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Linguistic Misogyny as a Parodic Device: Valspeak Markers in Jimmy Fallon’s Ew!”

Pierre Habasque


The aim of this paper is to explore how markers of an enregistered sociolect perceived as feminine may be recruited to portray stereotypical female teenage characters on television. The analysis focuses on ‘Valley Girl talk,’ also known as Valspeak, popularized in the 1980s in California by Frank Zappa’s eponymous hit song, which parodied the sociolect. The corpus is composed of a sketch entitled ‘Ew!’, featured in The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, in which the host dresses up as a teenage girl, Sara, chatting with her friend Addison (John Cena). Two main points are made. First, it is suggested that Fallon uses Valspeak markers, as well as linguistic features which may be perceived as feminine, in order to portray ‘girl talk’ on screen. Such features include lexical items, higher fundamental frequency, a prosodic contour (High Rising Terminal), a voice quality (creaky voice), and a shift in vowel quality. Second, the main goal of the sketch is to make the audience laugh, and its parodic power partly relies on the fact that semantic bleaching is used to orchestrate a loss of meaning in the discourse of the two characters. It is suggested that this stereotypical depiction of female characters’ use of language may be a case of ‘linguistic misogyny,’ i.e. stigmatizing an individual’s linguistic practices because they are (possibly wrongly) perceived as feminine.

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1. Introduction

1.1. ‘Valley Girl Speak’

1.1.1. An Enregistered Sociolect

Like, oh my god!
Like, totally!
Encino is, like, so bitchin’
There’s, like, the Galleria
And, like, all these, like, really great shoe stores
I love going into, like, clothing stores and stuff […

1 Musician Frank Zappa was the first artist to capitalize on one of the most recognizable fad of the 1980s: the ‘Valley Girl’ craze. His eponymous hit song (1982) featured his own daughter, Moon, who recorded the stretch of discourse above. The term ‘Valley Girl’ originally referred to female adolescents living in the San Fernando valley, situated in greater Los Angeles. They were described by the press as vapid, shopping-obsessed individuals (Moley et al.: 1985) who came from a middle class background (Alexander: 1982).

2 Valley girls were also mostly known for the way they spoke. Though it was lampooned by the Zappas, the song actually popularized what came to be known as ‘Valspeak.’ The sociolect gradually turned into a shared American folk-linguistic stereotype, and eventually became fully enregistered. Agha (2003) states that enregisterment takes place when a linguistic repertoire becomes differentiable within a language as a socially recognized register of forms.” Valspeak enregisterment is particularly strong since not only is the sociolect highly recognizable, but it also evokes a prototypical speaker. The Valley Girl is indeed a persona which is linked to a specific time period (the 1980s), location (the San Fernando Valley), but also activities (such as shopping), all of which have been suggested to help enregisterment occur (Johnstone: 2016).

3Valspeak features a rich variety of markers, i.e. linguistic variables overtly associated to a specific group (Crystal: 1991). Such markers can be construed in terms of lexical items, vowel quality, as well as prosodic contours.

1.1.2. Lexical Items

4 Valspeak lexicon is filled with words expressing high emotional involvement. Such involvement translates into the use of maximizers such as the adjective ‘totally.’ This word has been suggested to index youth, femaleness, as well as a Valley Girl persona (Suh: 2011, 3). Beltrama (2016, 10) also states that it is heavily used by such speakers to the point it seem[s] to be unique to Valspeak.” Martha Coolidge, who directed the movie Valley Girl,” also mentions the maximizing quality of Valspeak adjectives (note she uses a superlative adjective in her gloss) when discussing Valspeak lexicon (quoted in Klein: 1983):

A primer of [Valspeak] would include grody,” which means beyond bad - the worst - []

5 Besides maximizers, the lexeme ‘like’ is also associated to Valley Girls. The word is quite versatile as it may for example be used as a discourse marker, particle, or quotative (D’Arcy: 2017). It is believed that only the latter is a linguistic innovation that may be attributed to Valley Girls though, since other uses of ‘like’ were already in circulation before the fad took off (D’Arcy, 2007):

The vernacular form of like are salient features of the Valley Girl persona, but […] the Valley Girls were not the only speakers to use these forms, nor were they the innovators. […] as a marker, particle, and approximative adverb, like was already increasing in frequency before this time.

6Hearers nevertheless tend to perceive any use of ‘like’ as a marker of Valspeak. Dailey-O’Cain (2000) for example found that her informants associated both the quotative use and the focuser use to the sociolect.

7 Valspeak lexicon also comprises interjections and adjectives expressing disgust, such as ‘ew’ or ‘gross’ (Pond: 1982). Though such words may be used by all speakers, they are nevertheless part of the enregistered Valspeak lexicon, which as a whole is rife with references to regurgitation” (Coolidge, quoted in Klein: 1983) which might suggest why such adjectives are recurrent in Valspeak.

1.1.3. Vowel Quality

8 Valspeak may also be characterized by the way its speakers pronounce certain vowels, as a vowel shift has been taking place in their home state: California. This phenomenon is referred to as the California Vowel Shift (henceforth: CVS), which is a counter clockwise movement featuring the lowering of front vowels as well as the fronting of back vowels (figure 1).

