The influence of teenage girls over language

“People are busy policing women’s language and nobody is policing older or younger men’s language.” -Stanford linguistics professor Penny Eckert

A few months ago, an article explained how women are ‘damaging’ their career prospects by using the wrong words. The problem with this is that it stems from the idea that speaking like a man, will give women a greater chance of success in the workplace, however men’s greater success in the workplace is completely unrelated to their vocal patterns; it is simply a result of their privileged status as a man. These criticisms may change from the pitch of our voices, use of apologetic tones, to even criticising teenage girls for vocal developments such as using ‘like’ in the place of certain verbs, but they always remain. It is simply a form of old-fashioned sexism.

Young women’s speech has been important throughout history in revolutionising language. Shakespeare’s addition of over 1,700 words to our language which has led his distinct style of writing to be celebrated, is a hefty sum, and it has been argued that had Shakespeare been inventing an entire new vernacular each play, he wouldn’t have been nearly as successful as he was, as the audience wouldn’t have been able to understand him. It’s more likely that Shakespeare was just using the words his audience used, and therefore this explains his large audience which ranged from the groundlings to Queen Elizabeth I. Then, if 1,700 words were being added to the English language, who did these evolve from?

This is the question that a pair of linguists, Terttu Nevalainen and Helena Raumolin-Brunberg conducted a study about, investigating fourteen language changes (e.g. eradication of ‘ye’, and the change from ‘mine’ to ‘my’) that occurred between 1417 and 1681, by analysing 6,000 personal letters written in that time period. They came to the conclusion that ‘general pattern that emerges is one in which women are found to lead the process of linguistic change in the majority of cases. In 8 out of 14 examples, women adopt new language variants earlier’ and that in 11 of the 14 changes, women were changing the way they wrote faster than the men, and in the remaining three cases, this was linked to the men having greater access to education.

This isn’t just a thing of the past, as teenage girls currently have had influence over language pronunciation in US cities around the Great Lakes, Toronto and Vancouver, Montreal, Paris, developments in Cairo Arabic, and even whole language shifts in Austria. Additionally contributing to new words such as ‘selfie’, and ways of speaking, including vocal fry (a tendency to draw out the end of words or sentences with a low, creaky voice).

So criticising teenage girls for their language innovation, something Shakespeare was praised for, is just sexism, the female status meaning our voices are less respected, in contrast to the tone of a male one. So stop policing the way we speak, and instead police your misogynistic comments. We’re the ones shaping language.

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