffeinated rhythms — the clak-clak-clak of ground coffee dealt for another espresso shot, staccato thuds as the barista empties the spent puck to reload. A squad of local businessmen clad in khakis, blazers, and oxford shirts top off their to-go cups with milk and sugar. The line has reached the door. And all around me sit Princeton students, some solo with laptops and lattes, others in giddy groups gossiping about campus life. Less than a hundred yards from the university’s front gates and ivied Nassau Hall, I could not inhabit a deeper East Coast setting.
Oh my god, you must’ve been like, what-ever?
Dude, I was like totally weirded out?
That’s soooo creepy. He, like, sits right next to me in my Econ class!
I dunno, it’s like, whatever? He’s just, like, a weird guy? The prof thinks he’s, like, a genius?
And yet, if I closed my eyes and allowed myself to drift in the time-space continuum, I’d swear I was sitting on a bench in a California mall circa 1982. And not just any mall — the Sherman Oaks Galleria, a now defunct shopping center that opened in 1980 in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley, known simply as The Valley. The Galleria claims its footnote in American cultural history as birthplace of the “Valley Girl,” or “Val.” But one day it may figure much larger in linguistic studies, for it was the Galleria that Frank Zappa presciently identified in his Top 40 hit, “Valley Girl”, as the locus of a new dialect: “Valspeak.” Like, oh my god!
Encino is, like, sooo bitchin’.
There’s, like, the Galleria?
And, like, all these, like, really great shoe stores?
I love going into, like, clothing stores and stuff?
I, like, buy the neatest miniskirts and stuff?
It’s, like, so bitchin’ cuz, like, everybody’s like super-super nice.
It’s, like, so bitchin’. . ..
Those are “Valley Girl’s” opening lines, as rendered by Frank Zappa’s then 14 year-old daughter, Moon Unit. While the song contains several witty choruses, most of the lyrics are a rambling monologue delivered in Valspeak by Moon Zappa.
But the Valley Girl accent is no longer just for adolescent mall rats or college students. Consider this much-cited excerpt from the testimony of a 42 year-old Barry Bonds before a federal grand jury: “And he rubbed some cream on my arm . . . gave me some flaxseed oil, man. It’s like, ‘Whatever, dude.’”
It’s like, whatever, dude. Sounds more like a line from “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” than the defense of a beleaguered ballplayer trying to keep the FBI off his back. But while such an utterance might furrow a federal judge’s brow, it goes largely unnoticed in contemporary American conversation. For millions of us, “It’s like, ‘Whatever, dude’” conveys via cultural shorthand a meaningful denial of culpability.
Who could have imagined that a peculiar California dialect marked by a pattern of upward, questioning intonations and a habitual reliance on the word “like” would become the way a nation talks? What Zappa parodied in 1982 has become American patois.
But then, that’s how we talk here at home. Stepping off the plane at Heathrow or Shannon, you wouldn’t expect the locals to sound like Malibu surfers, right? What’s really amazing about Valley Girl patois is how rapidly it is conquering other English-speaking countries.
I’ve spent much time in Ireland, a country renowned for the well-chosen words of its natives. In the mid-1990s I lived in Dublin, where the preoccupation with speech borders on obsession. One oration, Robert Emmet’s “Speech from the Dock in 1803,” has been memorized by generations of forensics club members. (Alas, Emmet’s silver-tongued soliloquy did not prevent his execution).
Dublin is the city that produced Jonathan Swift, Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, and Samuel Beckett. Bono too. But even in 1996 I noticed odd upward inflections here and there, a reliance on “like” as a syntactical crutch. In subsequent visits I’ve encountered Valley Girls with brogues everywhere — on the streets, in buses , in the country, in the Republic, and in the North.
“The accent has far outpaced the shopping malls of North America to become a global Anglophone phenomenon,” says Garrett Fagan, a professor of English at University College Dublin and Dublin City University, who has closely followed the Valspeak invasion.
Fagan grew up in Coventry, England, and has lived in Dublin for more than a dozen years. A lecturer on Anglo-Irish literature and John Donne’s poetry, Fagan is a man with a well-tuned ear to the ground. “It has crossed the Atlantic, achieving hegemony by the same means here as in America,” said Fagan about Ireland’s newest dialect. “The TV shows that encouraged its spread across the U.S. — Ally McBeal, Friends, Dawson’s Creek, The O.C. — have made ‘Valley Girl,’ with some local variation, the socially aspirant accent of choice among young Irish women. In Ireland it’s called a D4 accent, or `Dortspeak.’”
Dortspeak alludes to the D.A.R.T. (Dublin Area Rapid Transit), a train that runs along the city’s coast, serving, among other places, the affluent Dublin 4 postal zone. Dortspeak mirrors the city’s radical transformation from perennially run-down Hibernian capital — what Joyce famously called “dear, dirty Dublin” — to the most expensive real estate market in Europe. Dublin is the gleam in the Celtic Tiger’s eye; Dortspeak is how the cat meows.
As Fagan points out, “it’s not surprising that this linguistic morphing should occur during a period of unprecedented prosperity and be most prevalent among the generation that’s grown up in this affluence.” All in a country that completed rural electrification in 1973.
To make his point about Dortspeak’s impact, Fagan referred me to the collected works of an “author” all the rage in Dublin. Ross O’Carroll-Kelly is a newspaper columnist and novelist whose most recent book, a comical travel guide to Dublin published by Penguin, is called “Ross O’Carroll-Kelly’s Guide to (South) Dublin: How To Get By On, Like, 10,000 Pounds A Day.” Ross O’Carroll-Kelly is also a pseudonym, the fictional creation of longtime Irish sportswriter Paul Howard. Either way, his stinging satire sounds eerily familiar to American ears. In this sample, Ross narrates a conversation between two of his female friends at a Japanese restaurant:
Amy goes “OH!MY!GOD! I SO love Japanese food”, roysh, and Faye goes “OH!MY!GOD! so do I,” even though I’ve never seen either of them actually eat it, or eat anything at all for that matter. Amy asks the waitress whether there’s, like, celery in the yasai gyoza and when the waitress says yes she just, like, turns her nose up and says she doesn’t want anything, and Faye, roysh, she just orders carrot juice and picks food off my plate.
You probably recognize everything but the “roysh” interjection, which is how O’Carroll-Kelly renders “right” in the Dublin-meets-Dortspeak dialect. Otherwise, it’s Valspeak all the way.
Which brings me back to Princeton. As well as university students, Princeton’s many au pairs prefer to meet at Small World Coffee, such as the two young women sitting at the table next to mine. Anne hails from a section of London called Kentish Town, while Siobhan speaks with lilting intonations unmistakably inflected in a Northern Irish accent. But there’s something more, a strangely familiar upward flick at the end of each phrase. I correctly guess she’s from County Antrim. Siobhan exclaims, “Oh my God! That’s like totally brilliant! How did you know?”
I explain my many connections to the Old Sod. And then I ask, “Apropos of nothing, ever heard of Frank Zappa?”
Freelance writer Patrick Walsh served as an officer in the Army’s 25th Infantry Division before earning a master’s in Anglo-Irish literature from Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. He has worked at the Corkscrew wine shop on Hulfish Street and written ad copy at Films for the Humanities & Sciences
His poems have appeared in Barrow Street, Chronogram, Cimarron Review, the Christian Science Monitor, the U.S. 1 Summer Fiction issue, and the Hudson Review, as well as in Irish journals, including the first issue of THE SHOp.