Figure 1: Representation of the California Vowel Shift (adapted from Eckert: 2008a)

Figure 1: Representation of the California Vowel Shift (adapted from Eckert: 2008a)
  • 1 LOT is part of standard lexical sets developed by Wells (1982).

9 CVS tokens were found in the Zappas’ Valley Girl. Pratt & D’Onofrio (2017) state the song includes cases of /oʊ/ fronting on words like ‘totally’ or ‘toenails,’ as well as /ɪ/ lowering in ‘bitchin’ (an adjective meaning great/the best). The same was pointed by Hinton et al. (1987, 118), who also mentioned /æ/ backing in ‘handle’ or ‘to the max’ (yet another maximizing expression). Traces of the CVS have been found in the speech of both men and women, but women may be leading the shift. In her study, Holland (2014, 63) stated that southern California women were the source of the three backest mean LOT1 values.”

10 Proof of the enregisterment of the CVS is presented by perceptual dialectology studies. For example, /æ/ backing has been found to be associated to both California and Valley Girls specifically, according to D’Onofrio (2015, 241). In another study, she even found that vowels affected by the CVS were intrinsically perceived as both Californian and Valley Girl to the point that the California and Valley Girl conditions were never statistically significantly different from one another” (D’Onofrio: 2016, 124).

1.1.4. Prosodic Contour & Voice Quality

11 The final set of markers associated to Valspeak concern prosody and voice quality. The High Rising Terminal contour (henceforth: HRT) is very often cited as typically Valley Girl. HRT can be defined as a movement in pitch from relatively low to relatively high” (Crystal: 1991). Others, such as Barry (2007) or Wilhelm (2016) give a more varied typology of HRT. For example, Wilhelm states the label is not restricted to high rises per se, but also encompasses low rises, full rises, low flats and fall rises. The exact time and place of origin of HRT are issues still being discussed by linguists (see Warren: 2016, 103), but press articles suggest that folk-linguistic interpretations associate its spread in the United States to Valley Girls (Gorman: 1993):

It might have come from California, from Valley Girl talk. It may be an upper-middle-class thing, probably starting with adolescents.

12 Another associated to Valspeak is creaky voice, characterized by the use of a low fundamental frequency, constricted glottis, and irregular pulses (Gordon & Ladefoged: 2001, 6). Like HRT, creaky voice may be perceived as a marker of Valspeak (D’Onofrio: 2016):

The bulk of meta-linguistic commentary surrounding [the Valley Girl persona] has focused on lexical items, especially the use of like and totally, and suprasegmental features like uptalk and, more recently, creaky voice quality [emphasis added].

13 Creaky voice, though it may be construed as Valley Girl, is a feature that started being noticed, and studied, after the fad. Yuasa for example referred to it as new feminine voice quality” in 2010, and a speech pathologist even suggested it might have spread after the main character of the series Grey’s Anatomy, which debuted in 2005, started using it (Maronian: 2013). Interestingly, creaky voice is also sometimes found with HRT (Pennock-Speck: 2005; Wilhelm: 2015).

14Similarly to non quotative uses of ‘like,’ the fact that creaky voice may be construed as part of Valspeak suggests that markers may be enregistered as such even though they might not have been popularized or used by Valley Girls themselves.

15What should also be taken into account is that the aforementioned markers are not neutral in terms of the way they may be perceived. Indeed, HRT, creaky voice or ‘like’ are features that may induce negative social evaluations.

1.2. Stigmatizing Valspeak: a Case of Linguistic Misogyny?

1.2.1. Valspeak Perception

16 Ironically, though the Zappas helped Valspeak spread thanks to the commercial success of the song (Kozak: 1982, 8), neither Frank nor Moon particularly enjoyed Valspeak, or Valley Girls. The former repeatedly stated that he thought Valley Girls were disgusting” (quoted in Hogrefe: 1984) and airheads” (quoted in Woodard: 1986) while the latter lamented (quoted in McKenna: 2015, 98):

It’s ridiculous that anyone would consciously try to imitate this style, dress up and be proud of it. […] I just get mad because I’m identified with this thing.

The negative views expressed by the Zappas also translate into how individual Valspeak markers may be perceived.

17 Various studies have shown that such markers may be heavily stigmatized. Blyth et al. (1990, 223-224) say that speakers for example consider the quotative use of ‘like’ as stigmatized, ungrammatical, and typical of Valley Girls. The same is reported by Dailey-O’Cain (2000, 69). In terms of voice quality and prosodic contours, the habitual use of creaky voice has been shown to undermine the success of women on the labor market (Anderson et al.: 2014), and HRT is also negatively perceived in a similar context (Spindler: 2003). Concerning the CVS, Villarreal (2016, 164) reports that though both men and women use it, the CVS makes males, but not females, sound more confident.” This suggests that linguistic markers are perceived according to the social context of utterance, as the gender of the speaker may for example influence their perception.

