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The vast majority of us might struggle to understand the text messages or conversations of Western teenagers. However, it has been shown that teenage girls have a significant effect on the way language is used. Not only has this select group been found to bring new words into existence, but they can also influence the way words and grammatical structures are formed.

The value of spoken language depends on how it is interpreted. A new word can spring into existence as long as at least two people share a common understanding of what that word means. Adults are more comfortable using words that already exist, with new words coming primarily from advances in technology – ‘tweeting’ and ‘gigabyte’ for example. However, teenagers in the West, especially teenage girls are very fond of creating their own words to convey meaning, possibly in an effort to stand out from the crowd and assert their individuality. Not all of these new creations will catch on, but successful words can sometimes spread across entire nations through interlinked social groups. Enjoyment is a key factor for the survival of new words formed by young people. If a word is fun to use it is more likely to be repeated, helping to build stronger semantic connections, which in turn help the word to become incorporated into daily life. This process is often accelerated by modern technology and social media.

A US researcher, Gretchen McCulloch, believes that females in particular act as ‘language disruptors’[1] and that they have been affecting the way that words are used for centuries, right back to Jane Austen’s time and even earlier. McCulloch refers to the work of Terttu Nevalainen and Helena Raumolin-Brunberg from the University of Helsinki, who created a Corpus of Early English Correspondence[2] , in which they studied letters written by both men and women between 1417 and 1681. The findings showed that it was increasingly the case that women adapted more easily to changes in grammar and syntax. They were also the first to drop outdated words such as ‘doth’ and ‘doeth’, replacing them with modern versions much more quickly than their male counterparts, who continued using older vocabulary for many years after.

As men primarily learn language skills from their mothers, who in turn learn from other women, it has been estimated that around 90% of language changes that are present today have been derived from a female perspective. As suggested above, teenage girls could be some of the main contributors to these changes. Whilst this might remind many people of the incomprehensible chatter of Little Britain’s comical teenage character, Vicky Pollard, this is not the type of language that is likely to be incorporated into everyday life.  Coherent and readily adaptable phrases are favoured instead. The changes often come from giving new meanings to existing words. So the next time you hear that something is ‘mint’ or ‘sick’, don’t panic: it means that it’s great, at least if you’re a teenage girl.


[2] Nevalainen T, (2000), ‘Gender differences in the evolution of standard English: Evidence from the Corpus of Early English Correspondence’, Journal of English Linguistics 28(1): 38-59

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