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Why ‘girl talk’ is the future of language

Young women have been spearheading language innovation for centurieslinguists weigh in on why we should all be listening

Model Natalia Vodianova wearing a limited-edition Stella McCartney T-shirt, part of a special collaboration for International Women’s Day with luxury e-tailer Net-A-Porter. Photo: Net-A-Porter
Model Natalia Vodianova wearing a limited-edition Stella McCartney T-shirt, part of a special collaboration for International Women’s Day with luxury e-tailer Net-A-Porter. Photo: Net-A-Porter

She’s so extra." The first time I heard the phrase, I assumed the speaker had halted to search for a suitable adjective and given up. Until a helpful girlfriend, well-versed in internet-speak, revealed to me that to call someone “extra" was to find them overdramatic, jarring or, if you prefer the Urban Dictionary definition, “way too much". This compact shape-shifting qualifier can address all manner of excess—from an overbearing personality to an over-decorated Christmas tree—which is usually so self-evident that any additional detailing is deemed futile. At a dinner the following week, “so extra" would be the only way I could summarize my opinion of the fussy molecular gastronomy at our table, and the enthused talkers at the next one.

Linguists have found that young women are primary carriers of such sticky, of-the-moment words, introducing them into the zeitgeist and leading the way in language innovation. For instance, many era-defining slang words have their origins in female teen comedies such as Clueless (“as if") and Mean Girls (“plastic"), the first call to “stay woke" can be heard in Erykah Badu’s 2008 song Master Teacher, while the girls from HBO’s Broad City coined the feminist slogan “Yas Queen" (adapted from a viral video featuring a Lady Gaga fan).

The respectability of such deviant words is a long-running generational tussle, and continues to irk purists of both genders. But what young women say, and how they say it, elicits specific linguistic curiosity and cultural ridicule. In the last few years, a flood of think pieces have taken firm sides on the acceptability or culpability of vocal fry—dropping your voice to the lowest possible register to produce a guttural growl. The most famous patron of vocal fry is Kim Kardashian, though a version of this Valley-girl twang can also be found in select urban Indian pockets (think Sonam Kapoor). While studies have shown vocal fry is used by both genders, female users suffer more consequences and are instantly perceived as less hirable and likable. Comics, to depict intellectual inferiority, often use exaggerated versions of this “ditzy-girl" register.

Try this sentence: “Should we get some fries?" What does it tell you about the speaker, apart from the fact that they are hungry? Not much. Now imagine this: “Should we, like, get some fries?" The second instantly evokes an image of a young woman, possibly vapid, definitely Kardashian-obsessed. On the Slate podcast Talk The Talk, Alexandra D’Arcy, author of 800 Years Of Like, rails against such stereotyping, especially since the first use of “like" as slang predates millennials by a few centuries. “(The fact is) language has been going to hell in a hand basket for centuries," she says. “The policing of women’s language is misguided and harmful because it says to women you’re doing something wrong. (…) It is simply a form of sexism.... It is actually young women who are leading language change. So if a woman is saying something and you want to get upset at her for it, turn around and high-five her because she’s in the vanguard." It’s no surprise then that a call for loosening ties from language watchdogs comes from BuzzFeed’s former global copy chief Emmy J. Favilla, 34, who authored the internet-friendly style manual, A World Without “Whom" (Bloomsbury India). This guide to language in the digital age examines the future of punctuation (the ~tilde pair~ used to indicate sarcasm or irony is here to stay), why vogue words lose their sheen once the older generation catches on (bae is officially uncool) and offers tips on making language more inclusive in a chapter titled “How Not To Be A Jerk".

Another vilified predominantly female register is uptalk, or an upward inflection at the end of a sentence, typically found in North American speech. Rukmini Bhaya Nair, professor of linguistics and English at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, argues that when it comes to women’s speech in India, the focus should be on uptake rather than uptalk. “Uptake is quick reactions to social situations, using speech and agreement patterns innovatively to not create too much friction," she says. “In my studies, I have looked at the speech of young women and children. I found that Indian women generally have much more of everything—more apologies, more interruptions, more silences, more comparative markers. Everything is heightened, and this is a strength, not a weakness. They use language in a way that expands its scope. And they do this most in their teenage years because that’s when they are exploring boundaries."

Women’s role as language innovators isn’t new, either. A study conducted at the University of Helsinki, which examined thousands of letters written between 1417 and 1681, found that women were quicker to adopt new words and toss out old rules, and are about a generation ahead of men in language evolution. But, according to Nair, this innovation with words didn’t deliver women any literary heft. “The question I posed in my study was—why do we find such few women dominating intellectual discourse? And my hypothesis is that literacy stole language from women. Because literacy requires leisure; it requires total absorption and silence. In most societies, women have not had access to that and oral speech became the domain of women. However, oral communication has been downgraded or stigmatized in relation to writing."

Women at workplaces are often discouraged from using hedge words like “sort of" and “kind of", verbalized pauses and filler words (“uh", “um", “like"), and weak commands (“I think", “I feel"). According to Nair, women in India are efficient managers of complex social structures, such as the household, and they have been effectively using language to do this. “Language has many pressure points and men and women handle these differently. Things like empathy, and this is not just about a touchy-feely attitude, can be learnt from women’s innovation with speech. In fact, both my study and others in the West have found that women’s speech is better suited to social interaction in a complex situation."

On social media, female use of language can be decorative, more prone to tonal gymnastics, less careful of rules. A 2012 academic study looked at the linguistic differences between 14,000 Twitter users and found that women are more likely to use expressive lengthening (nooooo) and back-channel sounds (grrrr). These changes lend written communication a tonal vibrancy, shifting meaning with a “yas" and a “yes", a sombre “omg" and an enthusiastic “OMGG".

Robin Lakoff’s Language And Woman’s Place (1975) pioneered research on language and gender, but in an increasingly gender-fluid world, newer studies steer clear of strict binaries of the Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus variety. But the digital marriage of orality and writing, Nair says, might well move us towards a new genderless language. “Technology and social media are poised between speech and writing and can create a more androgynous space, where styles of speech are not a battle of the sexes, but a coming together."

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