1.2.2. Linguistic Markers, Social Meaning

18 It has been shown that linguistic markers are interpreted in a social context, as they might signal to hearers the speaker’s background. Eckert (2008b) states that linguistic markers may directly point to social meaning, a phenomenon she calls the indexical field”:

[…] the meanings of variables are not precise or fixed but rather constitute a field of potential meanings – an indexical field, or constellation of ideologically related meanings, any one of which can be activated in the situated use of the variable.

19As an enregistered sociolect, Valspeak conjures up such indexical field (ibid., 454). Though Valspeak markers may be used to evoke traits like ‘fun,’ ‘laid-back,’ and ‘carefree’” (Podesva: 2011), as has been shown in the previous section, they can be heavily stigmatized as well. Since Valley Girls are, by definition, girls, it is argued that stigmatizing their speech may have to do with the fact that they deviate from androcentric norms. According to Coates (2016, 83) the androcentric rule:

[…] predicts that commentators will describe the linguistic behaviour of men as normal” and the linguistic behaviour of women as deviating from that norm.

20 Besides being stigmatized, Valspeak markers can indeed be perceived as intrinsically female. This has been shown to be the case for HRT (Barry: 2007, Lee: 2015, 276; Lakoff: 1972, 49-50), creaky voice (Yuasa: 2010), the CVS (Hinton et al.: 1987), or the use of ‘like’ (Lange: 1986; Eckert: 2003, 394-39).

21Because Valspeak markers may be both stigmatized and perceived as intrinsically female, it is suggested that stigmatizing this enregistered sociolect may have to do with a process that will be referred to in this paper as ‘linguistic misogyny,’ defined as:

stigmatizing an individual’s linguistic practices because they are (possibly wrongly) perceived as feminine.

22 The term ‘linguistic misogyny’ differs from the concept of ‘sexist language’ used by feminist linguists such as Cameron (1985) or Romaine (1999). ‘Sexist language’ refers to sexism that is baked in a language. For instance, a double standard may exist in the connotations of some similar lexical items that can be disparaging to women but not to men (one famous example being ‘bachelor’ and ‘spinster’, both referring to unmarried individuals). ‘Linguistic misogyny’ refers instead to linguistic practices that may be categorized as feminine and stigmatized because of it. Note that what is under consideration when discussing linguistic misogyny is not whether such and such linguistic markers are indeed predominantly used by female speakers; creaky voice has been for example found to be used more by male speakers in Glasgow (Stuart-Smith: 1999), and it has been shown that HRT can (unsurprisingly) be used by male speakers (Guy & Vonwiller: 1984; Conn: 2006). Instead, what is argued is that linguistic misogyny targets markers that are folk-linguistically perceived as female and (potentially) stigmatized because of it.

23Though the term ‘Valspeak’ first referred to a sociolect spoken by female Californian adolescents in the 1980s, linguistic misogyny contributed to the inclusion of markers that were not originally part of it in its scope (creaky voice, non-quotative use of ‘like’). This broadened version of Valspeak, which includes markers that were introduced after the 1980s, will be referred to as ‘neo-Valspeak’.

24 The goal of the following sections is to demonstrate that ‘neo-Valspeak’ may be used in a parodic performance in order to portray idiotic, Valley-Girl-like, teenage, female characters by relying on the misogyny of folk-linguistic stereotypes.

2. Material & Method

2.1. Context & Corpus

2.1.1. Jimmy Fallon’s Ew!

25 The corpus is composed of a sketch entitled Ew! featured on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, which is a late show broadcast on NBC. This late show features the standard codes of the genre, such as an opening monologue, guests, interviews, and a variety of sketches.

26Ew! is actually a series of sketches that have been featured on the Tonight Show at irregular intervals for about three years. A dozen have been aired so far. They are usually five to seven minutes long. The premise of the segment is that Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon impersonates a female teenager named Sara. Fallon is always seen wearing a dress, braces as well as a blonde wig, and the scene takes place in a room filled with pink fur carpets, lava lamps, plush animals and boys band posters, all supposed to index adolescence. When Ew! is featured, the Tonight Show guest of the day takes part in the sketch. If the guest is female, she is seen in Ew! as an adolescent wearing teenager clothes, headbands and plastic jewelry. If the guest is male, he is shown in drag, like Fallon. The segments have featured pop singers (Britney Spears, Miley Cyrus), sportsmen (Michael Strahan, John Cena), actors (Seth Rogen, Zac Efron), and even Michelle Obama (as herself though). Interestingly, the audience was able to witness the very creation of the character of Sara. In a regular episode of his show (Fallon: 2011), Fallon made a dirty joke which had a female audience member shout ew.” Fallon immediately picked up on this and created, on the spot, a character named after the audience member. Though what eventually turned out to be a long-lasting sketch series was still in its infancy, Fallon can be heard using a specific voice quality (readers may turn to references for links to the clips discussed). The fact that this single word was able to trigger a female teenager persona, who was later portrayed as rather non-sensical, is further proof of the enregistered nature of the interjection ew.”

