Why TikTok is poised to change how we speak

Above, TikTok star Addison Rae. (Credit: Vivian Killilea/Getty Images)

Is TikTok changing how we speak? A linguist weighs in on the platform’s effect on language trends.

Nicole Holliday (@mixedlinguist on Twitter) co-hosts the Slate podcast “Spectacular Vernacular,” where she recently discussed the “TikTok language rabbit hole.”

“Linguistic change doesn’t tend to be top down…”

Largely characterized as a Gen Z phenomenon, TikTok is a social app with more than 100 million active users in the United States alone—almost one-third of the country’s population. As a network that builds community while offering users a peek into other people’s lives, the app can turn a regional trend into a global phenomenon.

Holliday is assistant professor of linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert on speech patterns who has studied the speech of both everyday people and politicians such as Kamala Harris. She’s interested in how people use language to construct their identity, especially among people who cross racial and ethnic boundaries and how those markers show up in speech.

Here, Holliday talks about how TikTok is different from other mediums, who initiates the trends, and how the video-sharing app is changing the way we speak, 15 seconds at a time:


How does TikTok influence our vernacular in a different way than other mediums?


I think it’s primarily an issue of exposure. I think it’s a little bit more powerful because it’s audio. We’ve evolved to talk to each other face-to-face. That’s how communication presents. We did that for thousands of years before phones and all of this. So, it’s actually more resonant for us when we see a person and we hear them, as opposed to reading something that they wrote, like if it were on Twitter. And it’s easier to acquire language that way as well. If you were learning a second language, you wouldn’t just read texts. That doesn’t get you very far; you need to actually be talking with people face-to-face. So it works the same way with change in our first languages.

TikTok also puts us in touch with people we have never been in touch with before. For example, I’ve been following #BamaRush. I can’t imagine being a 33-year-old professor in Philadelphia 20 years ago and hearing college students from Alabama talk in a casual way. It just would not have happened for me. All of these girls in Alabama share a community, and they talk to each other, and there’s a lexicon and a style within their community because that’s how language works. But we’re also getting to look at it.


Is it true that most linguistic changes come from the youth, taking for example the impact of the “Valley Girl” speech pattern popularized in the 1990s?


Yes! It’s coming from the youth because the youth are cool. That’s an axiom for sociolinguists. Particularly young women. You gave the Valley Girl example—frequently when there’s a language change that’s coming in and being led by young women, as soon as people make that association, it becomes stigmatized because of sexism. You get that with vocal fry. There was a big panic about vocal fry; there still is. There’s all this business advice telling women not to do it. But in reality, men are also doing vocal fry. It did come in via the women, and that’s still the stereotype, but now everybody does it, and that’s a pattern that is really common.


Can you speak to the linguistic change initiated by Black people?


So remember, whoever’s cool leads the change. Linguistic change doesn’t tend to be top down, and when you try to do something top down it usually fails, unless there’s some kind of good sociological reason. That’s one thing that we’ve actually seen with coronavirus. These words were new, and they were being talked about not primarily by a cool group but rather by the government. Why do we call it COVID-19? Why do we call it social distancing? Those are terms that they gave us. So that’s kind of the only exception where you’ll get top-down language changes.

African Americans are cool. We talk about prestige in sociolinguistics. There’s overt prestige, which is what you have if you’re the president, or somebody with a lot of money, or you’re old or, you know, male. And then there’s covert prestige, which is the coolness. People with covert prestige are frequently disempowered sociologically. You see this with young people; you see this with Black people, you know, any kind of minority. But there are things that the mainstream admires about their cultures that get associated with coolness.

This is where you get into this question of appropriation, which people always ask me. The problem is when people with power can pick and choose the elements that are traditionally associated with a group with less power. They’re doing it for fun and because it’s cute and because it sounds cool, but they’re not experiencing any of the negative social consequences that the people who genuinely invented that way of speaking do. And this is why people get mad about like, “Oh, everybody’s saying bae now.” Well because, if you said “bae” 30 years ago, people would look at you crazy because it wasn’t something that was in the mainstream lexicon.

So it’s this process by which these things filter out into the mainstream. And it’s not a problem. Language changes. We have cultural context; this is fine. It’s only a problem when you start to see people do it in ways that are harmful or that don’t acknowledge where it came from, or are kind of flippant. So I don’t care when I see 14-year-old kids on TikTok using features of African American English; they don’t know. And it’s just the way that people around them speak and maybe they have Black friends, I don’t know. But if they were using it to make fun or discriminate, that’s really bad.


You talked about women both leading linguistic change and also experiencing a backlash. Is that true for all linguistic change makers?


It’s just because the change makers are people that are disempowered. That’s kind of a necessary condition. So their way of speaking gets criticized from the top down but then gets borrowed from the bottom up. The trends aren’t usually grammatical things. They’re usually words because words are really easy to borrow. You only have to hear a word once, and you kind of know.

I was wondering what people are saying is the new youth slang, so I found this article, and it’s like, “Here’s all the new youth slang.” And of course a lot of it is African American English. Here’s what’s funny about an article like that: Once this exists, kids aren’t doing it anymore. It’s no longer cool.


How does tech influence the speed of trend uptake? Is what we’re seeing now different than a couple decades ago?


I think it’s faster, for sure, but it’s faster on both ends. Things come and go these days. They also diffuse things in different ways, and this is part of the change in the medium. Think about the ’90s: Everybody was watching Friends. So that was very influential, but we don’t all share the same media anymore.

But on TikTok, because of the way the algorithm works but also because of my interests, I can be hyperspecialized. There’s linguist TikTok, which you would probably never come across, and that forms what linguists call a community of practice. So our communities of practice can be hyperspecialized for the stuff that we’re interested in, and also they can be anywhere in the world. We can talk instantaneously, mediated via video chat, with anybody. So that just causes things to move really quickly.

That’s what the young people are doing. They’re doing stuff apart from their parents, and it’s developmentally appropriate for them. But it does change the language in their communities.

This is definitely emerging, so people should keep their eyes peeled. I think that what really is different about TikTok is that face-to-face visual and audio stimuli as part of the social network. There’s no other way to interact. There are comments, but that’s it. So the only thing you can do is have your whole body and voice and face out there. And in that way it replicates our real-life social interactions, which makes it more powerful.

Source: Penn