Linguistic Trendsetters

In a recent article in the New York Times, David Quenqua describes recent trends in speech that can be traced back to patterns in the speech of young women and girls. These trends, such as up-talking, where the voice raises in pitch at the end of statements as if they were questions and the prevalence of ‘like’ as a kind of vocal stop, are seeing wider usages outside of the demographic where they were thought to have originated. Quenqua acknowledges that these trends have often been associated with young girls and have been thought to signify immaturity or stupidity; however, recent studies suggest that these trends should not be thought of as exemplifying some sort of insecure or passive feminine identity, but rather as important conversational short cuts and cues. Quenqua’s article attempts to demonstrate that these linguistic shifts shouldn’t be viewed negatively due to the rapid and unpredictable pace at which language evolves. Contrary to his intent; however, the flippant and parodying insertions of these devices within the article demonstrate a serious problem in how women are often perceived as a result of language use.

While the humorous inclusion of ‘likes’ and textual up-talking in the article could be thought of as merely a vulgar journalistic appeal to humor, by imitating and dismissing a particular use of language, Quenqua raises serious questions about how we as prospective educators interact with our students. How does gender inform or misinform the way in we interact with students? What are the consequences of privileging a so-called Standard English at the expense of individual expression, especially when that privileging can be thought to reinforce power structures through language that could be thought of as masculine?  In my opinion, the role of an English teacher should be to emphasize the importance of clarity in communicating ideas and opinions. The emphasis on clarity should not be thought to subjugate all forms of English in favor of an academically dominate Standard English, but rather as a way in which to encourage the development of an individual voice capable of articulating ideas within the context of a linguistically diverse group. The power structures of the classroom reflect the power structures of society. If young girls are taught that their opinions are less important because of the way they are expressed, what does that say about the society they live in?


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One response to “Linguistic Trendsetters

  1. christinaspinelli

    You bring up a really great points about the gender-related power dynamic that Quenqua article implies. The fact that linguistic trends originally characterized as “female” are now used by men seems to be a main argument that the trends are becoming standardized. In other words, until the word “like” and stylistic ”up-talking” are statistically used more by men than by women, they are not considered to be standard. On the other hand, when women lower the tone of their voices, emulating a conventionally perceived masculine-tone, it is labeled “vocal fry” by linguists. They don’t suggest that the increasing number of women speaking in lower tones may indicate a new standard of speaking — they rather see it as a unique, feminine anomaly that might insinuate that women are trying to sound more authoritative by lowering the tone of their voice.

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