2.1.2. Corpus

27 The corpus is composed of an entire Ew! segment featuring John Cena (Fallon: 2018). Cena is a hyper masculine professional wrestler, and the comedic power of the segment partly relies on the fact that this clashes with the teenage girl he is portraying, named Addison. The character is for example seen wearing a purple dress, a flower in her long blonde hair, and a pink unicorn purse. This particular sketch follows a well-established routine. All sketches are indeed structured the same way. Sara (Fallon) is first seen alone in the room and breaks the fourth wall by welcoming the audience to the segment. She always states her name and adds that it is spelled S-A-R-A because H’s are ew.” This is a running gag of the segment. She then welcomes a guest, who is always presented as her very best friend. The two engage in small talk parodying teenage speak. Sara’s step-father, Gary, then makes an appearance. This character represents the oblivious uncool step-parent who is just trying too hard. Sara is always disappointed to see him, and eventually shouts until he leaves. Sara and her friend then play the ‘ew speed-run.’ This game has the two characters asking each other if they think random objects or people, shown on cards, are disgusting or not. The pair always yell ew” to everything until the card of a well-known actor is seen. The guest then says she liked him in a particular movie, the title of which Sara repeats in a way that is barely understandable. The segment then ends with the pair waving at the camera.

2.2. Method

2.2.1. Prosody & Fundamental Frequency

28 Two main research questions structure the analysis: how is ‘girl-talk’ portrayed, and how is stigma conveyed. Linguistic analysis was conducted on various levels and different tools were used. Both prosody and fundamental frequency are analyzed with the software Praat (Boersma & Weenink: 2017), used for phonetic analysis.

29 For prosodic analysis, pitch floor and ceiling were respectively set to 75 and 150 hertz, as the mean pitch used by John Cena is low. This range was also chosen in order to make HRT and creaky voice clearly visible in figures (a wider range would have flattened HRT representations).

30Fallon’s use of fundamental frequency (henceforth: F0) was also studied with Praat. The default pitch range of 75-350 Hz. was used to avoid extreme and non-reliable data. The software automatically calculated F0 at a 0.1 second interval. A two-tailed unpaired student’s T test was used to compare F0 distribution in the voice of Fallon as himself, and as Sara. In order to do so, two 100-second excerpts were selected; one where Fallon speaks as himself in the main show (broadcast on the same day), and one from Ew!. The results of the T test include the sample size (N), mean F0 (M), median F0 (Med), standard deviation (SD), p value (p), and effect size, called Cohen’s D (D). The interpretation of the latter was based on previous standards (Cohen: 1988; Sawilowsky: 2009) and the statistical power of the study is above 80%.

2.2.2. Vowel Quality

31 In order to understand the extent to which Fallon relies on the CVS to portray Sara, vowel formants were measured in Praat. Four vowels and a the first half of a diphthong are analyzed: /e/, /ɪ/, /æ/, /u/, and /oʊ/. Vowels pronounced before a nasal sound or /r/ were excluded from analysis as both environments may affect vowel production. These vowels (and this diphthong) were chosen to reflect the variety of possible vowel qualities, namely front close, front medium, front open, back close, and back medium. Analysis relies on a previous study conducted by Labov et al. (2006). The authors measured the first and second formants (henceforth: F1 and F2) of the vowels of American English spoken in isolation, and the authors reported the most extreme formant values each vowel may have. For the present study, these results were mapped, to scale, in a scatter chart (figure 2). Any vowel sound measured for any American speaker is therefore theoretically supposed to fall within its corresponding quadrilateral area (henceforth: Labov’s area). As can be seen, a considerable amount of overlap exists between vowels. This is because Labov’s areas represent the most extreme formant values these vowels may have.

Figure 2: Extreme formant values of American vowels (adapted from Labov et al.: 2006).

Figure 2: Extreme formant values of American vowels (adapted from Labov et al.: 2006).

32 In order to compare the use of vowel formants by Fallon as himself and as Sara, a chi-squared test was performed. Similarly to the results of the T test, both the p value (p), and effect size (Cramer’s V) are reported. Measurements were made in Praat by selecting the entire vowel and requesting the average F1 and F2 values.

33Finally, in order to assess how specific lexical items are used, the clip was entirely transcribed (appendix). This also enabled a close inspection of the semantics of utterances. Examples are numbered continuously in the remaining sections.

3. Analysis & Discussion

3.1. Portraying ‘Girl Talk’

3.1.1. Lexical Items

34 Linguistic markers may be used as resources for the construction of social meaning” (Podesva: 2007). It is argued here that this is exactly what Fallon does as he uses lexicon, prosody, F0 and vowel formants to portray Sara as a teenage girl reminiscent of Valley Girls.

35Lexically, Fallon and the writers of the segment rely on what they perceive as prototypical teenage slang. Consider for example:

1. Joining me today is one of my BFFs.
4. K…

36In the first example, the acronym ‘BFF’ (best friend forever) is used to portray Sara as sensitive teenager. However, this also frames her as rather overly emotional or non-nonsensical as regular viewers of the segment know she introduces anyone as her best friend. Example 2 features a prototypical teenage slang item, but it is purposefully misused as this specific acronym is not typically said out loud but rather either written (‘OMG') or pronounced as ‘Oh my God’, reinforcing the ditziness of the characters. Truncated words are also reminiscent of teenage speak as shown by examples 3 (‘What’s up’) and 4 (‘Ok’). It is worth noting that the latter are used by Addison when talking to a potential romantic interest. Using such words make her appear rather blasé when talking to a boy, which clashes with the hyper sensitivity that characterizes her conversation with Sara. Overall, these lexical items reinforce the fact that these characters are meant to be regarded as stereotypical teenage girls.

