Young Women Leading the Way in Linguistic Change

What’s hot in 2012? According to techies: voice controlled devices, fashionistas: floral prints, foodies: ceviche, and linguists: vocal fry. Vocal fry, the sound that used to be exclusively the real estate of bored teenagers and alluring young women, is making its way into the lingua franca. To get a better idea of what the linguistic quirk sounds like, the New York Times suggests watching Maya Rudolph as Maya Angelou on Saturday Night Live or listening to Mae West ask her gentleman friend to come up and see her sometime.

All this interest in vocal fry comes after a study done by researchers at Long Island University showed that more than two thirds of a small sample of young women used these creaky tones. While the study only describes what is happening, other scientists and armchair analysts are hard at work trying to explain why. Amanda L. Chan of The Huffington Post thinks that women are simply mocking popstars like Ke$ha who use vocal fry in their songs. She’s not alone; bloggers have caught word of the story and attacked vocal fryers as obnoxious young girls and faux-sophisticates.

Unsurprisingly, researchers disagree. “If women do something like uptalk or vocal fry, it’s immediately interpreted as insecure, emotional or even stupid,” says Carmen Fought, a linguistics professor at Pitzer College. Penny Eckher, a Standford University professor points out that “A lot of these really flamboyant things you hear are cute, and girls are supposed to be cute. But they’re not just using them because they’re girls. They’re using them to achieve some kind of interactional and stylistic end.”

In other words: give women a little more credit. Sociolinguistic research on gender has shown that, while women as a whole tend to stick closer to standard language than men, young women are often pioneers in linguistic development.”It’s generally pretty well known that if you identify a sound change in progress, then young people will be leading old people and women tend to be maybe half a generation ahead of males on average.” says Mark Liberman, a University of Pennsylvania linguist.

Why young women are at the vanguard of innovation remains a mystery. The answer may lie with social expectations that surround relationships, work, and families. Because dense, multiplex networks tend to be most likely to give rise to linguistic developments, young women — individuals who are likely to rely on and socialize with friends rather than family, who are not yet wives or mothers, and who are forming new relationships at school or work — are fertile grounds for variation.

With vocal fry as only the newest member of the coined-by-young-women club, I thought it might be nice to take a look back at some of the older inductees and their accomplishments.

Like

Perhaps one of the most obvious members of the group, like was introduced to the vernacular by valley girls but has gained cultural traction everywhere from cartoons to Congress. While we like (ha) to associate “like” with silly girls, our friend over at the Language Log talk about how the “Out-Group Illusion” means that the speech of marginalized groups (like women, people of color, and younger people) is often more closely monitored and harshly criticized than that of normative ingroups.

“That’s like so five years ago.” -Cher, Clueless

“Like, let’s get out of here, Scoob.” -Shaggy, Scooby Doo

Uptalk

Like Professor Fought mentioned, uptalk is one of those things that people tend to equate with insecurity. Despite stereotypes, uptalk is actually most frequently used by people in powerful positions to appear non-threatening or to further assert dominance by requiring a listener’s attention and response.

“This is — an agenda! It’s a culture war agenda! They’re out to get Republicans, they’re out to get Christians, they’re out to get people who are {breath} helping Bush; anybody they perceive as not sharing their agenda, they’re out to get!” -George C. Deutsch, WTAW interview

“Thank you. Thanks for the warm welcome, Thank you for the chance to come and speak to the Philadelphia World Affairs Council. This is an important organization that has uh since 1949, has provided a[@C] forum for debate and discussion on important issues.” -President Bush, Speech to the Philadelphia World Affairs Council

Abbrevs

“Mostly I just want to make fun of myself and all the follies of my past & present and yours too, because life is obvs hands down totes RIDIC.” – Riese, I Want One VLOG I Wanted to Come Through, Oh, To Come True

Wasei Eigo

Americans aren’t the only ones creating new ways to talk; young Japanese women have coined plenty of wasei eigo–pseudo-anglicisms–despite a pervading sexist belief that most words come from male professionals. Young women were responsible for at least three words that I know my life would be a little drearier without: furiita (freelance writer), itameshi (italian food) and ike ike gyaru (party girl).

Fetch

“Stop trying to make fetch happen” totally made fetch happen.

“That is so fetch!” – Gretchen Weiners, Mean Girls

Laura is a tiny girl who wishes she were a superhero. She likes talking to her grandma on the phone and making things with her hands. Strengths include an impressive knowledge of Harry Potter, the ability to apply sociology to everything under the sun, and a knack for haggling for groceries in Spanish. Weaknesses: Chick-fil-a, her triceps, girls in glasses, and the subjunctive mood. Follow the vagabond adventures of Laura and her bike on twitter [@laurrrrita].

