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Because it’s in fashion … for now?

“Why study linguistics?”

This question is projected onto the front wall of my phonetics classroom. I look at it. “Why?” Why would my professor ask us this? Shouldn’t we know?

Won’t she drive any doubt out of our heads with the lecture she’s about to deliver, full of those pop science-y morsels about who says “pop” and who says “soda” that we can repeat to our friends later, feeling smug?

Maybe part of me hoped or even knew that there could be more to studying the elements of language than this, but I’d never really thought about it.

Various aspects of the answer come through years of study, true, but the most important element introduced in that phonetics class is borne out every day on the streets of New York, watching movies and television, talking with friends: language is always changing, and trying to staunch the flow of new vocabulary and phrasing will get you nowhere.

Unsurprisingly, new terms tend to come from the mouths of young people, especially young women. The very professor from my phonetics class, Lisa Davidson of NYU, was recently interviewed about a particular quality of young women’s speech that is becoming more common by the day.

This is “vocal fry,” a phenomenon occurring when a speaker’s vocal folds fully close then quickly open, creating a gravelly sound very different from when the vocal folds move smoothly between being partly open and partly closed, which happens during typical speech.

As with every change new generations make to language, vocal fry is being derided by older speakers, from public radio hosts to anonymous bloggers, with increasing regularity.

Davidson puts to rest the idea that vocal fry is inherently “bad” to do while speaking, noting, “We expect our children to dress differently than we do, and to have different hairstyles. We might decry it, sort of, but you know, fashion styles change. Why wouldn’t everything else [including language] change too? It’s just yet another way of making ourselves different than the generation that came before us.”

Studying linguistics taught me precision and how to diagram complex sentences – but internalizing the fact that language is constantly in flux was the most important thing I learned in my years of study. I can only hope this attitude will stick as I grow older and the changes become more and more removed from the ones of my youth.

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