37 Unsurprisingly, prototypical Valspeak lexical items are used as well, such as ‘totally’:

5. Sara: Ew! He totally likes you!
Addison: Right?
Sara: Yeah, you’re crushing this crush.
Addison: O-M-G, I totally am!

38The marker first maximizes an entire prediction and is then repeated by the other participant. This suggests that the adverb also has a bonding quality used to present characters as close friends.

39‘Like’ is also found ubiquitously in the exchange. It is used as an approximation adverb, paraphrasable with ‘about’ (example 6) and as a discourse marker with no semantic reference (example 7), or as a prototypical Valspeak marker when used as a quotative (last occurrence of the word in example 8). This last example also features another possibly enregistered construction, be all’, which has been suggested to be indexical of the home state of Valley Girls: California (Eckert & Mendoza-Denton: 2006, 141).

6. She moved away like three years ago []
7. [] but like now I totally love it.
8. The football team’s like all trying to recruit me and stuff, and they’re like, they’re, it’s the first, like, why don’t you throw things, and I was like ew, throwing things…

3.1.2. Prosodic Contours

40 HRT is used by Cena when portraying Addison on several occasions. For example, the contour is used to pronounce sentences that feature some of the aforementioned prototypical teenage lexical items. This can be seen on a Praat screenshot where F0 is shown (figure 3). F0 rises quite sharply at the end of the first tone unit (OMG), as well as at the end of the utterance. Another example overtly plays on the use of HRT as parody device:

9. I had a little bit of a growth spurt. My mom says I’m going through some changes.

41 HRT is used in sentence final position as well (figure 4), but is followed by another sentence which is uttered with an extremely low frequency as well as with a continuous decrease in pitch. The prosodic contour is here used to reinforce the staggering difference between Cena’s voice and Addison’s.

Figure 3: HRT use — “OMG, I totally am!

Figure 3: HRT use — “OMG, I totally am!”

Figure 4: HRT use — “I had a little bit of a growth spurt.

Figure 4: HRT use — “I had a little bit of a growth spurt.”

42 Similarly, a neo-Valspeak marker can also be heard in the clip: creaky voice. Addison for example utters the following sentence (the determiner ‘a’ is not heard):

10. He’s like really talented actor.

43 The use of creak may be assessed thanks to a visual representation of the sound on a spectrogram (figure 5).

Figure 5: Creaky voice use — “He’s like really talented actor.

Figure 5: Creaky voice use — “He’s like really talented actor.”

44 Individual vibrations of the vocal folds can be clearly seen on the last syllable. The latter is drawled which makes creak even more noticeable. Right after pronouncing this sentence, the audience is heard laughing. This is significant as it suggests that, since the propositional content of the utterance is not in itself funny, what makes the audience laugh is the use of the creaky voice register. It is suggested that this is because, like the other linguistic markers mentioned, the use of this neo-valley-girl marker clashes with John Cena’s hyper masculinity.

3.1.3. Fundamental Frequency

45 It has been repeatedly shown that women have on average a higher pitched voice than male speakers (Takefuta et al.: 1972; Laver: 1994, 451). It was therefore suspected that Fallon would use a higher average F0 when portraying Sara, but the goal was to assess the impact of the effect, if any. A two-tailed T Test was performed to compare Fallon’s F0 when speaking as Sara, and as himself. Praat automatically attempts to detect F0 every 0.1 second. All 0.1-second tokens where F0 is detected make up the sample (N). Results are summarized below (table 1).

Sara (N = 5292)

Fallon as himself (N = 6293)

Mean F0 (Hz)



Median F0 (Hz)



Standard Deviation



T Test (p)


Cohen’s D


46Table 1Jimmy Fallons F0 use as himself, and as Sara

47 As expected, Fallon’s F0 is much higher when portraying Sara, since both mean and median F0 values are higher than his usual pitch. The standard deviation is nevertheless equivalent between the two groups, which suggests that Fallon’s F0 is different on average, but that the range of his voice is about the same, no matter who he speaks as. The difference between F0 between the two roles is extremely significant: there is less than one chance in a thousand of this result being due to chance alone. The size of the effect is, according to standard, large” (Sawilowsky: 2009). This means that not only is the difference in F0 use not due to random chance, but that the difference is also strong. In other words, Fallon most likely uses a higher F0 to portray the female teenager on purpose. The difference between the two distributions might be better shown visually, though (figure 6). Individual tokens were binned together at a 25 hz interval. As can be seen, though there is some overlap between F0 uses, when speaking as himself, Fallon mainly uses a frequency ranging from 100 to 150 hz, which he seldom does when impersonating Sara.

