Evolution of language

The Evolution of Language: Are Women the Main Instigators of Change?

With the festive season upon us, we thought a potentially divisive look at the dominant role women play in the evolution of language would be an excellent way to defuse any tension.

Language is constantly evolving. Confucius once illustrated the evolution of language by asking people to think about their definition of a king now, compared to what it signified 500 years ago. Perhaps an easier way to see just how much language has evolved is to compare the works of writers like Shakespeare and Chaucer with those of today.

In fact, such is the growth of the English language that many modern-day hip-hop artists have larger vocabularies than William Shakespeare. That’s simply because there are so many more words to choose from.

Who is responsible for language change?

One theory of linguistics is that marginalised groups are the driving force behind language change. In history, there are many examples of immigrant populations having a marked and lasting impact on the language spoken by those already settled in the UK.

There are numerous examples of that type of evolution in action. In the 18th century, the Huguenots were a marginalised group of outsiders who settled in London’s East End. The influence they had on the language can still be heard in the famous cockney dialect. The same can be said for the influence of black musical subcultures from the US, which have been highly influential in the way the modern English language is spoken today.

So what other marginalised groups have played a big part in the evolution of language? How about young women, and more specifically teenage girls?

The female role in language adaptation

Women and teenage girls are arguably the most important language innovators of all time. Researchers have studied thousands of letters written by women between the years 1417 and 1681 and found that women changed their way of writing much more quickly than men. These changes have hastened the spread of new language ideas and brought an end to older language trends.

What makes this finding surprising is the fact that, during this time, women did not generally have access to a formal education. So, while male language innovations tended to result from their education, it’s unclear where female language adaptations originated from.

Young women are more advanced in linguistic change

In bilingual communities, a researcher called Susan Gal found that young women were ‘more advanced in the direction of linguistic change than older people and young men’. But why? One theory is that young boys traditionally learn language from their mothers. As women have larger social networks than men, they also continue to pick up new language trends from other women. They then pass that on to their children.

As a historically subordinate group, women have had to adapt their method of speaking to the language of men. That suggests women have effectively had to translate from their natural language and articulate their thoughts and emotions in a way accepted by a male-dominated society. The theory is that this has made them more innovative with language simply so they can express themselves effectively.

Although there is no universally accepted reason why, it’s widely agreed that women are the main instigators of language change, with many pieces of research suggesting teenage girls are the most innovative of all.

How can we help?

If you’re looking for some language change of your own, here at Linguistica International, we provide a leading range of translation, transcreation and bilingual copywriting services for international brands like Orange, Manchester United and Santander.

To find out more, call us on 02392 987 765 or email info@linguistica-international.com today.