Two years ago, this column sprang into life by enthusiastically wading into the absurdly long-running debate about some of those “destructive speech patterns” of young women and how they’re doing it all wrong.
Now, more than ever, with misogyny so often a focus in the news, it might be interesting to revisit this subject. What’s been going on in the world of these supposed linguistic innovators? Given the relentless language policing by those who believe they know better, have young women listened, mended their dastardly ways and finally gagged themselves with spoons?
But first, just what are these vocal patterns that put certain pearl-clutching social commentators into a state of moral panic, and why? Here’s the lowdown.
By now, everyone knows about uptalk?, in which declarative statements are said with a high rising question intonation, apparently popularized by SoCal Valley Girls and the Kardashians. It’s a linguistic feature that exists in many other dialects of English (also with varying degrees of acceptance), and though it may be true that many young women use it, as we found, really everyone uses it, regardless of gender, age or ethnicity.
But if you think it’s much hated because obviously not even a mother could love a high-pitched Valley Girl voice, consider vocal frrry, in which the pitch is often lowered, using creaky voice, much like you might imagine coming from the gravelly tones of a respectable aristocratic gentleman. It’s impossible to say whether this verbal pattern might be an unconscious response to constant criticism of uptalk (probably not) but it doesn’t matter anyway, because it is also only suspect when found in a young woman, even though, again, everyone uses it. So whether you use high tones or low tones, if you’re a young woman, apparently you should just tone it down.
This is not to mention other usual suspects, you know, um, okay, like, fillers! Unnecessary fillers and sort of indirect hedges instead of pure silence! Many critics have complained that young women’s language is so very indirect, with never-ending run on sentences. But that’s not all. There are many other discourse markers in English that have been attributed largely to women’s speech, such as tag questions, that are also often considered annoying linguistic tics, aren’t they? Well, aren’t they?
For Robin Lakoff, who wrote the influential (though slightly unscientific) work “Language and Woman’s Place” in 1973, these verbal habits are indicative of one thing: women’s lack of confidence.
In the seventies, it was a valid concern that women’s speech should appear and be received as strong voices with something to say. Based on the anecdotal evidence around her, Lakoff assumed that certain speech patterns were used more often by women than by men. But subsequent research has questioned whether this really is the case.
Betty Lou Dubois and Isabel Crouch, in a limited study, attempted to verify Lakoff’s claims and found that no definitive statements could really be made about whether women use more tag questions than men. Eric Schleef points out that for discourse markers such as “you know”, “like”, “okay” and “right”, some researchers, following Lakoff, might accept that more women use these fillers, but in certain other statistically significant studies, young men were found to use “like” more frequently than young women, for example. For many researchers, the assumption that these verbal patterns indicate insecurity or even difficulties with speech production in the case of fillers like um/uh can’t necessarily be validated.
While Lakoff’s work was crucial in focusing research in this area, the varying results of research and social commentary in the area of gendered speech patterns since then can neither confirm nor deny Lakoff’s findings. The discourse does bring up some important questions about the narrative that’s been set in place about power, status, and young women’s speech patterns.
Whether these speech patterns are viewed as women’s talk, it’s clear that they are also widely used by other speakers regardless of gender or age, and often only marked and stigmatized when that speaker happens to be young or a woman. It’s interesting that many people get rather annoyed when they hear these speech patterns coming from a woman or a younger speaker (but often are oblivious when the same verbal tics are used by a man). Others might feel concerned or condescending about what this means for young women and their so-called bad speech habits. For many, even academic researchers who find that young women and men might employ the same linguistic patterns, there’s a prevailing and socially accepted belief that in order to get ahead, whether in job interviews or in life, these unassertive young women will have to change the way they speak.
Case in point: Naomi Wolf, who one might assume would be positioning herself as a champion of young women’s language innovation. Not so. With the best of intentions, Wolf falls into the trap of assuming that the naturally occurring speech of young women is destructive, “disowning” their power by the mere sounds they make. Similarly, Jean E. Fox Tree quotes a communications professor who can’t see the forest for the trees, stating:
“The use of filler words (‘like,’ ‘you know,’ ‘umm’ and ‘you know what I mean?’) has always been a problem, and I find that much of the time, the students who use them the most do not even realize they are doing it,” he said. “It has become a way of speech because it is easy, it is the path of least resistance. I would even go so far as to say that there is a correlation in our culture between communication skills and character development.”
Alas. Well, linguists also get angry and even frustrated, but for different reasons.
