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The Daily Tar Heel

Women initiate, like, change

Linguists have long recognized that women are the pioneers of language change. Women typically innovate linguistic changes, like a shift in vowel sounds, and men catch up half a generation later.

North Carolina is no exception to this rule. According to researchers at N.C. State University who have been analyzing the speech of native Raleigh residents, the Southern accent is changing, and women are leading the trend.

The researchers discovered that those distinctive, drawn-out Southern vowels — the vowel in “boat,” for example, which sometimes comes out as a combination of “eh” and “owe” — are shifting.

In addition to confirming the importance of women in general to language change, the study reaffirmed that young women in particular are pivotal in these shifts.

This principle is evident when you look at one of the most common linguistic features associated with young girls: the increasing usage of the word “like.”

“Like” has become an incredibly versatile word over the past 30 years or so. It can be used to quote (“She was like, ‘Whatever’”), to approximate (“He was like 18 years old”) and to exaggerate (“It’s like 10,000 degrees outside”).

As a recent New York Times article pointed out, the colloquial “like” is often seen as a sign of ditziness in the young women who use it, perhaps because of its connection to the Valley Girls who started the trend in the 1980s.

But despite these stereotypes, by 2000, men and women were using “like” equally. By 2011, men were actually saying it slightly more frequently than women.

Then there’s the phenomenon known as uptalk, which entails ending statements with a rising intonation (like this? As if each sentence were a question?). This speech pattern is widely condemned for the lack of confidence it apparently conveys.

But it turns out the opposite is true, as linguist Mark Liberman discovered in 2008. Not only had uptalk crossed age and gender boundaries, but, he found, men from NASA officials to George W. Bush were using it to assert dominance. In fact, leaders of social groups even use uptalk to coerce others into agreement, as linguist Cynthia McLemore noted in her study of a Texas sorority.

So why do young women get such a bad rap when it comes to the way they talk? It may be because of pre-existing stereotypes against young women (that they’re insecure, even unintelligent), as Mary Kohn, a UNC doctoral candidate in linguistics suggested.

“We take attributes that we associate with young women and place it on the feature as a whole,” Kohn said. “So anyone who uses this feature sounds weak, or anyone who uses this feature sounds like they can’t make up their mind.”

Just as infatuation with French culture leads people to romanticize the French language, negative perceptions of young women lead us to stigmatize their speech patterns, Kohn said.

Kohn encourages young speakers to practice “bi-dialectalism” — meaning they shouldn’t ditch their non-standard register, but rather learn when it’s appropriate and inappropriate to use.

In the meantime, be careful of criticizing the speech of another demographic, because you could be, like, doing it yourself?

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