Women! Our strange vocal tics and annoying upspeak patterns are actually groundbreaking and important, so says science. Linguists now say that a lot of the vocal embellishments women and girls use are actually a lot more sophisticated and refined than previously thought. Take that, Valley Girl doubters!
“A lot of these really flamboyant things you hear are cute, and girls are supposed to be cute,” explains Penny Eckert, a professor of linguistics at Stanford University. “But they’re not just using them because they’re girls. They’re using them to achieve some kind of interactional and stylistic end.” And surprisingly, the tones that girls use get adopted by others. If you doubt that, take a look at the proliferation of Valley Girl speak, which emerged out of the malls and schools of California’s San Fernando Valley in the late 1970s. Now virtually everyone intersperses the word “like” into their sentences. Like it’s always been there.
The most recent linguistical trend to emerge from girls and travel through pop cultural channels? Something called “Vocal fry.” Though it’s hard to describe, vocal fry is the lengthening and extension of the final syllable of a word until it sounds almost “fried.” Britney Spears and Ke$ha do it. So does Kim Kardashian. And odds are, you do it, too, without even realizing. The tone, say linguists, can be described as “creaky,” “disinterested,” and “relaxed.” And it’s spreading wildly among women — and even men now.
But where linguists were previously dismissive of women and girls’ vocal stylings, now they’re paying more attention than ever before. “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.” And even world leaders eventually succumb to the vocal trends of young women; George W. Bush was caught upspeaking — the vocal style of ending sentences in the form of a question — on more than one occasion.
Linguists surmise that women lead on language trends because we tend to be generally more communicative and sensitive, more geared toward language than our male counterparts. And despite women’s vocal stylings being often incorrectly perceived “as insecure, emotional or even stupid,” sayes 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.” [NY Times]