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Who changes language?


The NY Times recently published an article on language innovation by young women and how such speakers are ‘incubators of vocal trends’, and included a good amount of commentary from prominent linguistics like Penny Eckert and David Crystal on why this might be the case. The article touches on how far males and females use linguistic features such as up-talk, use of like (as in, It’s, like, hot in here), and creaky voice (also called ‘vocal fry’). There are a number of important points that come out of the article, chief of which is that it’s often males who use these particular linguistic resources more than females. The other point that the article makes is that language change is often caused by female speakers pushing the boundaries of linguistic performance and using language in new and innovative ways. This is touched on in work by Lesley and James Milroy in Belfast in the 1980s who looked at the kinds of social networks that male and female informants had. They found that females tended to have networks which were more diverse than males, and that the network links between people were usually uniplex (by contrast, some male communities had a family member who they socialised with as well as worked with; this is known as a multiplex link). Because of these kinds of diverse networks, it meant that women were more exposed to a larger range of speakers from different speech communities, resulting in linguistic behaviour which wasn’t enforced by local norms (unlike those speakers who were in dense and multiplex networks). Thus, women would be more likely to bring in new forms of linguistic behaviour and disseminate them through their community.

All well and good, but then I remembered that I had read something else which offered a completely different way to look at this which draws more on biology and genetics than it does on linguistic methodology.

At the University of Cambridge, Peter Forster and Colin Renfrew are currently investigating how they can trace language change to geographical diffusion of communities through analysing the DNA profile of various speakers. Ultimately, their argument is that language change is driven by males since it was males who typically invaded, settled and married into the indigenous population, bringing with them not only their own language, but also their own DNA (which is then passed onto their children). By mapping out the spread of new DNA, they can tell to what extent the new ‘invader’ DNA is present versus the older ‘settler’ DN, as is stated in the abstract for the paper ‘By contrast, the female lineages, as indicated by mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) types, do not reflect the survivor language but represent more ancient settlement’.

I suppose that one way to square this circle is that Forster and Renfrew’s research examines the historical divergences of languages, processes which, for all intents and purposes, have now ceased. New processes of language change, on the other hand, are predicated around using language for particular interactional goals and for particular stylistic purposes, and women are at the forefront of doing so (mainly because women are judged and evaluated more by things like how they sound and how they look, so more attention is paid to these issues).

– The Social Linguist

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