Young women are the leading edge of linguistic innovation. Why do we criticize them for it?
About 15 years ago, when we were in our mid-20s, a female friend of mine was on a ferry telling a long and hilarious story to another pal of ours. An older woman sitting nearby tapped my friend on the shoulder and said, “Excuse me, but I wanted to let you know that the way you’re speaking—all the ‘likes’—is really unprofessional and is going to harm you in the workforce. You need to train yourself to speak more like an adult.”
We laughed about this for years (“You should have replied, ‘like, STFU,’ or ‘Bitch, like, shut your pie hole”), but what I really wanted my friend to say was, “Lady, setting aside the fact that you interrupted our private conversation, you should know that language changes. It’s inevitable. This is how people talk now, so get off your high horse and stop telling me how to speak.” I also wanted her to point out that she was already successful in the professional world (and would go on to be even more so), so her “likes” weren’t hurting her a bit. But my friend is too modest for that.
And it turns out that we were right: Young women are linguistic innovators, the group most responsible for changing the language from generation to generation. They are “disruptors,” the radical changers of language—even more so, than, say, Shakespeare. Gretchen McCulloch, writing for Quartz, reports on a study conducted by a team of linguists from the university of Helsinki that read 6,000 letters written from 1417 to 1681. They examined 14 language changes that occurred during that time; for example, “doth” to “does” or “hath” to “has.” The researchers found that the vast majority of the time—for 11 of the 14 changes—women were changing the way they wrote faster than the men (and for the three men who were ahead, well, they had better access to education at the time).
McCulloch writes: “This trend hasn’t changed much. While young people have long driven innovation, it’s not just an age thing—it’s also a gender thing. During the decades that sociolinguists have been researching the question, they’ve continually found evidence that women lead linguistic change,” from the distinctive way New Yorkers pronounce “r” (women are shifting away from that) to the “ch” pronunciation of Panama.
McCulloch notes that women are also the leaders in vocal and linguistic trends like uptalk, vocal fry, and “like”; these trends show up a generation later for men. Why? Because boys learn language mostly from women (their mothers and female caregivers), so the way young mothers are talking is the way the next generation is going to talk. (So expect to see vocal fry and uptalk in our sons as they grow up.) But women are more influenced by their peers than by their mothers. McCulloch writes, “[W]e do know that young women tend to be more socially aware, more empathetic, and more concerned about how their peers perceive them. This may translate into a greater facility for linguistic disruption. Women also tend to have larger social networks, which means they’re more likely to be exposed to a greater diversity of language innovations.”
So why is there so much hand-wringing about how women talk? Consider the media stories we’ve heard lately about vocal fry or uptalk, or even the lady on the ferry who felt compelled to criticize my friend for her “likes.” It boils down to simple sexism: We look at men, especially middle-aged white men, as authority figures. How they talk is the norm, and it follows that everyone else must somehow be less articulate or confident.
So the perfect response to the lady on the ferry shouldn’t have been something nasty or curt after all. My friend should simply have replied, “I’m, like, an innovator.”