I'm not too sure when exactly I started speaking like the missing Kardashian sister. It certainly wasn't on purpose. But there I was a few months ago, collecting my change from the cashier and letting loose a 'thank yewww'. The long, lazy drawl isn't all that much different from the standard Australian accent I've always had and these slight Kardashian influences that have begun peppering my speech fit in nicely next to my occasional uptalk (the 'high rising terminal') and the Gilmore Girls-style rapid fire conversation that for some reason only women seem capable of following.
The speaking style and the lexicon used within my social circle seems to belie the intelligence and sophistication of my girlfriends. So what if everything is a question and none of us have said 'whatever' in its full form since 2009? How is it that young women cop the blame for broad linguistic shifts in their society? And why is everyone so mad at us for using 'literally' in a context that has been common for eternity? Pay no mind to F Scott Fitzgerald having literally used it himself, I guess.
Douglas Quenqua's story for the New York Times in February of this year explores this. As Paris is to fashion, he reasons, 'young women are to linguistic innovation'. He cites uptalk (speaking every sentence like it is a question?) and vocal fry (which he describes a 'raspy or croaky sound found usually at the end of a sentence') as the two phenomena of note. Uptalk is plainly the number one indicator people use to impersonate and ridicule young women and this is evident in everything from sketch comedies to pub conversations. Oddly, despite uptalk's roots famously being traced to the Valley Girls of Los Angeles throughout the 1980s Quenqua believes that it had migrated there from Australia. This was news to me, but thanks to further research (uh, wikipedia-ing) it seems that Australian accents are notorious for a 'high rising terminal'. Stephen Fry once dismissed uptalk as the 'Australian Question Intonation'. Which just makes the question of why Australian young women are so mocked for what is a nationwide characteristic of language that much more maddening.
Vocal fry is a little harder to describe onomatopoeically, though YouTube is full of videos of people quite brutally slamming the technique. Quenqua lists Reese Witherspoon in Legally Blonde as an example of vocal fry, though I think the Kardashians, Rachel Zoe or Nicole Richie with their deepened affectation make far better examples.
Carmen Fought, an American linguistics professor who spoke to Quenqua is quick to defend and offer an explanation. 'If women do something like uptalk or vocal fry, it's immediately interpreted as insecure, emotional or even stupid. The truth is this: young women take linguistic features and use them as power tools for building relationships', she says. This makes inherent sense. You only have to witness how Bob Hawke your accent becomes when speaking to another Australian in a bar in Tokyo, or how when speaking to your boss or your little sister's best friend your cadence changes accordingly.
Quenqua offers another possible reason, 'women use language to assert their power in a culture that, at least in days gone by, asked them to be sedate and decorous'. While I'd argue that those days haven't really 'gone by' just yet, I tend to side with this. Teenage girls are demonised for their choices in clothing, television shows, what music they listen to. They have to worry about being too fat, being too skinny, and friending strangers on Facebook. Maybe teenage girls and young women speak the way we do because we can. When little self-control over one's situation is afforded, like as a teenager, perhaps the natural step becomes to adapt and experiment with language - something that can never be controlled by someone other than yourself. This may explain why although my own uptalk or vocal fry hasn't completely disappeared, as demonstrated by my constant Kardashian impersonating, it has certainly leveled out considerably since leaving puberty and high school behind.
Or maybe it's just more efficient to communicate purely in 'oh my God's with varying inflections.
Image taken from gemb1's Photostream on Flickr under Creative Commons Licence.