The Oral Storytelling Traditions of My People

…by which I mean Valley Girls, yes.

And by “oral storytelling traditions” I do not mean the stories that begin with “sing in me muse” or even “once upon a time”, but rather those that begin “oh my God*, dude,” or sometimes “no shit, there I was”. Sometimes people storm out of restaurants. Sometimes people start fistfights in order to defend the superiority of Pearl Jam. Sometimes, in the words of Cordelia Chase, you need to call everyone you know right now , and when you do that, there’s a particular idiom for relating the cause of that phone call.

See, I just finished John McWhorter’s What Language Is –excellent book, by the way–and the section in there on “she’s all” made me think of Sarah Bunting’s excellent point about “like”:

My mother never grasped the distinction here, but “say” is for what people say. “Like” is for what people meant, for their faces, for their attitudes, for everything you can’t see for yourself when you hear about something secondhand. I have often said, “Okay, great,” but been like, “God, whatever.”

Pretty much. Except that I also use “I’m like” and “she’s all” for another, related purpose: when I don’t remember verbatim what was said, but still want to convey the general gist of it. “…and I’m like ‘well, fine, then, can I go home now’?”

And it occurred to me, when thinking about this, that you–or at least I–pretty much never use the standard written conventions when telling these stories. “He said ‘blah'” does not come up a lot.** Rather, there are four basic forms. The three others:

1) Summary. “…and she said that she went there a lot.” Nobody cares about the details. They may care about the information–“and he said he’s moving to Kansas tomorrow”–or the information may just be necessary context for subsequent drama, but the manner or attitude really doesn’t matter.

2) Begging for (over)analysis. “So she said ‘I can’t date a guy who’s really into the Grateful Dead’, and I’m wondering if she means she can’t date a guy who likes the Dead at all, or just that she can’t date a guy who, like, follows the tour in a modified VW bus.”

This is the closest to standard dialogue tag stuff, but it nearly always has elaboration afterwards. “And I’m wondering,” or “…so…do you think…” or whatever.

3) Verbatim. Sometimes you *do* care exactly what So-and-So said to What’s-her-Face. Usually this is because So-and-So’s wording was dramatic/obnoxious/otherwise noteworthy in and of itself. Therefore, sentences like this take a parenthetical. “He said, I swear to God…” or “He said, and I am completely serious here…”

When telling a friend about the Worst Date Ever, you may use all four, as follows:

“So he mentioned Depeche Mode and I said that yeah, they had some good songs.

To which he said, and I’m not even kidding, ‘They really speak to the darkness in my soul. My last girlfriend couldn’t understand that.’

And I’m all ‘Oh, that’s nice, great to meet you, I just remembered I have to go and…wash my…fish.’

The thing is, earlier in the evening, he said, ‘I think a girl like you could really understand where I’m coming from,’ so do you think I’m sending off that kind of vibes? Should I wear less eyeliner?”

And now you know!

*At some point, I may write another post on the different inflections and meanings of “oh my God”. Yes, this was totally worth the student loans. Really.


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I'm Izzy. I write stuff: mostly vaguely fantasy stuff, and most notably the following books: Hickey of the Beast, published March 2011 by Candlemark and Gleam Romance novels from Sourcebooks: No Proper Lady Lessons After Dark Legend of the Highland Dragon The Highland Dragon's Lady Night of the Highland Dragon Highland Dragon Warrior Highland Dragon Rebel Highland Dragon Master I also like video games, ballroom dancing, and various geeky hobbies like LARPing. I have been known to voluntarily purchase and eat circus peanuts. Like, a whole bag at once.

10 thoughts on “The Oral Storytelling Traditions of My People”

  1. How to adopt these into a written story? Use first person and risk alienating readers? Devise alternative formulations to make the same distinction of content and summary level without that risk?

    (I have no answers.)

    1. Excellent question. I’m not sure I have answers either–I think first person could work, but otherwise I’m not sure the distinctions would quite be suited to fiction narration, where the pretense is that the narrator isn’t actually a person reporting the story to the audience. Summary is the only one that really translates particularly well.

      Or, rather, the only one that I think *I* could translate particularly well. I’d absolutely read a story that tried to do something similar.

  2. “He said ‘blah’” does not come up a lot.**

    I only see one footnote at the bottom of this post, and it isn’t this one. Did you forget to write the footnote, or decide not to write one after all but neglect to remove the asterisks?

    1. I think the latter–“Begging for (over) analysis” was going to be a footnote, and then I made it part of the text, but…not enough caffeine, I think. 😉

  3. “*At some point, I may write another post on the different inflections and meanings of “oh my God”. Yes, this was totally worth the student loans. Really.”

    Oh, PLEASE do it. It’ll save me from making the effort as I languish in Grad School Hell. I ought to be writing some criticism of Moby Dick, anyway.

    1. Hee! I’ll hopefully tackle it this week, then.

      (And also figure out what’s up with WordPress not notifying me of things for weeks and then doing it in a big lump. Sigh.)

  4. I’m curious, because I’ve not read the book myself, but does it touch on the topic of when or how the ‘slang’ version works its way up to becoming ‘standard usage’, for lack of a better term? For example, at what point will “I’m all, like, ….” become an acceptable turn of phrase in a formal setting the same way “And then I said…” is?

    Also, I need to find more ways to work “No shit, there I was…” into conversation. I think it would make recounting the most mundane tasks more epic. “No shit, there I was, in the pantry, getting some crackers…” or “No shit, there I was, riding the shopping cart through the parking lot…” It won’t make me as cool as Varric Tethras, but perhaps I can share some of his reflected glory.

    1. A little, though not a great deal–it’s more about the evolution of words than of phrases, and it focuses a lot on foreign languages. It does have a pretty cool analysis of “ass” as part of speech, though, in the “I told him to sit his ass down” sense.*

      I approve of this. But I also narrate my winter commutes in the manner of the Conan prologue. “Thence came Izzy, making her way across the icy northern wastes, unheeding of snow and bitter wind…” and similar.

      You gotta make your own fun in this life.

      *Thing I still remember from my History of Language class: “Ungoddamnbelievable” and similar expressions are known as “expletive infixations”. And accepted use is that the expletive comes after the first syllable.

      My mind? Totally attuned to Higher Things. Really.

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