The idea that young women serve as incubators of vocal trends for the culture at large has longstanding roots in linguistics. As Paris is to fashion, the thinking goes, so are young women to linguistic innovation. “It’s generally pretty well known that if you identify a sound change in progress, then young people will be leading old people,” saidMark Liberman, a linguist at the University of Pennsylvania, “and women tend to be maybe half a generation ahead of males on average.”
Less clear is why. Some linguists suggest that women are more sensitive to social interactions and hence more likely to adopt subtle vocal cues. Others say women use language to assert their power in a culture that, at least in days gone by, asked them to be sedate and decorous. Another theory is that young women are simply given more leeway by society to speak flamboyantly.
But the idea that vocal fads initiated by young women eventually make their way into the general vernacular is well established. Witness, for example, the spread of uptalk, or “high-rising terminal.” (pronouncing statements as if they were questions? Like this?) Starting in America with the Valley Girls of the 1980s (after immigrating from Australia, evidently), uptalk became common among young women across the country by the 1990s.
Wednesday, February 29, 2012
Our Linguistic Innovators are Middle School Girls
The Times notices something linguists discovered 20 years ago, that the leaders in how our speech changes are young women and especially girls 11 to 15: