Move over Shakespeare, teen girls are the real language disruptors

Innovators at work.
Innovators at work.
Image: Mario Antonio Pena Zapatería via CC BY-SA 2.0
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Hate vocal fry? Bothered by the use of “like” and “just”? Think uptalk makes people sound less confident? If so, you may find yourself growing increasingly unpopular—there’s a new wave of people pointing out that criticizing young women’s speech is just old-fashioned sexism.

I agree, but I think we can go even further: young women’s speech isn’t just acceptable—it’s revolutionary. And if we value disruptors and innovation, we shouldn’t just be tolerating young women’s speech—we should be celebrating it. To use a modern metaphor, young women are the Uber of language.

What does it mean to disrupt language? Let’s start with the great English disruptor: William Shakespeare.

Shakespeare is celebrated to this day not just because he wrote a mean soliloquy but because of what he added to our language—he’s said to have brought in over 1,700 words. But recent scholars have called that number of words into question. As Katherine Martin, head of US Dictionaries at Oxford University Press, has pointed out, if Shakespeare was inventing dozens of new words per play, how would his audience have understood him? Rather, it’s likely that Shakespeare had an excellent grasp of the vernacular and was merely writing down words that his audience was already using.

So if Shakespeare wasn’t disrupting the English language, who was? And how did we get from Shakespearean English to the version we speak now? That’s right: young women.

A pair of linguists, Terttu Nevalainen and Helena Raumolin-Brunberg at the University of Helsinki, conducted a study that combed through 6,000 personal letters written between 1417 and 1681. The pair looked at fourteen language changes that occurred during this period, things like the eradication of ye, the switch from “mine eyes” to “my eyes,” and the change from hath, doth, maketh to has, does, makes.

In 11 out of the 14 changes, they found that female letter-writers were changing the way they wrote faster than male letter-writers. In the three exceptional cases where the men were ahead of the women, those particular changes were linked to men’s greater access to education at the time. In other words, women are reliably ahead of the game when it comes to word-of-mouth linguistic changes.

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.

Young women are leading the change away from the distinctive /r/ pronunciation of New York City, they’re leading the vowel changes in US cities around the Great Lakes, the /aw/ pronunciation in Toronto and Vancouver, the “ch” pronunciation in Panama, the /r/ pronunciation in Montreal, the ne deletion in Tours, /t/ and /d/ pronunciations in Cairo Arabic, vowel pronunciation in Paris, not to mention entire language shifts, like that from Hungarian to German in Austria—and the list goes on.

Plus, young women are on the bleeding edge of those linguistic changes that periodically sweep through the media’s trend sections, from uptalk to “selfie” to the quotative like to vocal fry.

The role that young women play as language disruptors is so well-established at this point it’s practically boring to sociolinguists. The founder of modern sociolinguistics, William Labov, observed that women lead 90% of linguistic change—in a paper he wrote 25 years ago. Researchers continue to confirm his findings.

It takes about a generation for the language patterns started among young women to jump over to men. Uptalk, for example, which is associated with Valley Girls in the 1970s, is found among young men today. In other words, women learn language from their peers; men learn it from their mothers.

While the pattern is well-established, we still don’t know for sure yet why young women reliably lead linguistic innovation. Maybe it’s nature, maybe it’s nurture; but we 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.

And of course, women are still likely to spend more time caring for children than men—even if a particular woman works outside the home, daycare workers and elementary school teachers are disproportionately female. This means that even if young men were disrupting language as much as women, they would be hard-pressed to pass it along.

All of this leads us to the biggest question: if women are such natural linguistic innovators, why do they get criticized for the same thing that we praise Shakespeare for? Plain old-fashioned sexism.

Our society takes middle-aged men more seriously than young women for a whole host of reasons, so it’s only logical that we have also been conditioned to automatically respect the tone and cadence of the typical male voice, as well as their word choices.

Sure, let’s encourage young women to speak with confidence, but not by avoiding vocal fry or “like” or whatever the next linguistic disruption is. Let’s tell them to speak with confidence because they’re participating in a millennia-old cycle of linguistic innovation—and one that generations of powerful men still haven’t figured out how to crack.