Vocal Trends and Young Women

By Douglas Quenqua:

Whether it be uptalk (pronouncing statements as if they were questions? Like this?), creating slang words like “bitchin’ ” and “ridic,” or the incessant use of “like” as a conversation filler, vocal trends associated with young women are often seen as markers of immaturity or even stupidity.


But linguists — many of whom once promoted theories consistent with that attitude — now say such thinking is outmoded. Girls and women in their teens and 20s deserve credit for pioneering vocal trends and popular slang, they say, adding that young women use these embellishments in much more sophisticated ways than people tend to realize….

Less clear is why. Some linguists suggest that women are more sensitive to social interactions and hence more likely to adopt subtle vocal cues. Others say women use language to assert their power in a culture that, at least in days gone by, asked them to be sedate and decorous. Another theory is that young women are simply given more leeway by society to speak flamboyantly.

But the idea that vocal fads initiated by young women eventually make their way into the general vernacular is well established. Witness, for example, the spread of uptalk, or “high-rising terminal.”

Starting in America with the Valley Girls of the 1980s (after immigrating from Australia, evidently), uptalk became common among young women across the country by the 1990s.

In the past 20 years, uptalk has traveled “up the age range and across the gender boundary,” said David Crystal, a longtime professor of linguistics who teaches at Bangor University in Wales. “I’ve heard grandfathers and grandmothers use it,” he said. “I occasionally use it myself.”

Even an American president has been known to uptalk. “George W. Bush used to do it from time to time,” said Dr. Liberman, “and nobody ever said, ‘Oh, that G.W.B. is so insecure, just like a young girl.’ ”

The same can be said for the word “like,” when used in a grammatically superfluous way or to add cadence to a sentence. (Because, like, people tend to talk this way when impersonating, like, teenage girls?) But in 2011, Dr. Liberman conducted an analysis of nearly 12,000 phone conversations recorded in 2003, and found that while young people tended to use “like” more often than older people, men used it more frequently than women.



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  • TJJ

    I disagree with these linguists. Uptalk is annoying and indicates insecurity and need to approval. IMHO. I would not hire someone who talked like that in an interview. period. It does seem young woman so this more, but young men can as well. older people see to only do that when being sarcastic.

    Also, add to the list starting an answer to a question with the word “so”. In my mind, never good or appropriate.

    In the words of Bob Newhart…..Just stop it!!!”

  • SNakamura

    Uptalk is prevalent also among Japanese young people (both women and men)in Japanese language.
    I think it is an indication of insecurity and a need for approval,too.

  • Joe Canner

    I recently used “like” in a sentence the correct way–to introduce a metaphor–and my daughter (age 13) interrupted and made fun of me for it (not because she wouldn’t do it, but because she thought I shouldn’t). It took a while to convince her that my use of the word was appropriate.

    I’ve noticed word-shortening (e.g., “ridic”, “totes” for “totally”, etc.) from my older daughter (age 20) and some of her friends. It sounds kind of silly and immature, but I’m sure some of the slang and abbreviations that now common in our language were once used in silly ways by kids and young adults.

  • Prodigal Daughter

    Watching some of the newer comedy tv shows, I’ve noticed, like, word shortening. I’ve seen it in the 20-something age group as well as in the 30’s and up. Gasp! Annoying? Totes!

  • JoeyS

    I would hire somebody who uses uptalk as it has no actual baring on their ability to perform. I’m will be hiring a new staff member quite soon so this is relevant to me. I may refrain from hiring somebody who omits letters from words or fails to capitalize the first letter of a sentence in their cover letter, however.

  • JoeyS

    Ha, “I’m will be hiring.” Oops 😉

  • I’m glad to finally have a name to attach to that thing that women do turning statements into questions, and I think I understand why they do it. But when one of my best friends, a man in his late sixties in grad school at Harvard with many female teachers and advisers started doing it . . . OMG! It’s like so girly?

  • MatthewS

    At technical conferences, some of the Microsoft people from the Northwest are notorious for their usage of “So”. They overdo it but some of them are imminently qualified in their field.

  • Barb

    I remember my Dad stopping me every time I said “you know”. He’d say “no I don’t know”. I can clearly remember making it a habit–we got it from listening to the Beatles. My Dad did help me break the habit. I now find uptalking equally grating on my ears. but I find some of the other things my daughter says–“props”, etc. seem to be a way of making a little distance between us.

  • Barb

    I forgot to start my post with “So…” I think that may be something we all do in the Pac NW.

  • Forty years ago, one of my best 6th-grade friends–a Northern Illinois farm kid and one of four brothers–was well-known for uptalk. He was smart, athletic and a bit of a daredevil, so nobody thought of him as a sissy. Hearing it from him, I thought it was funny rather than annoying.

  • MKK

    Language changes and it only makes sense that those changes would originate among the young. I for one welcome our new non-Baby Boomer overlords.

  • max

    Language aside, why do they scream all the time when their latest boyband takes the stage, or they win something on “Price is Right”, or any other public venue. Does this fact underlie the speech anomaly? Is it some primal urge?

  • John Inglis

    Hmm, among many of the people I interact with, uptalk is only used if one wants to mock somebody. So maybe its day is already passing.

    BTW, “immament” refers to the divine presence, whereas “eminent” means exhibiting eminence especially in standing above others or of high station, rank or quality. I doubt that the Microsoft employees are immament, though no doubt many of them think they are.

  • MatthewS


    LOL, how nice of the internets to give such opportunity to expose oneself as an idiot to the world! I knew that word looked wrong. Indeed, a significant number of those employees in the Northwest exhibit standing above others in their field. Divine presence is another matter entirely. Thanks for the heads-up, John.

    Immanant has to do with matrix math,

    Immanence refers to theories about Divine Presence,

    Immanent means “remaining within”,

    Imminent means something is just about to happen,

    Eminent means that someone or something stands out in some way (I suppose an eminent theologian who is a farmer could be out standing in their field even as they are outstanding in their field…)