Keeping you current

Teenage Girls Have Led Language Innovation for Centuries

They’ve been on the cutting edge of the English language since at least the 1500s

(© Samantha Mitchell/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

Criticizing teenage girls for the way they speak is nothing short of a time-honored tradition for adults who take issue with to everything from slang to vocal fry. But Quartz’s Gretchen McCulloch has a bone to pick with those critics. She argues that female teen linguists should be lauded for their longtime innovation — they’ve been shaking things up for centuries.

McCulloch argues that female teenagers are actually “language disruptors” — innovators who invent new words that make their way into the vernacular. “To use a modern metaphor, young women are the Uber of language,” she writes.

William Shakespeare has long been seen as the poster boy for introducing new words into the English language, though some have questioned his celebrated language disruptor status. But young women may have been the true linguistic revolutionaries of Shakespeare’s day. McCulloch notes that in the 2003 book Historical Sociolinguistics, University of Helsinki linguists Terttu Nevalainen and Helena Raumolin-Brunberg surveyed 6,000 letters from 1417 to 1681. They found that female letter-writers changed the way they wrote faster than male letter-writers, spearheading the adoption of new words and discarding words like "doth" and "maketh."

Women are consistently responsible for about 90 percent of linguistic changes today, writes McCulloch. Why do women lead the way with language? Linguists aren't really sure. Women may have greater social awareness, bigger social networks or even a neurobiological leg up. There are some clues to why men lag behind: A 2009 study estimated that when it comes to changing language patterns, men trail by about a generation.

That's largely due to adult male blowback against female stereotypes in speech (think vocal fry or uptalk) and the fact that, in the past, females have traditionally taken care of children, as Chi Luu wrote for JSTOR Daily in February. Thus, men learn from their mothers, and women tend to learn new lingo from other women.

Though Gretchen Wieners was never able to make “fetch” happen, it's clear that women have been revolutionizing language for a long time. Not bad for a group of kids that get lots of flak for adopting new lingo.

About Helen Thompson
Helen Thompson

Helen Thompson writes about science and culture for Smithsonian. She's previously written for NPR, National Geographic News, Nature and others.

Read more from this author |
Tags

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus