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Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume 36, Number 19. 2nd August 1973


Image of a woman with a sword and a telephone

This is an abridged version of a talk given by Janet Holmes on the language of women. She discusses how language is used by women and about women and the ways in which it reflects their oppression.

Our attitudes towards events, things and people are often reflected by the way we express ourselves, by our choice of vocabulary, grammatical construction and accent. We all learn, along with the formal or structural features of language, how to use language appropriately in different social situations. The process of socialisation involves learning the constraints which society imposes on our behaviour — including language behaviour. We learn to speak appropriately to different people, in different settings about different topics. And the societies' values are often reflected in the code which is considered appropriate in a particular situation.

In a multilingual society this may involve a choice from a number of different languages. In a monolingual society it may involve a choice from among different styles in different contexts. The language we use to a Professor differs from the language we use to a flatmate, for example. It is possible to hypothesize then, that in societies where women are oppressed, exploited or disvalued minority, the language used to women, by women and about women, will reflect these attitudes.

What kind of words are available when talking about women? How are women referred to? Robin Lakoff is an article called "Language and woman's place" discusses the contrast 'woman' vs 'lady'. 'Lady' is often used for 'woman', especially when the context needs dignifying in some way, e.g. the more demeaning a job is the more likely that the female holding it will be described as a lady, hence 'cleaning lady', 'sales lady', 'tealady'. It is considered more polite to say 'tealady' than to talk of the 'teawoman'.

'Lady', Lakoff claims, has nonserious frivolous or trivial connotations in many contexts. Compare the implications of 'lady doctor' and 'woman doctor', 'lady sculptor' and 'woman sculptor'. 'Ladies' Liberation' is an unthinkable title for an organisation and reflects the trivial and derogatory associations of the term.