Lingua Obscura: Young Women’s Language Patterns at the Forefront of Linguistic Change

Lingua Obscura

Linguists observe that it is often the more marginalized groups in society that seem to effect language change over time, not the high-status networks where all the social capital and power reside. Consider young women’s language patterns and speech. By merely speaking, young women can invite negative reactions, comments, and suggestions to change the way they naturally talk if they want to be taken seriously.

Chi Luu

Chi Luu is a peripatetic linguist who speaks Australian English and studies dead languages. Every two weeks, she’ll uncover curious stories about language from around the globe for Lingua Obscura.

Linguistic features such as uptalk (sometimes known as high rising terminal, where the intonation rises at the end of a sentence like a question) and vocal fry (or creaky voice, produced by vibrations in the larynx) or discourse fillers such as the ubiquitous “like,” have been regular fodder for discussion on the state of the language, across a range of different dialects and demographics, whether from an American English, British English, or Australian English perspective.

Young women, even those in positions of authority, might be met with derision or disapproval if they use these linguistic features which, as it happens, are naturally found not only in the speech of their peers but increasingly in older generations of speakers else as well.

A recent study showed that using vocal fry during an interview for example, may affect your chances of landing a job—but only if you’re a young woman. A sample of young adult women’s recorded voices using vocal fry was perceived negatively “as less competent, less educated, less trustworthy, less attractive, and less hirable” in contrast to vocal fry in male voices saying exactly the same sentence. The conclusion: the results suggest that young women should avoid using vocal fry if they want to get hired.


Clearly sexism plays a role in how the speech of young women is perceived.

The fact is these speech patterns occur unconsciously for most people and it takes a bit of effort and practice to stop speaking in that way. These features are simply far more noticeable when used by a social group that is marked for certain negative value judgements and so on the whole the perception is negative. When used by a social group that is regarded more highly, it isn’t generally perceived at all, or else the perception is positive.

When uptalk is used by young women the common interpretation has been that it is suggestive of weakness, as though the speaker is uncertain of their information or lacks self-confidence. But from a discourse point of view, it may be that, as women are socially conditioned to be cooperative rather than competitive, uptalk has evolved as a linguistic method for verifying that a listener is following the conversation in rather an efficient way. What’s also interesting is rather than indicating weakness, there are studies which show uptalk may be used more often by people in dominant positions to assert power, as demonstrated in the wild by George W. Bush, among others.

So does this mean that people in positions of power who use uptalk and vocal fry are actually being influenced by the speech patterns of supposedly insecure young women? Are young women linguistic superheroes, a kind of vanguard of language change? It would seem so.

In fact, it’s already widely accepted in sociolinguistic research that women generally are innovators in linguistic change, according to a 2009 study by Sali A. Tagliamonte and Alexandra D’Arcy. The question perhaps is how long does it take for these novel features to spread. The Tagliamonte and D’Arcy study investigates the process behind how language change occurs across generations until a language feature is stabilized. The study suggests that men lag a generation behind when it comes to adopting language innovation.

When a new feature of speech is associated with ‘women’s talk’, it is often socially devalued, and there is a strong reaction against adopting that speech style by their male (and some female) peers and older generations of speakers. Ironically, the pushback against these novel ways of speaking might even be the catalyst for these linguistic innovations to be broadcasted and adopted more widely. Tagliamonte and D’Arcy posit that, as women tend to be primary caregivers, the next generation develops language with those speech effects in place, so these changes to language are female-dominated. The changes happen incrementally over time as children and adolescents alter their modes of speaking to align with their groups. As the speech feature becomes more widely spread across a range of speakers and speech groups it appears it may be adopted, often unconsciously, by more conservative speakers until it is eventually a stable part of mainstream speech and becomes uncontroversial.

So, despite the negative views of the many of the speech stylings of young women of today, they appear to have a clear role as linguistic powerhouses to effect language change and it may be that by the next few generations, we’ll all be speaking with a side of vocal fry?

JSTOR Citations

Peaks Beyond Phonology: Adolescence, Incrementation, and Language Change

By: Sali A. Tagliamonte and Alexandra D'Arcy

Language, Vol. 85, No. 1 (Mar., 2009), pp. 58-108

Linguistic Society of America

Chi Luu

Chi Luu is a computational linguist and NLP researcher who tinkers with tiny models and machines to uncover curious mysteries in human language. She has advanced degrees in Theoretical Linguistics and Literature, with a morbid focus on dead and dying languages. She has worked on dictionaries, multi-language search engines, and question answering applications.

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