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Lisa Belkin

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So, Like, You Want Your Kids To Speak, Like, Properly?

Posted: 02/28/2012 1:02 pm

Has your daughter growled at you lately? Or ended statements with question marks? Or used texting shorthand as if they were real words?

Yes, she sounds like an airhead. But she might also be advancing the cause of human communication.

Such is the suggestion of reporter Douglas Quenqua in the Science section of the New York Times today, in an article titled "They're, Like, Way Ahead of the Linguistic Currrrve." All those verbal tics that grate on parents when their children use them, Quenqua writes, "whether it be uptalk (pronouncing statements as if they were questions? Like this?), creating slang words like 'bitchin' ' and 'ridic,' or the incessant use of 'like' as a conversation filler," might actual make them trendsetters and pioneers.

Which, in turn, makes anyone who isn't a teenage girl a linguistic dinosaur, right?

He continues:

As Paris is to fashion, the thinking goes, so are young women to linguistic innovation.

'It's generally pretty well known that if you identify a sound change in progress, then young people will be leading old people,' said Mark Liberman, a linguist at the University of Pennsylvania, 'and women tend to be maybe half a generation ahead of males on average.'

Their latest innovation, according to a study at CW Post-Long Island University published in The Journal of Voice is what researchers call a "vocal fry." (A pause to stop laughing here; I grew up on the Guyland, and the idea of any study of speech coming from there ... well ... I digress.) This is described as a raspy, croaky sound most often used at the end of a sentence. (Think Mae West's last syllable when she says "Come up and see me some tiiiiiime...")

And, linguists tell us, we are supposed to view this as sophisticated innovation and resist the urge to tell the young ladies to Cut. It. Out.

Sorry. I can't do that.

Maybe because I use words for a living, or maybe because I am just easily irked, I have long held teens' speech patterns against them. When my sons went through a question-mark-at-the-end-of-every-sentence phase, I wouldn't let them complete a thought until they repeated themselves and substituted a downbeat. Conversations took awhile, but we got there.

When I was a visiting journalism professor recently, I tortured my students as if they were my own children -- they would speak in class, and I would silently use my fingers to count off each time they said "like" as a placeholder. They soon stopped.

Of course I was also the parent who stopped with the baby talk when my boys were still technically babies -- and apparently there are good arguments against that approach, too. Researchers have found that baby talk teaches the fundamentals of language more effectively than adult language and that it is a form of emotional bonding between mother and child. (As in so many studies, fathers were not included in these.) Yet I came to feel like an idiot babbling inanely at my kids, particularly in public, when the English language was filled with evocative and descriptive words. Which is probably why my 3-year-old once explained to me that he wasn't responsible for making his baby brother cry because "he provoked-ed me, Mommy."

In an interview with People magazine recently, the actor Neil Patrick Harris explained that he and his fiance, David Burtka, only used "real language" with their 15-month-old twins, because that's how the star himself was raised. "My parents always talked to my brother and myself like we were regular people and not babies," he said. "So I don't talk down to them in baby talk. I try to talk to them even though they can't speak the language yet."

Harris certainly got the knack of speech, as have my sons, so I figure there wasn't too much damage done. I also have to assume that the language will evolve just fine without my own family adding its share of growls and "likes" and inappropriate question marks. In fact, it already has. According to Quenqua, "the use of 'like' in a sentence, 'apparently without meaning or syntactic function, but possibly as emphasis,' has made its way into the Webster's New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition." And "uptalk," too, has crossed "the age and gender boundary." Quenqua quotes one linguistics professor as saying, "I've heard grandfathers and grandmothers use it. I occasionally use it myself."

In 20 more years, when that same professor is growling and frying, he can thank some of the children of today. But not mine.