Women are Changing our Language

Women are Changing our Language

Women are leading linguistic change and it’s absolutely nothing new. In a study nearly thirty years old now, William Labov observed that women were the front runners in advancing speech in two ways – consciously, when they adopt prestigious forms quicker than men and unconsciously, when they more frequently use innovative forms that creep into the language. These processes are differentiated as ‘change from above’ and ‘change from below’ in relation to the level of social awareness.

 Both cases suggest that women disproportionately introduce linguistic innovation and development. What’s more, since women comprise the majority of the childcare and teaching professions, there is ample opportunity to pass these changes to the next generation.

 So why do young girls get such a hard time for the way they speak? Just think of the negative connotations commonly associated with uptalk (where statements rise to sound like a question) and the use of ‘like’ as a filler word. These features were first introduced by Valley Girls of San Fernando Valley in the 1980’s but they have spread to be quite commonly found in male speech and British speech today. In sum, the linguistic innovations which females can be ridiculed for are the very same ones that develop into widespread features of mainstream speech further down the line.

 When linguistic innovation attracts comment in the public sphere it is generally negative, since it is women who lead these changes they end up being criticised, and it materialises as a form of sexism. Social capital is one theory that explains women’s preference for the standard variable in situations where they are consciously aware of a linguistic choice. In a sense, all words carry a particular set of social connotations which dictates their appropriateness for a given situation. Where there is a choice between two ways of saying something, it is inevitable that one form will be judged as comparatively more prestigious - as is the case for a standard variant over a non-standard one.

 The social capital explanation assumes that women intentionally opt for the prestige form to benefit from the higher social status which it provides. Women have traditionally been at a disadvantage in social opportunities such as education and jobs, so it makes sense that they would try to redress this balance in some small way by choosing a particular way of speaking. If this is the case, then criticism of linguistic innovation is unfairly directed at the women who are navigating a broken system. The way that you speak can play a big part in the image you project to the world so manipulating it in this way is perfectly legitimate, in the same way we might control our image by dressing smartly for an interview.

 Despite this, it is harder to account for why women lead the way in adopting innovative forms ‘from below’ since these are changes that do not take place in the social consciousness and are thus not intentionally controlled. That being said, the two forms of change may still be linked. If women are quicker to consciously adopt standard forms and distance themselves from dialectal features because of the social advantage they perceive in doing so, then perhaps there is a greater sensitivity to the social connotations of language in general and this is what allows females a greater capacity to adapt to linguistic change of any kind.

 To focus once more on change from above, since it is the one that involves a degree of agency, women favouring the standard form feed into a wider reverence for standard language as a whole. This becomes complicated when you try and pinpoint it since, really, everyone speaks a little differently. Language is so fluid that the only standard we can hope to identify is that between the pages of books and by the time it reaches those then it is too late to be a true reflection of language in use.

 Dictionaries and grammar classes have prescribed a belief that there is only one ‘correct’ way to talk which is a shame. The sad consequence of this is that women are pressured to talk a certain way in order to gain social advantages. Uniformity is not what enriches a society and language is no different. Women should continue to lead linguistic innovation in whatever way they please.

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