Teenage girls are revolutionary linguists and it’s time we recognize that.
Teenage girls have long been given short shrift in the language department. The general populace has been dismissive of upspeak, “like,” and vocal fry, but more often than you’d think, teenage linguistics make their way into the general vernacular. According to Gretchen McCulloch at Quartz, this phenomenon has been going on for centuries. She reports on a study by linguists Terttu Nevalainen and Helena Raumolin-Brunberg, who analyzed 6,000 personal letters written between 1417 and 1681 and concluded that women’s language evolved quicker than men’s over time. As McCulloch points out, this trend continues – young women are currently changing the vernacular of New York City, the Great Lakes area, Canadian cities, Paris, and other areas across the globe.
Though the conclusion seems inevitable (language will evolve), English purists still fight the good fight. The most recent enemies? Text speak (or textese) and twitter talk. You’ve heard the arguments: people have no attention span, they can’t spell, they’ve lost the ability to write in full sentences. It’s true that full sentences have long been on the way out in textese. In a fascinating article for The Washington Post, Rachel Feltman reports on a 2015 study that found that people interpret texts ending with a period to be insincere. The reason – texting mimics the familiarity of actual speech. Punctuation is a formality and can seem cold when sent to a friend. Not convinced? How would your friend react if you brought the diction of a board room into the bar? This is called situational code-switching. Just as one talks differently at work and in social settings, the written (or texted) word changes as well. Far from making us stupider, Lauren Collister points out in another Quartz article that “past research into situational code-switching in spoken language has shown that a person’s ability to code-switch can signal social competency, can affirm one’s sense of identity or membership in a community, and may be an indicator of high intellectual ability in children.” Why should it be different in the case of a text and work email?
So with this in mind, I ask: how good are you at situational code-switching? Take the quiz below and find out just how good you are at deciphering between a text, a work email, and a 15th century letter:
1) Invitation for drinks:
A. “ALL THE BEER”
B. “In the interest of reckless tomfoolery tonight and an aching head in the morrow, wouldst thou meet me for a drink?
C. “Fancy a drink?”
The answers are so obvious it’s almost silly to make a key:
A. is clearly a work email at the end of an absolutely dreadful week. The email has not gone to superiors, but rather to the two other greeters who have endlessly repeated the same welcome script to the detriment of their sanity.
B. is obviously a text between close friends, English majors, who enjoy drinking Mint Juleps on Friday evenings.
C. is an excerpt from a 15th century letter.
2) Asking Someone Out on a Date:
A. “U up?”
B. “Wouldst thou join me at the piano at half past three? ‘Twould be a delight to engage in the general splendor of the afternoon with a gentle tune followed by a walk along the garden.”
C. “Dinner at the Ritz. 8:00”
Though a tricky question, a little critical thinking can go a long way:
A. is a 15th century letter. It’s true “U up?” has recently been associated with the millennial booty call, however, its roots actually date back much farther than previously thought. In fact, just recently a letter surfaced from King Henry VIII to Anne Boleyn with exactly that phrase and spelling.
B. might seem confusing until you hear that the letter writer worked at a historical museum in the UK (in fact was one of the aforementioned greeters). The love affair is, as most love affairs at work are, under the radar. Meeting at the piano and then the garden seemed a tame enough email to send. One must be careful these days.
Finally, notice there is no period at the end of answer C.—a telltale sign of the text message.
3) Imparting Bad News:
A. “It gives me no pleasure to impart this terrible news. Please know that Jane has lit a candle for you, and the whole family prays.”
B. “Buck up. No use crying over the dead.”
C. “. . .”
By this point, I should hope you understand my testing style and have, therefore, guessed correctly:
A. is clearly a funny text one might send after the last piece of pizza has been eaten before a friend has made it to the party. Although very rude, this is a first world problem and must be treated with contempt by the fellow party goers (hence the sarcastic tone and punctuation).
B. is a work email. The couple from the previous question has been found out. Both people were fired. This has been bad for office morale. However, there are visitors to the historic home, and the staff must remain merry. It is, after all, the busy summer season.
C. At first glance, Answer C might appear to be a text message from someone who doesn’t know what to say. In fact, those ellipses stand in for nothing being written at all. We’ve lost all old world chivalry. Some news must be delivered in person.
So, how did you do? Are you as smart as a teenage girl?
Note: pls dont take this quiz srsly.
header image: "you seen this?" matthew wilkinson / flickr