Gender Norms

How American Boys Learn To Speak Like American Men

Girls are the arbiters of language. Boys share a voice.

Originally Published: 
How American Boys Learn to Speak Like American Men
John Finley for Fatherly

For about six years in the 1990s, the intensifier “so” — as in “I’m sooooo over it” — belonged solely to women. It was a short chapter in the history of American linguistics, but worth revisiting. In 1994, Monica, Rachel, and Phoebe, the three female leads on the Friends cast, were scripted to use the term “so” to modify nearly half of their adjectives. The women of the Friends cast were so glad, so jealous, and so sorry. Nobody told women to adopt the intensifier and nobody told men avoid it, but that’s nonetheless what happened. Women started saying “so” more often and American men stopped saying it altogether — American boys too. Culture teaches a boy to think like a man, and speak like one too. Television scripting helps.

Anyone with experience in coed environments will grant that men and women speak differently. This is statistically true in terms of both word choice and sentiment. It is observationally true in terms of inflection. It is so. But very young boys and girls don’t speak differently. They sound roughly the same. Which is to say that boys pick up their habits along the way — that they learn to speak like men. Without any special tutorial, most boys begin conforming to male vocal patterns in elementary school. They twist their mouths to make their voices seem deeper, they adopt non-standard slang terms like walkin’, and they avoid female intensifiers society deems it appropriate.

So, for six years in the 1990s boys stopped saying “so.” Then, in 2002, as Ross, Joey, and Chandler started using the word, they picked it up again. Something fundamental to the way that they expressed themselves had been altered by a bunch of TV writers in Burbank. Boys in particular are, as it turns out, highly sensitive to linguistic pressures.

Boys learn to be boys,” says Penelope D. Eckert, a sociolinguist at Stanford University. “Every kid wants to grow up, and the messages they get about that next stage are always gendered. It shouldn’t be surprising that there are differences in the ways boys and girls talk.”

What It Means To Talk Like A Man

Interestingly, scientific literature does not back the anecdotal claim that men (or boys) are more likely to interrupt women. Being aggressive and assertive may be a way to demonstrate maleness, but it doesn’t encompass or describe what it means to sound masculine.

“Most of that is bullshit,” Eckert says. “Sex is a cheap variable. Any study can throw gender in there and, if you look hard enough, you can always find a result.”

There are, however, a handful of speech patterns that researchers have linked to one gender, at least among English speakers in the United States. Men are less careful than women about using what linguists call standard dialogue — proper English, as spoken by a newscaster or politician. For instance, men are more likely to use slang terms that involve dropping the final letter of a word (walkin’ or talkin’). Another oft-referenced gender difference is that women tend to speak with rising intonation and make liberal use of “very.”

“If there’s a new way of speaking that’s coming in, a lot of times it will be women who adopt it before men,” Scott Kiesling, a sociolinguist at the University of Pittsburgh, told Fatherly.

There are relatively few linguistic studies of male and female children. Too few to allow experts to really track the evolution of the kids’ speech. One 1996 paper reported that boys in Philadelphia are less likely than girls to drop their t’s and d’s (I couldn’ sleep las’ night). Other studies have shown that children are more likely to learn to speak from their mothers than fathers and that both sexes often display culturally feminine speech patterns in childhood.

When Do Boys Learn To Speak Like Men?

Some boys as young as five-years-old seem to unwittingly modify their speech to sound like they’ve already hit puberty. “Younger boys, even though they don’t have a statistically different vocal tract length, are doing things to lengthen their vocal tracts and sound like men,” Kiesling says. “If you round your lips, you lengthen your vocal tract and sound more masculine and if you smile it sounds more feminine because you’re shortening your vocal tract.”

Still, many speech-related gender differences don’t set in until high school. It’s around the sixth grade, Eckert says, that girls suddenly start complimenting one another and gossiping. “They’re both mechanisms of social control,” she says. Meanwhile, boys begin excluding girls from sports and adults start sanctioning girls for clowning around in class. “Girls start replacing the things they used to do for excitement with duty and personality,” Eckert says. “Language goes with it.” And, as a result of this shift in gender roles, girls often become the arbiters of language.

“It’s very clear that girls use the stylistic resources of language more than boys,” she says. “In fifth grade I can see the girls are much more flamboyant and are really becoming stylizers, and the boys are drawing inward and becoming conservative.”

Eckert drove this point home in her study of how young teens change their pronunciations in California high schools. She found that kids in the “popular crowd” were “much more advanced in sound changes —talking more ‘California,’ if you like — than other kids,” she says. “It was, above all, girls leading that change across the board.”

One specific California nuance Eckert studied is the tendency to lengthen final syllables (he knows my brotherrrr). Kids of both sexes are far more likely to do this than adults. That is, until adolescence — when girls keep it up, but boys cut it out. “It looks like some time when these kids get into high school, the boys pull back stylistically whereas the girls blossom stylistically.”

“Girls and women are expected to be expressive,” she says. “Boys and men are not.”

A Word About Language and Gender

Society influences language, so it’s important to note that there is no such thing as “boy speech,” per se. There’s a social construct of what a boy should be, and most boys learn to speak (and dress and act) in line with societal expectations. While it’s true that many boys and men speak differently than many girls and women, experts are careful to stress that these differences are seldom biological and that there are many exceptions to these rules.

“There really isn’t anything cross-cultural universal about language and gender, except that men have longer vocal cords,” Kiesling cautions. “Language does not respond to ‘being a man’ or ‘being a woman’. This is the kind of thing that drives language and gender experts crazy.”

These are the things that make it sooooo hard to understand why so many boys seem to grow to share a single voice and the restrive speech habits of modern men.

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