In today’s print NYT Science Times, a piece by Douglas Quenqua entitled “They’re, Like, Way Ahead of the Linguistic Currrrve”, about young women as trendsetters in linguistic change. Featuring a sizable cast of experts, starting with Stanford’s Penny Eckert.

The two main points:

Girls and women in their teens and 20s deserve credit for pioneering vocal trends and popular slang, [linguists] say, adding that young women use these embellishments in much more sophisticated ways than people tend to realize.

And, at the end, two points. One, that a bit of linguistic stuff — vocal fry, uptalk, and the discourse particle like are the three examples the article focuses on — is just a resource, which can be used in many different ways by different groups of speakers (that is, there’s no intrinsic meaning to a resource — as I’ve taken to saying, it’s “just stuff” — but only meanings as expressed by particular groups of speakers and meanings as interpreted by others). And two, that the meanings for speakers and hearers can be seriously at variance:

“language changes very fast,” said Dr. Eckert of Stanford, and most people — particularly adults — who try to divine the meaning of new forms used by young women are “almost sure to get it wrong.”

“What may sound excessively ‘girly’ to me may sound smart, authoritative and strong to my students,” she said.

The Paul Hoppe illustration for the piece:

Panel 1: initiation of a usage by young women, overheard by young men. Panel 2: spread of the usage to young men. Panels 3 and 4: spread to older speakers, and/or maintenance of the usage as the early users age.

Now for something a little bit different: the development of the “gay voice” (GV) in individual men. There’s a puzzle here. Typically, the spread of linguistic features in social groups involves a group of speakers who provide the models and another group who identify with the first group and (almost entirely unconsciously) pick up features of the models. But boys rarely grow up with a set of models for GV (they don’t live in a gay speech community), so how do some of them acquire GV features?

One common answer is that these boys identify with women (rather than men) and so pick up “feminine” features — the way “sissy boys” are taken with feminine clothing, makeup, and so on. This might be true for some boys, but even in those cases there are obstacles: the features of GV are variable and not generally very close to the features of women’s speech. Men with GV don’t talk like women; they talk like gay men. (Ultimately, of course, many gay men do find a gay community, and features of behavior, including linguistic features, can then diffuse within these communities.)

Here’s a different take on the matter, from some postings of mine to the OUTIL (OUT In Linguistics) mailing list back in 2003 (edited and adapted here):

Fronting of /u/ is one of a number of phonetic innovations currently affecting American English (for some value of “currently”; fronted /u/’s have been noticed for decades now). (Fronting of /o/ is another one, sometimes found in conjunction with fronting of /u/, but sometimes independently of it.) It’s well known — especially from the work of Penny Eckert — that young women (pre-adolescent girls, in fact) tend to be the sources of innovations and the engines of their spread. The result should be that innovations will tend to seem “girly”.

As a further result, gay men who want to ride the Wave of the New, to be with-it, fashionable, hip, cool, whatever, and adopt innovative forms to this end will themselves sound rather girly to others; their speech will be perceived as rather “feminine”, and then (by the obvious leap, based on the folk identification of male gayness with femininity) they will be perceived as “sounding gay”.

So… here we could have a mechanism by which (some) gay men’s speech could “sound gay” by having variants associated with females, but without any striving, even unconsciously, for femininity or femaleness on the guys’ part. These guys just want to be cutting-edge.

Of course, not all guys will want to be cutting-edge, so we’d expect many guys not to sound gay, and this is what we find; it’s hard to estimate how many, for obvious reasons, but only roughly a quarter of gay men have the “gay voice”. And, since different social groups in different places have different sets of innovations taking place in them, we’d expect to find guys with a variety of local variants of the gay voice (which is what i suggested is the case in my article in Queerly Phrased). And we’d predict that most boys wouldn’t develop the gay voice until early adolescence, or just before, when innovative forms become available to them, in the speech of the “leader” girls around them, and this too seems to be the case.

I’m not claiming that this is the whole story for the gay voice. I suspect that some fairly widespread aspects of the gay voice — perhaps the “hissy” s’s and z’s, probably a result of dental rather than alveolar articulation for these consonants, making them longer and higher pitched — may be learned through the ordinary mechanisms of socialization, by boys adopting them when models of gay male behavior become available to them, sometime during adolescence. Still other aspects might arise from projecting a persona that is involved, intense, playful (as Rob Podesva has suggested for a gay man whose speech he studied) — from being “fabulous”.  And still others might arise from a rejection of hypermasculine norms (like those legislating extensive use of casual-speech variants, possibly through the folk association between these variants and working-class masculinity), which is something else I suggested in my Queerly Phrased piece. (One result is that some gay men are heard to be “precise” or “fussy”, and as therefore marked as “gay”) . In fact, the four different mechanisms (being cutting-edge, being one of the gays, displaying fabulousness, rejecting hypermasculinity) could work together in some cases.

And I wouldn’t want to deny that some gay men have a strong identification with what they see as “feminine” properties; this is a fifth mechanism. In fact, those guys could then serve as models for boys or men who lack such an identification. After all, all you have to go on is how these obviously gay guys talk and act; you can’t know why they act that way, and you might pick up aspects of their style without sharing their motivations at all.

(Back in 2003 there was further good discussion of the idea by Sally McConnell-Ginet, Ben Munson, Janet Pierrehumbert, Penny Eckert, Ken Hyde, and James Walker.)

2 Responses to “Trendsetting”

  1. W Says:

    Is OUTIL (or something like it) still running? I haven’t seen references to it after about 2004, but given my research is taking me right into this (and have actually gotten around to being out…), I’d surely benefit from being a part.

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