It’s Time to Redefine ‘Proper’ Speech

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Editorial and Video by Phoebe Eis, Staff Writer

One of my more vivid memories of high school is my first Socratic seminar, freshman year. Chairs were scraped (deafeningly) into a circle, directions were explained (and then explained again) and finally, we each contributed once to our discussion about the Roman empire. After my contributions, my heart was pounding, my hands shaky. 

When my teacher asked how we thought the discussion went, a boy in my class raised his hand. “I think some people overused the words ‘like,’ and ‘um,’” he said smugly, “and I couldn’t take their points as seriously.” The class moved on, but I remained stuck on that remark –I knew it applied pointedly to me. 

As it turns out, this language “policing” is an all too common, but documented trend, frequently applied to a number of habits: the use of the colloquial, habitual like; filler words such as um or uh; and intonations such as vocal fry– a “raspy or croaking sound” preceding a phrase’s end – and upspeak– the tendency to increase pitch at the end of a phrase, evoking a quizzical effect. 

What could all of these habits possibly have in common? Unsurprisingly, they’re common speech characteristics of young women! Take like as a case study. It’s a frequently used word with many functions, often punctuating the casual conversations of people of all ages. But its representation in the media is skewed much younger and confined to stereotypes: the airheaded valley girl, stoner, or bully in a teen flick. 

Many female speakers face flack from their audience for their speech habits, from news anchors to podcasters like Jessica Grose, who drew complaints for her upspeak from mainly male listeners, according to a Fresh Air story

In linguistics, too, this mannerism has been dismissed as a marker of laziness or poor confidence– even a speech “disfluency,” according to linguists quoted in a 2017 New York Times article. Like is viewed by academics as a crutch– a filler– which distracts from the substance of what’s being said. 

In actuality, like is much more complex than that. Its dictionary definition is “similar to,” but this erases all the nuance of how the word has come to be used, making its common usage seem excessive and hesitant. As John McWhorter writes in The Atlantic, language is ever-changing– and like is no exception. It is used unconsciously to emphasize and reinforce upcoming points, hold listeners’ attention, and quote what others have said. 

Obviously, language encompasses more than what dictionaries (or scholars older than the volumes themselves) tell us it does. People morph words’ meanings over time to better convey their messages– in fact, young people and women are often at the forefront of this evolution. Research cited in another New York Times article suggests that young women tend to be “half a generation” ahead of men linguistically. This could be because of their more acute social sensitivity. Inevitably, these inventions, once hailed as improper, find their way into the general vernacular, until everyone uses them without a second thought. 

Above all, language has power, and when a group of people is historically oppressed, they use speech to reclaim the autonomy that’s been taken from them. This is true for women, who, so often talked over, crafted subtle methods of controlling the conversation. Like and um seem hesitant to the inexperienced listener, but what we’re really saying with these phrases is, “I’m still talking. Don’t you dare interrupt me.” The very patriarchal culture that shut us out of the conversation and necessitated this ever-shifting linguistic dance, scrutinizes women for daring to contradict its rigid rules. 

Why does this matter? Language policing provides a culturally accepted basis upon which people–especially POC and women– can be judged and locked out of crucial institutions and discussions. Although it is easy to belittle these habits in those with whom we disagree –even men– this only normalizes already rampant criticism and allows it to be weaponized against the marginalized. 

When a man is critiqued we talk about his message, substance; when a woman is criticized it’s for the way she’s packaged. This speaks to how rarely respected women’s opinions are in our culture. Focusing on the minutiae proves you’re merely looking for an excuse to dismiss someone, especially when there are a plethora of valid criticisms of politicians, reporters, and entertainers that don’t pertain to their speech habits. Language in practice is elastic, and meaning matters above all else. Can you understand what they are saying? Yes? Then pipe down and let them speak– you might just learn something if you set your assumptions aside.

Watch Phoebe Eis’s video essay (created as an assignment for Journalism II) exploring the complexities of language and gender.