Science, Now + Beyond

It’s, like, totally okay for women to speak like this, for real

There's actual proof that we're more innovative than Shakespeare himself.

We’ve all heard it before.

The way young women speak is apparently unprofessional. Upspeak and vocal fry are considered the worst offenders of all. We’ve got NPR stories, news segments, and umpteen articles written about this supposedly offensive linguistic habit that young women have picked up.

Even if you haven’t heard of upspeak or vocal fry, you’ve definitely heard it in real life. Upspeak is a characteristic usually said to be used by young women, even if it is used by most of the younger population. It is characterized by up-tones in the voice used where up-tones would not normally be, giving the appearance of a question asked or doubt to statements where this is not the case.

Vocal fry is also something that is said to be used by young women, but if you’ve ever listened to This American Life, even Ira Glass uses vocal fry. It’s that gravelly tone of voice, almost as if the speaker is pitching their voice just a little bit lower than natural for them, leading to the voice to sound “creaky.” To some people, they describe listening to this as like listening to nails on a chalk board. In this interview done on NPR’s Fresh Air podcast, journalist Jessica Grose took criticism about her own vocal fry to a speech therapist, while consulting with linguistics professor from Stanford, Penny Eckert about the impact society has on the linguistics of young people, especially young women.

Vocal fry is just one of the four modes of speaking, and yet, somehow in this generation, it has been associated with young women and a perceived lack of intelligence. The video here describes what vocal fry actually is, in scientific terms.

Both of these linguistic phenomena are generally described as being used by young women, and when people talk about how young women speak, it’s usually with derision. In an interview with Conan O’Brien, actress Lake Bell described something she called “Sexy Baby Voice,” and called it a pandemic infecting women in the United States.

But what if we flipped the script on this idea, lost the prescriptivist glasses that tell us that the upper levels of society determine what the language looks like, and gave young women the credit they deserve?

People finally are, according to a couple articles.

Sociolinguistic research is finally pointing towards young women as the most important early adopters of new languages. We often think of language innovators as people like William Shakespeare, at least for the English language. But research has been done that points to the idea that Shakespeare wasn’t really coming up with all these new words on his own.

What he probably did was listen to the common people, his preferred audience (and the one he really wrote for), and used words that they were using, which is what this article is suggesting. But a lot of the slang that Shakespeare was using he picked up from the people who were actually speaking it.

Here’s where women come in.

Women, especially young women, have always been shown to be using new language innovations before men.

Because of how women have been socialized, we talk more. We communicate more. We have wider social circles with which to communicate. And there are good records of women writing to each other because they did it quite a lot. And because of that, we can track the change of language used by women. For example, using the -th suffix on verbs during the Renaissance period was dropped by women almost a generation before men made the same change, according to a study by Suzanne Grégoire where over 6,000 letters were analyzed.

We can be considered greater innovators than even Shakespeare himself. If we hadn’t started creating the vernacular, he could have never borrowed it to create the plays we read in English class in high school.

But if we are such natural innovators, why aren’t we given the recognition?

The consensus there is that it all comes down to sexism, like most things regarding young women. When young women refuse to follow the societal expectations, whatever they are doing is mocked. Sure, we can recognize the power of young women when doing a study, but in practice, it’s a little more difficult. Within the interview conducted by Jessica Grose on NPR’s Fresh Air, Professor Eckert said she played a tape for her students of a woman speaking using upspeak and vocal fry.

While Professor Eckert said she thought the woman sounded unsure of herself, her students thought they opposite. She sounded “good, authoritative,” to the students.

Therein lies the linguistic generational gap. I know in my own experience, I don’t think vocal fry or upspeak sound inherently bad. To my Millennial ears, when people speak like this (and it isn’t just women – men in our generation use upspeak and vocal fry too!), it sounds normal.

And that is the important part.

We are language innovators, and the dialect that we have created for ourselves is becoming the norm. And, as shown in the study analyzing letter writing, women adopted linguistic changes about a generation before men do.

As Gretchen McCulloch tweeted: Women learn language from their peers; men learn it from their mothers.

So in about a generation, vocal fry and up-speak will be accepted parts of the dialect. At least, that’s my prediction. And if I’m predicting the future, I hope that, in a generation, young women are recognized as the language innovators they are everywhere, not just in sociology articles on JSTOR.