Today is the International Women’s Day, so let’s learn about and celebrate the linguistic achievements of women. Everything young females do verbally used to be considered a sign of vapidity, insecurity or some other flaw, but now several linguists do not quite agree. Such thinking is outdated: girls and women in their teens and 20s deserve credit for pioneering vocal trends and popular slang.
Women uptalk, which means they pronounce statements as if they were questions, create slang words like “bitchin’,” a synonym of awesome, and “ridic,” an abbreviation of ridiculous, and always use “like” as a conversation filler.
These examples may have been created by women, but they are now used by both sexes. The American linguist Mark Liberman states that George W. Bush used “uptalk” all the time and men now use “like” more than women in conversation.
Why are women about half a generation ahead of males as far as vocal trends are concerned? Some linguists suggest that women are more sensitive to social interactions and hence more likely to adopt subtle vocal cues. Others say they use language to assert their power in a culture that, at least in days gone by, asked them to be calm and decorous. Whatever the answer, the idea that women’s vocal fads quickly spread to the general population is well established.
The New York Times has recently published an article about a paper on “vocal fry” written by researchers from Long Island University. “Vocal fry” is a kind of creaky voice now associated with young women and girls, which has a long history with English speakers. Dr. Crystal, the British linguist, cited it as far back as 1964, as a way for British men to denote their superior social standing. In the United States, it has been gaining popularity among women since at least 2003, when Carmen Fought, a professor of linguistics at Pitzer College in Claremont, detected it among the female speakers of a Chicano dialect in California.
A classic example of vocal fry, can be heard in the movie She Done Him Wrong (1933) when Mae West says “Why don’t you come up sometime and see me.”