In an NPR story on vocal fry and policing young women’s speech, linguist Penny Eckert says:
“It makes me really angry. And it makes me angry, first of all, because the biggest users of vocal fry traditionally have been men, and it still is; men in the U.K, for instance. And it’s considered kind of a sign of hyper-masculinity … and by the same token, uptalk, it’s clear that in some people’s voices that has really become a style, but it has been around forever, and people use it stylistically in a variety of ways—both men and women.”
Meanwhile, researcher Jena Barchas-Lichtenstein writes, in reference to a New York Times article cautioning their readers to stop using filler words, that
“Reporting on language often frustrates me, and this was no exception. In fact, thirty-odd linguists—including me—sent them a letter detailing our many concerns with this article. In particular, the article makes two major mistakes:
1. It doesn’t address the many valuable functions these words play.
2. It perpetuates a sneaky type of bias against women and young people.”
Likewise, for Fox Tree, “unlike the general public, most researchers who have studied um, uh, like, and you know agree that they are meaningful and functional.” So despite the muddied waters of gendered language, linguists have long been aware of another story that the public and armchair language critics are only slowly beginning to understand. Not only are the speech patterns of women and young people actually widely used by other speakers of the language and so therefore unfairly stigmatized, but discourse markers, far from being destructive and meaningless verbal eccentricities revealing insecurities and powerlessness, have an instructive function in language.
So, just because certain discourse markers are popularly viewed as belonging to a particular group of speakers, we can’t make blanket assumptions about that group’s status or power based on those markers. Discourse markers allow speakers to convey conversational functions such as holding the floor when speaking, sending cues that their listeners can take their turn in the conversation, or making sure that their listeners can follow the conversation. They help reflect an individual speaker’s metacognitive state to their listeners. For example, researchers found that spontaneous use of fillers like “um” can help listeners pay more attention to the intended word to follow. Though seemingly the same as a question intonation, uptalk allows the speaker to track whether their listeners are following and receiving the information being offered.
There is thus an important method to the madness of these maligned speech patterns, but what happens when an entire group of speakers is constantly asked, nay, begged, to drop these linguistic quirks and talk like sensible people? Are young women even likely to listen?
William Labov’s work showed that women are at the center of a hotly debated gender paradox, where they are at the same time conformists, following the rules, and non-conformists, being language innovators. (And no, this is not a case of women trying to have it all). Although men have often been assumed to be the bearers of standard language, Labov found that it’s actually women who tend to use the standard language and avoid stigmatized forms. On the other hand, they’re more likely to be at the vanguard of language change (that may later become stigmatized).
So will uptalk and its ilk ever go away, at least for young women and young people? Certainly it’s alive and well in a casual speech context, but what about situations where speakers are more formally instructing others or delivering information, such as in an academic setting or an interview? Though, like Lakoff, we can only make an anecdotal observation on this point, it may be that, at least in certain instructional speech contexts, uptalk is already being reduced in the speech of young women. Given Labov’s paradox, we might assume that young women, admonished to drop certain speech patterns to fit the “standard” language, might just do so.
If the functionality of uptalk becomes less available, young women might be turning to other methods of signaling the same cues, right? Take the question tag “right?” which seems to be growing unobtrusively popular in the general American speech of young women, if these podcast examples are anything to go by. In certain examples the tag seems to lose much of its question intonation, becoming more of a declarative filler. Rather than asking for agreement or approval, right tracks whether a listener is following, similar to the “yeah?” question tag common in British English.
In an interview with Reshma Saujani, an advocate for girls STEM education:
6:05: “So our results are incredible, right?”
7:30 You’ve got very ambitious goals, right?
8:14 It’s because of The Social Network, right?
In an interview with Kathryn Minshew, Co-Founder of The Muse:
21:50 You really can only connect the dots in retrospect, right?
Though uptalk makes an appearance from time to time, its use and influence seems surprisingly lessened. Also fascinating in these interviews is the apparent emergence of a kind of listing intonation discourse marker, when the speakers are not really sharing items in a list at all but just telling a story. For example, if you listen to the above podcast at 36:25 for the lines “No more prepping… and be ourselves… we’d like to invite you to be part of the program” these are all uttered with a rising tone that’s less like uptalk and a lot more like keeping track of a list, perhaps allowing the listener certain verbal cues to structure the story into parts, helping them to follow any ambiguous “run on sentences” and know what to expect next. Interestingly some researchers believe that uptalk in Belfast English may have stemmed from a similar listing intonation, as opposed to a question intonation.
In the same way we wouldn’t expect speakers of a different language to suddenly drop their speech habits in favor of English, isn’t it about time we stopped assuming the linguistic patterns of women and young people are destructive and should change, especially when it often matches what’s considered the norm?