Teen girls lead way in language change

A casual remark by a teenage girl such as “She’s so not cool” may be dismissed as typical teen talk. Young women, however, are leading changes in the way adolescents speak, according to a University of Toronto linguistics expert.

“One of the most pervasive findings of sociolinguistics is that when you have language changing, women tend to lead the change. They pick up the new form and they carry it forward probably about a generation ahead of the guys,” says Professor Sali Tagliamonte, author of a study published online in the Journal of Pragmatics on June 15.

Tagliamonte was interested in finding out why teens, particularly girls, tended to frequently use the words like, just and so in their conversations. In 2002, four U of T undergraduate student researchers, under the supervision of Tagliamonte, interviewed 29 members of their own family and friends living in Toronto, ranging in age from 10 to 19 years from various socio-economic and cultural backgrounds. The researchers conversed with the speakers on informal topics for about an hour and recorded the conversations.

Tagliamonte found that as children age, their patterns of speech change. When girls reach adolescence, the words like and just pop into their conversations more frequently than boys as they get older. Fifteen- and 16-year-old females use the word like the most frequently out of all age groups but say it less than males once they enter university. Females across all age groups studied also used the word so to emphasize something more than males. “When the kids are still in primary school, their language patterns tend to model their parents even when they are acquiring new language. Where we find a real surge in the use of new features, such as the word like, is with 15- and 16-year-olds,” says Tagliamonte.

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