Katie Heaney of BuzzFeed reported yesterday on a new study about linguistic trends on Twitter, which found that men and women diverge somewhat in the kinds of slang and stylistic touches they use in their tweets. There’s plenty of overlap, of course, but women as a group use more novel and edgy slang on Twitter than men. The study of 14,000 Twitter users mirrored many of the findings in a smaller 2010 study, which observed that women employed more “emoticons, ellipses (…), expressive lengthening (nooo waaay), repeated exclamation marks, puzzled punctuation (combinations of ? and !), the abbreviation omg, and transcriptions of backchannels like ah, hmm, ugh, and grr.” Men swear more, which is not just more “vulgar” but also a more traditional form of emphasis.
None of this should be too surprising, as linguists have long observed that women, at least young women, tend to be at the forefront of most linguistic trends, with men adopting them later. That’s why it’s amusing to hear men get all worked up about trends like uptalk or vocal fry, because chances are high they’ll be picking those up soon enough. As Gabriel Arana explained in his piece defending vocal fry for The Atlantic:
Women have long tended to be the linguistic innovators. The standard practice for linguists conducting research on a new language is to find a “NORM”—a non-mobile, older, rural male. NORMs are the most conservative linguistically, and typically serve as a model for where the language has been. If you want to see where the language is going, on the other hand, you find a young, urban woman… It is not entirely understood why women tend to be ahead of the curve; it may be because they are less constrained by the limitations of “polite” speech, or because they form more of the social bonds that allow a linguistic trait to spread. Some have also suggested that because women tend to be the primary caretakers during infancy, they pass along linguistic traits to their children during the language-acquisition phase.
So, where women go, men often follow. (Obligatory Girls reference: The way women lead the curve in linguistic trends, on and offline, popped up on the HBO comedy, when thirty-something Ray groused about the enthusiasm for emojis shown by his love interest, 21-year-old Shoshanna. The show firmly came down, correctly, on Shoshanna’s side in the battle between young female linguistic innovators and older male complainers, as Ray was forced to realize that Shoshanna’s different mode of communication in no way reflects her actual intelligence. One can easily see Ray dropping emojis on his phone in a few years.)
But back to Twitter. It’s easy enough to see how spoken linguistic innovations that start with young women spread rapidly throughout the population, because most of our spoken word choices are relatively subconscious. We don’t mean to say “like” or even fry our voices; it just comes out. Twitter and texting, though, are theoretically more considered mediums, where the “speaker” has more time to craft her thoughts and more control over the choices she makes. It’ll be interesting to see if the ability to consider word or punctuation choice more carefully will create a barrier that prevents male tweeters from adopting female-associated linguistic trends. Or are the boundaries between on and offline life already collapsed to the point where the same forces that control our spoken language trends already influence the way we write online?!?