Figure 6: Jimmy Fallons F0 use distribution as himself, and as Sara

3.1.4. Vowel Formants

48 Only focusing on F0 use might dismiss a more subtle variation in Fallon’s voice though: his use of the CVS. It appears that the host also relies on the enregisterment of the Californian vowels in order to represent Sara. As has been explained in section 2.2.2, Labov’s areas were used to analyze four vowels and a diphthong. All results are reported below (table 2). It can be concluded that Fallon primarily uses three features of the CVS in his parodic performance: /e/, /ɪ/, and /æ/ lowering. Indeed, when speaking as himself the vowels have formants that are consistent with Labov’s findings, i.e. the vowels’ formants fall within their corresponding Labov’s areas, which was checked with the scatter plot (figure 2). When speaking as Sara, the vowels have formants that are so extreme that they fall outside Labov’s area, and actually fall directly below the area (i.e. they have a higher F1). Fallon therefore exaggerates his use of CVS. A chi-squared test suggests this is not due to chance, and the effect size (how important the phenomenon is) is large. Such test could not be run for either /u/ or /oʊ/ though (a larger sample size would have been needed to have a statistical power above 80%), but the diphthong /oʊ/ seems to feature a similar pattern (a lowering was observed when vowel formants fell outside Labov’s area). As far as the vowel /u/ is concerned, Fallon seems to feature unexpected formants whether he speaks in his actual voice or as Sara. In any case, the analysis of the formants suggests that Fallon uses part of an exaggerated version of the CVS when portraying Sara, which he does not when speaking as himself. It is again argued that this is because this linguistic feature might be linked to the Valley Girl stereotype.



Chi test (p)

Cramer’s V




Inside Labov’s area





Outside Labov’s area




Inside Labov’s area





Outside Labov’s area




Inside Labov’s area





Outside Labov’s area




Inside Labov’s area





Outside Labov’s area




Inside Labov’s area





Outside Labov’s area



49Table 2Jimmy Fallon’s CVS as himself, and as Sara

50 Further proof of this phenomenon may be given by taking a specific example into consideration. An Ew!’ staple is Sara repeating a well-known movie title, before later stating she has never heard about it. The episode’s take on the joke occurs in the following stretch of discourse:

11. Sara: Steve Martin?
Addison: Cute.
Sara: Really?
Addison: He’s like, a really talented actor. You ever seen Planes, Trains and Automobiles?
Sara: Planes, Trains and Automobiles? I’ve never heard of that one.

  • 2 The vowels in the words planes’, ‘trains’ and ‘and’ might also have been affected by their pre-nas (...)

51 Though the movie might not have had a wide international success, it is well-known in the United States, and Sara never having heard about is meant to make the audience laugh. Interestingly, Fallon uses and exaggerated version of the CVS when uttering the very name of the movie (table 3). It is indeed supposed to feature 5 distinct vowels or diphthongs: /ei/, /ə/, /a/, /oʊ/ and /i/2. These are normally found on opposite sides of the vowel spectrum. /i/ is a high front vowel, whereas /a/ is low and back. However, if formants are taken into account, all vowel sounds produced by Sara fall not only outside their own areas, but also completely outside the usual vowel system of American English. They are all so low and so far back that they do not resemble any traditional vowel. All vowels Sara pronounces in the sentence also resemble one another; this can be measured with standard deviation. Since the vowels are normally pronounced at very different locations, the standard deviation between the mean F1 and F2 should be high between the analyzed vowels. It is, on the contrary, very low, which again points to the fact that these vowels are pronounced more or less the same way, making it hard to understand what Sara is saying. This exaggerated version of the CVS might be a way to signal Sara’s lack of knowledge by relying on what the audience could perceive as an iconic use of sound. This is in any case consistent with previous findings mentioning that exaggerated representations of the CVS also have actors widen their jaws (Pratt & D’Onofrio: 2017) which is why vowels are backed and lowered.

Word vowel

Expected vowel

Actual mean F1

Actual mean F2





























Overall standard deviation



52Table 3Mean F1 and F2 use — “Planes, trains and automobiles.

3.2. Conveying Stigma

3.2.1. Semantics

53 The set and the props used in the segment all frame the two participants as teenage girls, but the same is done with the semantics of the utterances:

12. Snapchat.
13. Addison, now that you’re back at school, have you been talking to any boys lately?
14. Anyway dance team auditions are coming up. Do you want to practice our routine?
15. Cheerleading squad moved me to the bottom of the pyramid.

54The two participants indeed discuss teenage-related topics like social network applications (example 12), or boys (13). The pair is also clearly defined in relation to school activities such as dance team (14) and cheerleading (15) which are also likely to be regarded as prototypical female activities.

55 It should be noted that these utterances are not intrinsically stigmatizing, though. Even if they index adolescence, it cannot be argued that the semantics alone is used as a parodic device as the context of utterance plays an important part in the interpretation of such sentences. As has been suggested, the comedic power of the segment relies on the fact that the characters portrayed by Fallon and Cena, teenage girls, are extremely different from their own public personas. The topics discussed in Ew! are therefore construed against what the audience know about the two men; Cena is, not coincidentally, a professional wrestler. His hyper-masculinity is even mentioned in the segment. Addison (played by Cena) even discusses Cena [He has] too many muscles,” she says. Utterances that may otherwise be unremarkable semantically therefore take on a new social meaning in the skit thanks to the audience knowledge of the guest.

