You’ll Read This, Won’t You? : Finding Power in ‘Women’s Language’

By: Mariana Bockarova

[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n her book of poetry, E-mails From Scheherazad, author Mohja Kahf writes, “All women speak two languages: the language of men and the language of silent suffering. Some women speak a third,the language of queens.” It has been suggested by many anthropologists, feminists and sociologists that women speak in a different manner than men, particularly for different purposes. For some, “women’s language” is a reflection of the social construct and norm that reiterates societal values and attitudes, reflecting the patriarchy that exists in our society today. While for others, alternatively, language simply gives the right to form agency. Defined by anthropologist and sociologist Tony Bilton, agency “implies that actors have the freedom to create, change and influence events.” In line with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which posits that human beings are at the “mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society,” linguistic agency can thus be used and manipulated as a commodity in order to create one’s identity in society, influencing societal structure. However Robin Lakoff, renown for her work of calling attention to the often forgotten differences in language used by women and men, posited that by the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis women are prisoners in their society. Although Lakoff views the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis negatively, assuming that women are patronized through the use of language, this paper seeks to demonstrate that through language, particularly “women’s language,” women and men alike can form and construct their proper agency through linguistic means, as shown in the work of Kira Hall and Bonnie McElhinny.

According to Robin Lakoff, women are patronized in society, leading to a varied use of language. In her work, Language and Woman’s Place, Lakoff portrayed a clear situation of inequality in society continually reinforced by the use of language: “[this book seeks to] provide diagnostic evidence from language use for one type of inequity that has been claimed to exist in our society: that between the roles of men and women. We will find, I think, that women experience linguistic discrimination … in the way general language use treats them [which tends to] relegate women to certain subservient functions: that of sex object, or servant.” Through the use of specialized vocabularies, including detailed words for colors, extremely mild to little use of expletives, sympathetic and pleasing adjectives and frequent hedges, women show their sub-ordinance in society, as their vocabulary shows that “real” issues do not matter to women; instead their focus is on insubstantial aspects such as colors, as shown through their language. Moreover, the use of tag questions and the form of super polite questions further emphasizes the patriarchy toward women in society as by asking these questions in ‘tag’ or ‘super polite’ form, the speaker may be stating a claim, but lacking the confidence in the truth of that claim. Along with phonemic methods to a “woman’s language”, frequently using higher tones of voice, emphasis and intonation, Lakoff makes the claim that women are disempowered, as their language bounds them to a societal structure, to which their agency is fixed through their use of language. Nevertheless, it has been proved that through the manipulation of these linguistic tendencies, women are instead empowering themselves, and by changing their language, they are changing their societal structure.

The linguistic forms and tendencies which Lakoff claims patronizes women in relation to men, in fact does the opposite, as these forms are not concealed: With respect to these tendencies, they are very much recognized by women themselves and thus can serve to be manipulated, to which Bonnie McElhinny’s work in “Challenging Hegemonic Masculinities” is a prime example of: Investigating the gender performances required of women moving into traditionally masculine jobs, such as on the police force. McElihinny found that contrary to popular beliefs, female officers did not “produce the empathetic warmth associated with many traditionally female jobs…instead, they choose to embody an image of police officers as rational, efficient and professional.” The ways in which the female officers constructed this professionalism was through the “symbolic manipulation of gender markers”— which includes language. Although materialistic characteristics were tweaked, such as women who were encouraged to wear bulky sweaters, well-worn boots and carry used tools in tool boxes in order to suggest a certain familiarity with “hard work”, linguistic means were of the utmost importance in confirming their agency as independent, able, rational women in a ‘blue-collar’ working position, as there is an “[emphasis on] the importance of using talk before physical force.” In an interview with Janie, a female police officer, McElhinny found that Janie would use “gruff” language, which she herself found “atrocious”, in order to be well respected. She claimed to have adopted a ‘HILL’ persona, a certain type of linguistic tendency which fixed slang and tone, which she used for the same purposes as the women who first instated it: to command respect. Although the female police officers felt as though their “occupation persona” was a mask, influenced by “interaction with the public and…perception of the expectations of other police officers”, the importance here is that these female police officers were able to recognize their linguistic forms and modify them to their advantage in order to position their own agency and command respect in their work force-all of which was well received.

Much like the case of the female police officers, who altered their language in order to achieve their goals, Kira Hall writes similarly of women working in the fantasy pornographic-telephone line industry in Lip Service on the Fantasy Lines. Women working in this industry must also wear a mask in order to achieve their goals. After a customer calls the fantasy line and requests a persona such as ‘housewife’, ‘lesbian’ or ‘Swedish mistress’, the fantasy talker must adhere to it, adjusting her linguistic tendency away from her norm. Similarly to female police officers who change their natural demeanor, fantasy workers cater to ‘ideal’ wishes by manipulating language to an extreme, using frequent intonations, emphasis, tag questions etc., which instead of patronizing them, empowers them: “the speaker is not the naïve, playful, and supportive interactant her male audience has taken her to be, but a mature, calculating adult with a subversive goal in mind.” As these women continue to confess they pity the men who call, and are more annoyed by their stupidity, the women themselves are empowered-after all, they feel as though they have the most to gain by working in fantasy lines. Thus, it is clear that by manipulating and overly emphasizing “women’s language”, phone workers have more to gain, (as they are paid the longer they stay on the line-done so by using hedges, tag questions, etc.-) than if they do not alter their linguistic tendencies.

In both works of Bonnie McElhinny’s female police officers and Kira Halls’ fantasy line workers, it is clear that language, particularly “women’s language” is not a societal burden, indicating a fixed patriarchal agency, but instead a tool used to construct identity, adjust agency and change societal structure.

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