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Daniela Paz
Daniela wears plaid halter top I.AM.GIA, snakeskin printed trousers Krizia, jewellery and badges her ownPhotography Ryan McGinley, styling Emma Wyman

Mocking how teenage girls speak is utterly pathetic

A Daily Mail editor tweeted to ridicule the ums, ahs, and filler language used by a young woman at a political rally – it totally backfired

If you pause to concentrate on what you’re saying while you speak, you’ll find your sentences are scattered with filler words – from ‘like’ to ‘uh’, it’s almost impossible to get through a conversation without unintentional vocal tics. These fillers, also known as discourse markers, are words we use that don’t actually give anything extra to the meaning of a sentence, but rather convey things like hesitation, or a reassurance that someone is following what you’re saying.

One filler that people seem to be particularly sensitive to is ‘like’. Associated with ‘vapid’ teenage girls, ‘like’ has developed a reputation as a sign of immaturity and stupidity. Exemplifying this disdain, a tweet by Daily Mail US political editor David Martosko went viral this week. Lashing out at a 17-year-old girl for the way she answered a question during an interview, the tweet read: “At the Elizabeth Warren rally I asked a 17-year-old supporter who will vote next year to comment on Trump’s “Pocahontas” nickname for the senator. This is a verbatim transcript of her answer.” The journalist then attached a screenshot of the teen’s answer, which contained numerous discourse markers.

Although a phenomenon that everyone falls victim to, the use of discourse markers is a trait typically associated with young women, less educated people, and the lower classes. This misconception often stems from older people out of the loop with ever-changing language developments. “Everybody does use fillers,” Dr Mercedes Durham, reader of sociolinguistics at Cardiff University tells me, “but people of different ages and genders use different ones, so you’re more sensitive to the ones you don’t use yourself.”

Written down, the young woman’s vocal tics may appear out of place, but in IRL conversations, you’d sound robotic without them. “It’s hardly surprising that she would use a lot of fillers,” Durham adds, “she’s trying to think of her words, and hasn’t prepared a soundbite for it because she’s not the president.”

Despite pointing out something incredibly commonplace in conversations, Martosko’s tweet attempts to humiliate and undermine not only young people in political spheres, but young women in particular, who are so often vilified for the way they use language.

In a 2018 study – fittingly titled The Umm Report –  it was revealed that 60 per cent of people in the UK use fillers on a regular basis, with ‘OK’, ‘err’, and ‘right’ being the most common, while ‘innit’, ‘like’, and ‘basically’ are reportedly the most annoying. The same study has also shown that women (67 per cent) are more likely to use fillers than men (52 per cent), which Durham explains is because women are frequently the leaders of linguistic change. “If there’s a new speech coming in, they (women) tend to be the ones who use it first,” she tells Dazed, “Young women in particular are very innovative, and are often criticised for it. Fillers are a way to structure your own thoughts but also an opportunity to let the other person keep on track. So it could actually be that women are more sensitive to the general needs of the conversation, and are giving the person listening more of a chance to pick up on what’s being said.”

Although women’s quick adoption of discourse markers signifies their leadership, this way of speaking is represented as inferior because of the wider inequalities in society. “It’s much more about the general attitude that a particular person will have about another person,” Jennifer Smith, professor of sociolinguistics at the University of Glasgow, reveals. “We make these assumptions about people all the time and project them onto the voice, but what we’re saying is a much bigger thing about those actual people (rather than their language).”

“If there’s a new speech coming in, they (women) tend to be the ones who use it first. Young women in particular are very innovative, and are often criticised for it” – Dr Mercedes Durham

Those online were quick to disagree with Martosko’s attempted shaming of an anonymous – and therefore unable to defend herself – teenager, with one Twitter user transcribing a section of one of Martosko’s previous filler-heavy interviews, demonstrating his hypocrisy. Others pointed out that journalists edit and condense interviews regularly for clarity, and that Martosko was deliberately being obtuse.

Although they get a bad rep when you see them written out, Smith explains that discourse markers shouldn’t be something to be ashamed of, and are actually vital when it comes to communication. “We tend to think that they’re used for hesitation,” says Smith, “or that you’re struggling for another word and can’t construct your sentence properly. But when we look at them, they’re much more proactive than that – they’re used to move on the conversation, to check understanding.”

The trend of Boomers launching an online tirade against teenage girls is, sadly, not new, with Martosko’s comments mirroring the online attacks of gun control activist and school-shooting survivor Emma Gonzalez. Just like those before him though, Martosko has only served to spark discussion in the young woman’s favour, and prove that when it comes to language, young women are actually the leaders.

As Smith says, “If we stripped out all these discourse markers from everyday conversation, we wouldn’t have that level of interaction and understanding. Without them, language wouldn’t be such a good communicative tool.”