3.2.2. Semantic Bleaching

56 Paradoxically though, semantics is not the linguistic tool that is the most heavily used to convey stigma in the segment. Bleaching of utterance meaning is a device that is actually used more. Semantic bleaching, which may be defined as a loss or a shift in the meaning of a word or expression is said to be pervasive with […] emotional or affective words” (Jurafsky: 2014), which is a process said to occur in Valspeak (Coolidge, in Klein: 1983):

There’s an emphasis on making up words [] Accepted words [] take on a new meaning through constant repetition.

57 A word which can encompass a high emotional involvement and that might be associated to Valley Girls is ‘ew’. This word is extensively used in the corpus. The term, which is uttered no less than 25 times is said so frequently and on so many occasions that its semantics is completely unstable. This has the effect of framing Addison and Sara as rather non-sensical characters.

58The prototypical meaning of the word, an expression of disgust or distaste, can be observed on a few occasions, which is in itself unremarkable:

16. I’m Sara, and if you’re wondering that’s S-A-R-A with no H, because Hs are ew!
Boy: You’re the smartest! And super cool!
Addison: Ew!
Gary: Don’t worry girls. The only mambo in my life is your mother.
Addison: Ew!
Sara: That’s gross!

59 The word for example expresses discontent with the letter H (16). Sara is essentially saying here: ‘Hs are the worst,’ which does not make much sense pragmatically, but is consistent with the usual semantics of ‘ew.’ The same can be said when Addison dismisses a boy who shows interest in her (17), or when Sara’s step-father expresses love for her mother (18). The interpretation of the last example is clear as ‘ew’ is directly found with another prototypical disgust marker: the adjective ‘gross.

60By extension, ‘ew’ is also used to express disapproval, which is relatively consistent with its original meaning:

19. The football team’s like all trying to recruit me and stuff [] and I was like ew, throwing things…
20. Ew! It’s my stepdad Gary!

61 What is at stake here is not disgust per se but rather the fact that the utterer distances herself from an event. The examples could be paraphrased as ‘I don’t like throwing things’ and ‘Not again! It’s my stepdad Gary.’ Replacing ‘ew’ by ‘gross’ would sound rather awkward in these contexts.

62Actual bleaching occurs when the two girls use the word to express their approval, which is never prototypically associated to the word. Consider:

21. Sara: I feel like you’re on the advanced course.
Addison: Ew, I know.
Sara: Anyway dance team auditions are coming up. Do you want to practice our routine?
Addison: Ew! Hit it!

63 Both instances of ‘ew’ could be glossed by ‘yes’ or ‘for sure.’ Any other semantic interpretation (be it disgust, distaste or disapproval) cannot hold in this context. The writers of the segment therefore completely bleached the prototypical semantics of the word, which makes the two girls seem rather unintelligent.

64The same can be said by looking at other examples, in which ‘ew’ is used for bonding:

24. Sara: You’re on the bottom row?!
Addison: am the bottom row.
Sara: Ew.
Sara: And Addison, when you’re here, you’re family.
Addison: Ewww! You’re like my sister too.
Sara: Eww! I love you Addison!
26. Tune in next week! Ew!

65 In example 24, Sara uses the word to express empathy (Addison was told to go to the bottom of the cheerleading pyramid). In example 25, the word is uttered by both participants and is spoken with a longer vowel, which, along with the semantics of the sentence, suggests that the young women express affection with the word. Finally, when Sara breaks the fourth wall at the end of the segment, the same bonding quality is used when addressing the audience. In this case, Fallon might appeal to the audience knowing that the overuse of the word is itself meant to be an inside joke in order to bond with viewers.


66 This paper has attempted to show how linguistic markers associated with a particular sociolect may be recruited in a parodic performance in order to convey a set of characters’ key personality traits: young, rather idiotic teenage girls. Thanks to the enregisterment of Valspeak markers, which include lexical items, vowel quality, and prosodic contours, Fallon and Cena are able to portray their characters as teenage girls precisely because said markers may be perceived as female-like by the audience; in this sense, they create neo-Valley Girl characters. These linguistic markers are also generally stigmatized, and relying on them may also serve the portrayal of such characters are stupid, and to some extent unrelatable. The semantics (or lack thereof in the case of semantic bleaching), as well as the pronunciation of the utterances contribute to an overall negative perception of characters. It is not argued that either the host, the segment, or the show are misogynistic, but rather that Fallon, Cena and the writers of the show all rely on the linguistic misogyny of the enregistered nature of Valspeak to portray these characters. The use of creaky voice, HRT, the CVS might indeed subtly appeal to viewer’s stereotypical views of unintelligent female teenagers.

67 It is not the aim of this paper to state whether such a sketch is funny or not. Instead, by deconstructing how humor is conveyed linguistically, it insists on the fact that linguistic misogyny is an intrinsically ideological process. Just like the props and the set, the linguistic features used are indexical of teenagers, and more specifically female teenagers.

68Viewers should therefore be aware that their own folk-linguistic beliefs may be recruited to depict social groups on mainstream media, be it in a humorous way or not.

