International Women’s Day: History proves young women are the linguistic innovators of the English language

Shakespeare may be our enduring pin-up for verbal ingenuity, but even then it was women mixing it up

“There are plenty of images of women in science fiction. There are hardly any women.”

When the US feminist and author Joanna Russ described the fabric of her own genre, she might just as well have been talking about the dictionary. Anyone following the footprints of our language will find ample evidence of women being spoken about rather than speaking, the product of the male gaze that once engineered women to be the “weaker sex” (1578) and men the “lords of creation” (1649). Of course, those collecting the evidence for our vocabulary were largely also men, and bias will be inherent in the words that have been collected and illustrated. But on International Women’s Day, it is worth reflecting on the true powerhouse of linguistic evolution: the female voice.

For centuries, the changes introduced into language by women have been found to be at best annoying, and at worst unforgivable. Take “Valley-Girl speak”, a 1980s stereotype originally associated with communities in California’s San Fernando Valley. Valley Girls were depicted as rich, bubbly women addicted to shopping who would talk and talk until they ran out of breath. The defining characteristic of their language was “uptalking”: speech whose every sentence ends with a rising pitch regardless of whether it’s a question. Put that together with the tendency to big everything up to the max: “Oh my Gawwwdd. That super-amazing pasta, like, totally blew my mind” and you’ll get the airhead positioning of the Valley Girl.

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More recently, Love Islanders are said to be giving the Kardashians a run for their money with their endless use of “like” as a filler. In a single episode from a few years ago, viewers counted 214 uses of the word, with the main culprits being the female Islanders. If you search the Oxford English Dictionary for the first recorded instance of “like” as this form of verbal padding you will find a quotation from another woman, Fanny Burney, in her novel Evelina from 1778: “Father grew quite uneasy, like, for fear of his Lordship’s taking offence”.

In both these categories it’s clearly young people driving the changes. But gender is as important here as age – women are at the forefront, and this is not a modern phenomenon. The Canadian linguist Gretchen McCulloch rightfully takes issue with our long tradition of knocking teenage girls for their verbal habits, whether it’s their slang or upspeaking, or their so-called “vocal fry” – the tendency to draw words out with a low and creaky voice.

Rather than blaming young women for linguistic sloppiness or downright anarchy, McCulloch argues, we should be praising them for pushing the linguistic envelope, not least because they have been at the heart of language change for more than 500 years.

While Shakespeare may be our enduring pin-up for dazzling verbal ingenuity, two University of Helsinki linguists, Terttu Nevalainen and Helena Raumolin-Brunberg, discovered that it was female voices who even then were mixing things up. The pair surveyed a total of 6,000 written letters from 1417 to 1681, and discovered that the female writers were considerably more experimental in their expression, leading the way for the emergence of hundreds of new words and the jettisoning of older ones such as “doth” and “maketh” in favour of “does” and “make”.

In fact, research consistently proves that women are over a generation ahead of men when it comes to pioneering language, and are responsible for over 90 per cent of linguistic changes. Why? It may be because men have traditionally learned their words from women, particularly their mothers or teachers. The very idea of our “mother tongue” is built upon the image of a mother as a progenitor, a matrix – a word that in itself began with the Latin mater, “mother”.

There is also the fact that women tend to have larger social networks, allowing new language to take root more quickly. This too has been much stereotyped, couched in terms of the gossip that has always been viewed as an exclusively female domain, exchanged over tea or “prattle-broth”. Women are seen as more loquacious (the word “girl” may even be a relative of “garrulous”), and more excitable, far fonder of exclamation marks then men. But in a study of gender and use of exclamations online, Carol Waseleski argues that exclamation marks function far more as “markers of friendly interaction”. Looking through that lens, we might say that women, and young women in particular, are more open, non-conformist, and less afraid of extremes. It is they who are the disruptors, the true linguistic innovators.

Will those disruptions and innovations always be viewed as less creative and more irritating because they are overtly female? It’s a hard one to predict. But as today’s dictionary-makers gather more and more female voices for their evidence, women will increasingly become the speakers rather than the spoken of.

“I’m not bossy. I’m the boss,” says Beyoncé. When it comes to language, there’s no question as to who the bosses are out there.

Susie Dent is a lexicographer and etymologist. She has appeared in ‘Dictionary Corner’ on Countdown since 1992, and co-hosts with Gyles Brandreth the podcast Something Rhymes with Purple.

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