That's, like, super cooool

Mar 16, 2012 By Jason Kornwitz
Heather Littlefield, the head adviser for the linguistics program the College of Science, explains why young women have become know as bellwethers for vocal trends and popular slang. Credit: Mike Mazzanti.

A study published in December in the Journal of Voice found that female college students have popularized a linguistic fad called “vocal fry,” which has been described as a “guttural fluttering of the vocal chords” with a “lazy, drawn-out effect.” Northeastern University news office asked Heather Littlefield, the head adviser for the linguistics program in the College of Science, to explain why young women have become known as bellwethers for vocal trends and popular slang.  

Pop singer Britney Spears, reality TV star Kim Kardashian and New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson are all famous for frying their words. Why have women in general — and young women in particular — become known as linguistic innovators? 

This is an interesting question and the answer is quite complex. In fact, we’re still working on understanding this. But one main reason is undoubtedly related to women’s general social status relative to men. Women need to use the currency that is available to them to obtain social status. So while physical strength, political power and money may not be as accessible to women to shape and affect their world to the same degree as men, language is. So they use this tool to their best advantage. Then, because it is an effective tool, others begin to adopt it.

But we should keep in mind two things. First, that there seem to be contexts in which women are more linguistically conservative. For example, when women marry and begin to have families, there is a trend that they uphold the “standard” forms for the language more than men. (For most of us, it was our mothers who corrected our grammar and made sure we didn’t swear).

Second, that while these tools can be very useful, they are still seen in a negative light by most speakers of the language. Take, for example, the use of “like,” which has several different meanings. These new ways of using “like” are very useful, and in fact these patterns of use have spread to other languages. But everyone makes fun of it and denigrates it, even if we all use it.

The Valley Girls of the 1980s popularized uptalk, a speech pattern in which statements are pronounced like questions. But 20 years later, both grandparents and American presidents alike began adopting the vocal pattern. What can you learn about an individual or a group of people by studying vocal trends?  

We can see that language is really a tool to be manipulated by its speakers. When we study a speaker or group of speakers, we can examine their language patterns to try to see what’s important to them. Because the use of language is largely subconscious, it reflects what speakers really believe and want, which can sometimes be different from what they say they believe and want. Linguistic patterns can be very useful for this type of study, but again, it can be very challenging to fully work out such complex patterns and why they occur.

How have text messaging and social networking sites such as Twitter influenced language trends and styles?

This is a new field of study, and we are just beginning to identify some of the trends and styles.  For instance, it seems like young children have a better sense of phonics because they often type things phonetically rather than with the standard orthography (writing “LOL” instead of “laugh out loud”). And of course, some new lexical items come from these domains, so people can now say “LOL,” and we have new verbs, such as “to friend” and “to text.” But overall, it looks like these technologies use a combination of the features of oral and written discourse; it seems unlikely that they will have a deep impact on changing the language. These technologies are really just tools for using language.

Think about the advent of the printing press or the telephone or TV; these were all new tools for the spread of language, but the core structures of the language didn’t change because of them.  There were, of course, introductions of new words to talk about the technologies, but there wasn’t any deep structural change to the itself because of these new tools.

Explore further: Texas OKs most new history textbooks amid outcry

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

'Motherese' important for children's language development

May 06, 2011

(Medical Xpress) -- Talking to children has always been fundamental to language development, but new research reveals that the way we talk to children is key to building their ability to understand and create ...

'Queen's English' not the best

Nov 02, 2011

Native English speakers should give up their claim to be the guardians of the purest form of the language and accept that the ways it is used and changed by millions around the world are equally valid.

Bilinguals get the blues

Mar 15, 2011

(PhysOrg.com) -- Learning a foreign language literally changes the way we see the world, according to new research.

Swear words shed light on how language shapes thought

Jul 25, 2011

Why were people offended when BBC broadcaster James Naughtie mispronounced the surname of the Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt? Why is it much easier for bilingual speakers to swear in their second language? ...

Recommended for you

Study identifies why re-educating torturers may not work

Nov 21, 2014

Many human rights educators assume – incorrectly, as it turns out – that police and military officers in India who support the torture of suspects do so because they are either immoral or ignorant. This ...

Research helps raise awareness of human trafficking

Nov 21, 2014

Human trafficking –– or the control, ownership and sale of another human being for monetary gain –– was a common occurrence centuries ago, but many believe it doesn't exist in this day and age and not in this country.

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.