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Arguing for the good in bad English (Rebroadcast)

The most criticized speech habits are most likely to show up in young women of color. That's no coincidence.
The most criticized speech habits are most likely to show up in young women of color. That's no coincidence.

“Um, like, literally, you know?”

If those words sound to you like nails on a chalkboard, you’re not alone. At NPR, we get lots of messages from listeners critiquing the way our hosts, reporters, and guests speak.  Why does what we say and how we say it irk so many so much?

Language norms are standardized over time, most often by groups with the most power in society. Words that some dismiss often have greater meaning, value, and history than you might expect.

In her column for Psychology Today, Valerie Fridland explained why speech habits more common in women are more commonly criticized.

The first reason? Quite simply, history. Women have, until very recently, been valued as silent partners, rather than verbal ones, particularly in spheres traditionally considered men’s areas of expertise. In antiquity, women were not welcome in public, political, or legal forums, forced instead to lobby their husbands or male relatives to speak on their behalf on topics that fell outside the domestic

The second reason we tend to diss women’s speech more is because women tend to pick up new forms and features before anyone else does. What’s new—and different from what we think of as ‘normal’—is a beacon for negative notice, at least until the rest of the population catches up and it just becomes something everyone says.

The third reason we are more likely to be hesitant to embrace the features that populate women’s talk is because workplace culture has long been the domain of men in leadership and managerial roles.

Groups with less power, including women, people of color, and the young, develop their own language patterns to distinguish themselves and their community. Eventually, those habits tend to catch on and become normalized.

We talk to sociolinguist Valerie Fridland about why she’s arguing for the good in so-called bad English.

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