Laura has written 329 articles for us.

33 Comments

    • I am so jealous of you! I’m reading her books in my baby linguistics classes! Not linguistics for babies, just lower level undergrad ones. Sometimes I think I want to grow up to be just like her. And then other days I think that it would be too much responsibility and maybe I should aim a little lower. Still a ling major though.

      • I study a whole bunch of overlapping things: language and gender, language and ethnicity, and applied sociolinguistics w/r/t the racial politics of education (e.g., how teachers’ preconceived racially based linguistic biases can have adverse effects on students’ educational processes, and how to flip that on its head and linguistically empower kids instead). +1 for socially applicable majors!

        • Sociolinguistics is where it’s at. I love it when I tell people I’m a linguistics major and they’re like – so you study different languages? How many languages do you know? And I have to be all – I don’t know that many but LOOK AT HOW STRUCTURAL RACISM WORKS IN ACCENT PREJUDI… hey wait, where are you going?

  1. I like your linguistic pieces ’cause when I read them, I dust off my linguistics major. :p

    I still love saying the word like. In univ, my speech & language pathology professor was in his 30s, professional speech language therapist, academic, intelligent, spoke standard/formally and used the word “like” the way we do! Hell yeah

  2. As a student of Japanese wasei eigo are really frustrating! I don’t see them a lot, but when I come across them in my homework I can tell they’re from English, but I can’t tell what they mean! I’m used to seeing more direct loanwords (like konpyutaa) but figuring them out the same way doesn’t work. After learning what they mean they’re pretty neat though.

  3. I love making new shit up to say daily. Words are magic, particularly when you start fucking around with them in non-traditional ways. Word nerds in the house!
    *is a giant geek…*

  4. I love linguistics. Never officially studied it, but have read quite a bit and frankly just love the shit out of slang – and the fact that you can trace the history of population movements/migration through changes in language over time. Like, you could figure out when one group of people met up/mingled with another by the introduction of loan words and such. I mean, how cool is that?!

    Also I am ashamed to say I’d never heard the term “vocal fry” until this article, so thanks for fixing that! 🙂

    Nerds unite! Make fetch happen!

  5. I got so excited when I read the title of this post, because I just knew it would involve a glorious confluence of my two favourite places on the Internets: Autostraddle and Language Log. Hooray!

    I would have done a Master’s in Linguistics if I felt there were some actual money-earning job it could lead to afterwards. If I end up independently wealthy somehow I still might.

  6. I’m sorry, but some of the abbreviations and slang of today are just plain ridiculous. Every time I hear someone say “fer realz, or fer realzies”, I just want to beat them with a dictionary.

    • just one question — and i apologize for singling you out, you’re just the latest comment here — why would you have such a violent reaction to someone’s choice of words? i understand having strong convictions against shortening words or ‘butchering’ a language, but i honestly don’t know why anyone would care about how other people decide to manipulate or customize a language, especially when that manipulation isn’t hateful.

  7. Man, I wish I’d never started saying ‘like’. I don’t know how I did or why (probs to be cool?)(see what I did there?) The other ways of speaking I can keep to social situations but I always feel insecure of my use of ‘like’ when in professional-type situations EVEN IF THE OTHER PROFESSIONALS ARE USING IT TOO!!!

  8. My heart is so filled with “Yay” right now. As I am waiting on my acceptance to UPenn’s Romance Languages program and plan to double major with Linguistics so thoroughly that I introduce myself in the college setting as a Romance Languages Linguistics major. And I’m so glad to see other Linguistics majors commenting! No one ever knows what I’m talking about when I say “linguistics” and it makes me so sad. But here among my contemporaries I feel understood. I am such a Linguistics major that on my last day before break I butted into a random group of strangers’ conversation to tell them that in Spanish “fuck” is “joder” with a J not an H.
    Laneia, I feel angry to the point of physical violence when people butcher language because I love it so very much. I long for the days of yore where speech is concerned because sometimes the way people are speaking is extremely ridiculous inthat it seems they’ve gone out of their way to shorten a word that’s perfectly fine or a word that I like. Sometimes it’s because I can’t understand them and I hate how my language has been deteriorated to the point of incomprehension. I love the dictionary and frequently recommend it to my friends/family/random bypassers since it will keep English alive.
    Does anyone else read the dictionary for fun/have dictionary.com apps on every device and look forward to the Word of the Day?

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