2013: The Year We Couldn't Shut Up About How Women Talk

The XX Factor
What Women Really Think
Dec. 31 2013 10:06 AM

The Year of Talking About How Women Talk

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Women, innovating with every text.

Photo by Nicolas Asfouri/AFP/Getty Images

As 2013 comes to a close, DoubleX is looking back on the year that was—the stories we covered and missed that captivated, puzzled, enraged, and delighted us.

XX Factor year In Review

In 2013, we talked (and texted?) a lot about the ways women talk and text. The year kicked off with Creakygate, the hullabaloo over “creaky voice” or “vocal fry” that ignited when Bob Garfield attacked the largely female tic on Slate podcast Lexicon Valley. Vocal fry, termed “obnoxious,” “vulgar,” “mindless,” “annoying,” and “repulsive” by Garfield, is the “gravelly” sound young women sometimes produce at the end of their sentences. (I’d transcribe it uh*h*h*h*h, with the asterisks connoting little scratchy bits of friction.) “It’s unlike the Spanish Flu only in the narrow sense that it hasn’t killed anyone,” Garfield said. “However when you hear it enough you may want to kill yourself.”

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Yet as his co-host Mike Vuolo noted on the podcast (and as Amanda Hess reiterated in Slate a week later), college students perceive the creak as “a prestigious characteristic of contemporary speech”—a marker that the woman speaking is “professional,” “urban,” “looking for her career,” or “not yet a professional, but on her way there.” So the question crystallized: By dipping into lower “male” registers, were creakers mantling themselves in traditional “male” power? Or did the rise of fry speak to a new type of girl power, wielded by a generation of female badasses who no longer had to “carefully modify totally benign aspects of their behavior in order to be heard?

That was January. In February, the conversation turned to how ladies b txting. Amanda Marcotte wrote about a study finding that women use 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" than men. “Women,” she explained, “tend to be at the forefront of most linguistic trends.” But men eventually come around, at which point the innovation is no longer an innovation but an unremarkable part of the linguistic scenery. (Come on in, guys!! The water is, um, fineee.)

In August came In a World, Lake Bell's movie about a female voice-over artist, and everyone was talking about how women talk again. Making the press rounds for the movie, Bell decried "sexy baby" speak; Jessica Grose asked why Bell was dissing other women's speaking voices.

Fast forward to November, when Ben Crair asked how and why the period had become so aggressive, at least in text messages. “People use the period not simply to conclude a sentence,” he observed, “but to announce ‘I am not happy about the sentence I just concluded.’ ” This made me wonder about the differences in how men and women use the period. But while previous studies have analyzed the oeuvres of male and female bloggers (finding that while men employ more articles and prepositions, women use more personal pronouns, assent/negation words, hedges, present tense verbs, and bloggy neologisms such as ur, haha and smh) and have found that men swear more, science has yet to inquire into gender differences in period use. (I am not happy about the sentence I just concluded. What's up, science?!!)

Onto December: Researchers at the University of California–San Diego analyzed audio clips from 23 18- to 22-year-old men and women. They were looking for gender differences in “uptalk,” the Valley Girl cadence that makes declarative statements sound like questions. Ending sentences with a slight lift can help speakers “hold the floor” by forestalling interruptions; it can also soften a command or communicate “faux conviviality.” Though more women than men in the study habitually used a rising intonation, uptalkers of both genders lilted with similar frequency. But, as Jan Hoffman reported in the New York Times, successful women are more likely than unsuccessful women to use uptalk, whereas successful men are less likely to use it than their unsuccessful peers. (Maybe because they don’t fear being interrupted, or because high-achieving men aren’t also pressured to be nice?) Anyway, what a year. Here's to not shutting up in 2014.

Read the rest of our year-in-review series. Because 2013 was ...

Katy Waldman is Slate’s words correspondent. 

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