Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Women as Linguistic Pioneers

A colleague shared a link with me this morning from The New York Times for an article on linguistic innovation: "They're Like, Way Ahead of the Linguistic Currrrve" by Douglas Quenqua. The article focuses on how many people tease young women for the way they speak--whether it's using like as a filler or using creaky voice to end a statement; and yet, many of those same things young women are teased for become linguistic markers in English at large. The following few paragraphs portray nicely what the whole article is about:

“If women do something like uptalk or vocal fry, it’s immediately interpreted as insecure, emotional or even stupid,” said Carmen Fought, a professor of linguistics at Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif. “The truth is this: Young women take linguistic features and use them as power tools for building relationships.”
The idea that young women serve as incubators of vocal trends for the culture at large has longstanding roots in linguistics. As Paris is to fashion, the thinking goes, so are young women to linguistic innovation.
“It’s generally pretty well known that if you identify a sound change in progress, then young people will be leading old people,” said Mark Liberman, a linguist at the University of Pennsylvania, “and women tend to be maybe half a generation ahead of males on average.”

I urge you to read the original article, as there are other very interesting insights throughout it. While the article (and the linguists quoted in it) cite young women as linguistic innovators, what is perhaps more intriguing is that no one knows why. The article offers several theories, but I'm not sure we'll ever be able to pinpoint the exact reason why these linguistic phenomena catch on like they do and why (or how) young women start many of them in the first place.

What do you think?

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