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Sara: Hi everyone! Welcome to ‘Ew!’ I’m Sara, and if you’re wondering that’s S-A-R-A with no H, because Hs are ew! Joining me today is one of my BFFs. She moved away like three years ago. Now, she’s transferring back to our school district. Look at this cute picture of us. [Shows picture]. It’s my best friend, I haven’t seen her forever, please welcome Addison Wyher!

Sara and AddisonO-M-G!

Sara: So glad to see you. I have to say, you look rather different.

Addison: Yeah. I had a little bit of a growth spurt. [In a deep voice] My mom says I’m going through some changes.

Sara: I feel like you’re on the advanced course.

Addison: Ew, I know. Cheerleading squad moved me to the bottom of the pyramid.

Sara: You’re on the bottom row?!

Addison: I am the bottom row.

Sara: Ew.

Addison: I know. The football team’s like all trying to recruit me and stuff, and they’re like, they’re, it’s the first, like, why don’t you throw things, and I was like ew, throwing things…

Sara: Yeah.

Addison: …but like now I totally love it. I mean watch this. [Throws pillow and breaks vase].

Sara: Ew.

Addison: Oops. I guess I’m stronger than I thought.

Sara: Addison, now that you’re back at school, have you been talking to any boys lately?

Addison: Yes! Check out this text with my crush back at home, Brayden. Ok, like, you’ll be Brayden and I’ll be me. (Both read text messages, which appear on screen).

Sara (as Brayden)Sup?

Addison (as herself): Hey… I guess…

Sara (as Brayden): How do you think you did on the math test?

Addison (as herself): K…

Sara (as Brayden): No way, you’re the smartest! And super cool! 😀 [Smiley face actually shown on screen].

Addison (as herself): Ew!

Sara: Ew! He totally likes you!

Addison: Right?

Sara: Yeah, you’re crushing this crush.

Addison: O-M-G, I totally am!

Sara: Anyway dance team auditions are coming up. Do you want to practice our routine?

Addison: Ew! Hit it! [Music. Both dance. Gary comes down.]

Gary: Alright! Hey girls!

Sara: Ew! It’s my stepdad Gary!

Gary: Oh please! ‘Stepdad Gary’ sounds so boring, call me ‘step daddy G’! Words to your mother! Actually, don’t talk back to your mother, it’s not a good idea.

Sara: Ew!

Gary: Anywho, I heard you to listen to the new Brian Mars, you know I loved his first single [sings] a little bit of Monica in my life, a little bit of Erica….

Addison: Ew!

Sara: Ew! Stop it Gary!

Gary: Don’t worry girls. The only mambo in my life is your mother.

Addison: Ew!

Sara: That’s gross!

Gary: Alright, I just came downstairs to say that your mother and I are upstairs and that we’re making our own sushi and we’re on a roll! You’d better scooch and toosh if you want some of that sush’! Ha ha ha [sings] You take the rice and the seed and you roll up tight, add some fish from the sea and you take a big bite! Top it with some fish eggs if you’re really bold but either way you eat it rawww and cold! Haring, tuna, better eat it quick or you just might…

Sara: Gary! Get out! Out!

Gary: Alright, alright! I’ll catch you two on the flippity-flop!

Sara: Ok! Now it’s time for the Ew! speed run. Here we go. Kytes

Addison: Ew.

Sara: Snapchat.

Addison: Ew.

Sara: Bassoons.

Addison: Eww.

Sara: John Cena.

Addison: Ewww.

Sara: I think he’s cute.

Addison: Too many muscles.

Sara: Steve Martin?


Sara: Really?

Addison: He’s like, a really talented actor. You ever seen Planes, Trains and Automobiles?

SaraPlanes, Trains and Automobiles? I’ve never heard of that one. Anyway, the last one, finally. Olive Garden.

Addison: Ew!

Sara: Really? But their slogan is ‘When you’re here, you’re family’. And Addison, when you’re here, you’re family.

Addison: Ewww! You’re like my sister too.

Sara: Eww! I love you Addison! Alright, that’s all the time we have for ‘Ew!’ I want to thank Addison for joining me today! Tune in next week! Ew!

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1 LOT is part of standard lexical sets developed by Wells (1982).

2 The vowels in the words planes’, ‘trains’ and ‘and’ might also have been affected by their pre-nasal environments.

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List of illustrations

Title Figure 1: Representation of the California Vowel Shift (adapted from Eckert: 2008a)
File image/png, 59k
Title Figure 2: Extreme formant values of American vowels (adapted from Labov et al.: 2006).
File image/png, 33k
Title Figure 3: HRT use — “OMG, I totally am!”
File image/png, 277k
Title Figure 4: HRT use — “I had a little bit of a growth spurt.”
File image/png, 278k
Title Figure 5: Creaky voice use — “He’s like really talented actor.”
File image/png, 219k
File image/png, 25k
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Electronic reference

Pierre Habasque, Linguistic Misogyny as a Parodic Device: Valspeak Markers in Jimmy Fallon’s Ew!”Anglophonia [Online], 29 | 2020, Online since 16 December 2020, connection on 25 January 2021. URL:; DOI:

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Licence Creative Commons
Anglophonia – French Journal of English Linguistics est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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