You Know, Like, Our Grammar is under Attack?

June 23, 2017

By Arturo Castañares / Publisher and CEO

Photo/Creative Commons

A funny thing is happening to our language, and it’s affecting everyone from kids to adults: our grammar is sounding more and more like that of 1980s Valley girls.

If you watch reality television or news interview shows, you will notice common speaking habits that seem to be contagious. Just about everyone is now using the same filler words and expressions that once were used by teenagers in LA’s San Fernando Valley.

Look for the most common fillers: “you know”, “like”, “sort of”, and “actually”.

Well, you know, if you actually think it’s annoying, then, like, you know, try to sort of listen to conversation people are actually having, and, you know, you’ll notice they sort of use the fillers to sort of keep a sentences going, you know, until they actually stop talking.

Then, watch scripted shows or movies and you’ll notice the fillers are used much less, if at all. Read a book or magazine and you won’t find them either.

Some researchers trace the rise in Valley talk, as they call it, to LA teenagers and their seemingly silly use of filler words. Thankfully, some of their words have fallen out of favor, including “totally”, “bitchin’”, and “gag me with a spoon.” But, too many of their other popular words have now spread into use by a wide demographic of Americans, and, increasingly, other English speaking countries.

And, along with the filler words, the most enduring Valley speak characteristic is the rising tone at the end of a sentence called “upspeak”. Upspeak essentially makes every sentence sound like a question, even when it’s a declarative statement.

Kids and teenagers use upspeak extensively, but, in recent years, adult use of it has increased dramatically.

A study conducted at UCSD found that the women in the group used upspeak twice as often as the men, with the women’s voices rising later in the sentences and rising higher in pitch compared to the men.

One theory is that women use upspeak to “hold the floor”, a technique used to keep others from interrupting them. The study found that men kept their tones even throughout their sentences more often, leading researchers to believe women use it as a defense mechanism to the tendency of men to cut them off in speaking.

Other researchers have found that women tend to use upspeak as a mostly subconscious way to seem less bossy or aggressive, a common criticism of women in the historically male-dominated workplace.

But, no one can explain the rapid spread of Valley talk and upspeak among a broad spectrum of America.

One very public example of the backlash of the use of Valley talk was the experience of Caroline Kennedy in 2008.

Soon after the 2008 election, President-elect Barack Obama appointed Hillary Clinton to serve as Secretary of State and she vacated her U.S. Senate seat. Kennedy, the daughter of John F. Kennedy, announced she wanted to be appointed to serve out Clinton’s Senate term.

Then Kennedy did an interview with the New York Times where she used “you know” 142 times during the meeting, and the paper published the transcript exactly as she said it.

Kennedy then gave a TV interview where she used “you know” 168 times in 30 minutes. In the end, you know, that’s probably too many you knows for one person to use.

Kennedy was heavily criticized for her language and unsophisticated answers to many questions that she dropped out of contention for the Senate seat.

Then, fast forward to 2013, when President Barack Obama nominated Kennedy to serve as Ambassador to China. Kennedy no longer seemed to use “you know”, clearly having found it was a distraction to her public service.

Kennedy ended up serving as Ambassador for three years leading up to her resignation after Donald Trump’s election.

Most people probably don’t even notice the use of filler works and upspeak, or that they use it themselves. The usage is becoming so common it doesn’t seem to even draw much attention anymore.

But, for some, it’s still an annoying habit that draws attention away from the speaker’s message, or worse, leads others to assume the speaker is insecure, unsure, or timid.

Especially for young women, the misconception could be damaging in the workplace where they may be marginalized as ditsy. Instead, we should be helping empower our daughters to be strong, confident leaders with clear communications skills. The world is already too often stacked against them to let language style work against them, too.

So, you know, we should all be, sort of, careful how we, you know, actually use these filler words so we don’t actually lose our listeners when we’re like trying to make an actual point?

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