Prof. Cynthia Gordon Explains the Linguistic Phenomenon Behind Taylor Swift’s Superstardom
July 7, 2023
Posted in News Story
With over 266 million followers on Instagram, Taylor Swift has amassed a loyal fan base of so-called Swifties devoted to every word the cultural icon speaks or sings.
On July 7, the pop superstar rereleased her hotly anticipated album “Speak Now (Taylor’s Version).” This comes amid her Eras Tour that is on track to be the highest grossing tour by any artist of all time with millions of Swifties cramming into stadiums to see the superstar live.
But how has Swift become one of the biggest pop stars in the world and cultivated such a passionate fan base?
Her lyrics may provide a clue, says Cynthia Gordon, a linguistics expert and associate professor in Georgetown’s College of Arts & Sciences. Gordon researches how social groups use “lects” — informal private languages, such as a family’s “familect” — to build and strengthen communities.
“All kinds of small groups, families, fandoms, social clubs and so on are bound together by language. So when we speak to people regularly, we develop certain patterns and routines that start to characterize our group,” Gordon said. “And when we use these patterns and routines, we reaffirm our group membership and set off the boundaries of our community.”
In this Ask a Professor, watch Gordon explain the linguistics behind Swift’s superstardom, then read on to get her take on the future of the Swiftie fan base — as well as Gordon’s favorite Taylor Swift song.
Q&A With Cynthia Gordon
Are people typically aware of when they start using a familect or private language?
I think it depends. There are certain cases where you do realize it. So for example, when I’ve talked about my research to others, I explain what a familect is and people say, “Aha, I have one of those. I didn’t realize I had a familect, but we do have a special word for this or that, or a special routine that we use around bedtime or in the morning.” So I think on some level, people are aware of their familects.
On the other hand, it’s also common that you start using a word and don’t realize that it’s part of a familect until someone from outside says, “What do you mean by that?” So it’s a combination of both.
How and when do people decide whether to let others into their familect?
Familect sharing happens because intimacy develops. When you join a new family, when you go to meet your partner’s parents, for example, you’re going to hear things that are new and they’re going to want you to understand them. So you’re going to be educated about the familect in direct and indirect ways as you get closer to members of the family. It helps to build intimacy and relationships.
Why is Taylor Swift so popular, and how has language shaped her rise to the top of the music industry?
I think it’s a couple of things. One is longevity. She’s young, but she’s had quite a long career, so her words have been out there. We also have music videos and social media that have spread her music. These lyrics have been everywhere, and they’re persistent. And that goes for Taylor but also for many other artists.
At the same time, she has been identified as a particularly gifted lyricist. So people seem to listen very carefully to what she’s saying. She likes to drop Easter eggs into her songs with meanings that only her real fans can identify and uncover. So I think the role of language in her work is really highlighted, and that has made people pay especially close attention.
Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour is the concert everyone is talking about right now. How does listening to an artist live differ from listening to a recording by yourself?
Live concerts and live performances have this community aspect that’s absent from listening by yourself. So you have a place where you can experience the joy of being part of a social group of fans. You can feel connected not only to the artist but to other people who appreciate the artist as well.
When you’re listening at home by yourself, especially now with everyone having their smartphones to listen to music, it’s a much more intimate experience. You hear the artist in your ear when you’re doing everyday kinds of things, like cleaning the house, sitting in bed or walking your dog. And so, I think that creates a much more intimate kind of connection, a type of relationship that you feel that you develop with the artist as an individual.
Will Taylor Swift’s fan base and private language keep growing?
I think as long as Taylor Swift is in the public eye, her words will be all around us. Familects often change over time. So every time Taylor Swift drops an album, we have new lyrics to work with and use in different contexts to quote and so on. I suspect what we’ll see is some older lyrics and some older patterns of interaction being maintained and some dropping away. The vocabulary of Taylor Swift will just become richer over the years.
What’s your favorite Taylor Swift song?
This is a hard question. I like “Willow.” It is very musical and a pretty song. I like the melody, and it’s really great for instrumentals. But I also find “Shake It Off” to be sort of a touchstone. For me, it’s a song that’s fun. It’s a song that’s catchy, and it also reveals to many of her fans that Taylor Swift can take a joke. She’s able to not take herself seriously. She can be humorous, and she can be goofy. And I think a lot of people, myself included, appreciate that.