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

Watch your language There may be ladies present

page 16

Watch your language There may be ladies present

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.


Germaine Greer points out that many terms which were originally sexually neutral have "gained virulence by sexual discrimination." She cites examples like 'harlot', 'hoyden', and 'chit' which are nowadays used to refer to only women and in a derogatory sense. The number of terms used to refer to women as sexual objects is enormous. This may be due to the fact that our society regards women as primarily sexual beings, and thus automatically relegates them to the status of objects.

What are the male equivalents of terms like 'slut', 'whore' and 'an easy lay'? Also notice the metaphorical connotations and derogatory implications of expressions like 'bitch', 'filly', 'kitten', 'chick', 'bird', 'goose' 'vixen', 'cow' and 'hen' — animal terms frequently applied to women. Or the food imagery like 'dish', 'sugar', 'cookie', 'crumpet' and 'a juicy piece'; and the derogatory implications of 'a bit of fluff', 'a scrubber', 'a bit of skirt', or 'tail', 'a piece of ass' and so on.

Similarly the use of some specialised terms when applied to women again treat them as primarily sexual beings. Compare "he's a professional" and "she's a professional". As Lakoff says "a man is defined in the serious world by what he does, a woman by her sexuality." The words promiscuous' and 'cheap: are words generally applied to women rather than men, and in a sexual context rather than any other. The words 'prostitute' and 'virgin' have no commonly used male equivalents. Even 'groupie' which was intended by Frank Zappa to be free from pejorative colouring, is now used and reacted to as an insult by the women it refers to.


Kate Millett in her book Sexual Politics refers to the use of the term 'man' to cover all human beings. One could add terms like 'mankind, man in the street, to man a ship, man trap, manhole, manpower, manmade, and chairman, manslaughter' and expressions like 'to a man' meaning 'without exception', and the use of the pronoun 'he' to refer to males and females. Millett relates this practice to the patriarchal societies in which men possess all the power — political, military, financial, legal, industrial etc. She says "within the Indo- European languages this is a nearly inescapable habit of mind for despite all the customary pretence that 'man' and humanity' are terms which apply equally to both sexes, general application favours the male far more often than the female as referent, or even sole referent of such designations."

In our western society feminists have claimed that 'man' is regarded as the norm, a 'woman' as a departure from the norm, using linguistic structure as evidence. The linguistic forms cited as evidence can be described as marked or unmarked forms: they are not restricted to sex differentiation.

When referring to people, the feminine is often marked by adding the prefix — ness to the male form, e.g. actor, prince, waiter, conductor. This is most true of terms referring to social or occupational roles and it is understandable that the female forms are derived from the male forms, since the infiltration of women into professional roles was usually subsequent to the occupation of these roles by men. Language is here reflecting historical change.

In order to say anything useful about language and social values we need to look for cases where linguistic marking is significant or has developed significance over time, as in the case mentioned before where 'harlot' was once sexually neutral but is no longer. Examples from outside language include the existence of a marked category in newspaper lay-outs — the women's page (which suggest that what concerns women is different from what concerns men.)

Lakoff looks at the contrast in meaning between master and mistress from the point of view of marked and unmarked forms. Master is unmarked in the sense of a master of a skill or academic field. (Master of Arts, Bachelor of Arts as degrees have no female forms). Mistress however, is used to refer to women as sexual possessions. A woman can be described as X's mistress: i.e. she belongs to him. She is defined as one of his possessions. Remember too, the final words of the marriage ceremony "I now pronounce you man and wife." The man's position is unchanged but the woman is defined in relation to the man.

And this brings us to 'Mr, Mrs and Miss'. Woman are given their identity in society by virtue of their relationship to men. A woman's marital status is considered important information in our society, even by women themselves. It effects the way a woman is seated, and until this changes, the form [unclear: Ms] won't be widely adopted. Social change must precede lexical change. Language reflects attitudes, it can't alter them. The replacement of the word 'spinster' with its derogatory implications by 'bachelor girl' cannot force society to stop regarding spinsters as having failed in some way, or to have missed the beat, and so 'old maid' is another loaded term with no male equivalent.

Drawing a woman and gender symbols

Sexual Bargaining

Germaine Greer points out that the bargaining and competitive element between women in our society is partly due to their lack of self-respect. The competitive element is reflected in phrases like 'she caught her man. Similarly women see their 'techniques of sexual bargaining jeopardised by the disregard of women who make themselves cheap." As Germaine Greer points out 'if women are to be better valued by men they must value themselves more highly."

Some of the features of women's attitudes to each other reinforce the argument that women are a minority group in our society. They judge each other as harshly or more harshly than men judge them, in many cases. Philip Goldberg, a social psychologist, demonstrated the fact that women consider themselves to be inferior in an experiment which presented for assessment the same article to a group of women students under a male authors name for some women and a female author for others. Male authors received more favourable ratings in all occupational fields; statistically significant differences were found in the fields of law, city planning and linguistics. "There is a general bias by women against women and it is strongest in traditionally masculine fields." He said there was a tendency among women to downgrade the work of a professional of their own sex. This was true even in traditionally female fields such as dietetics, nursing and teaching. It seems that women must learn to respect each other as a first step in the fight for equal status in our society.

Fucking and all that

Another aspect of the language used about women is the number of terms for sexual intercourse which reflect the fact that in our culture the woman is perceived as the passive partner or victim who is screwed/poked/had/knocked off/knocked up/fucked by the man, rather than a view of sexual intercourse as requiring equal contribution from both parties. The reasons probably lie in the socialisation of women in our society, they are not expected to be equal contributors in any interaction, physical or intellectual.

In other societies too, talk about women is often regarded as uncomplimentary to them and would never occur in their presence. In Indonesia Tanner says "Discussions about women.... always utilise some sort of familiar stylistic variations which included what was called dirty slang'. "The use of this was a strictly masculine prerogative "and should a woman enter the scene, both topic and certain aspects of style were likely to receive immediate modification." It has been argued that this shows respect for women, but at the very least one can reply that it certainly doesn't treat women as equals, and, more realistically, the change in style seems to be more akin to the embarrassment felt when a person one does not regard highly walks into a conversation which has been uncomplimentary to him.

Language used by Women

Robin Lakoff claims that the process of socialisation for a girl involves the acquisition of a speech style which will later be used as an excuse for others "to keep her in a demeaning position, to refuse to take her seriously as a human being." This style will deny her "the means of expressing herself strongly on the one hand" and encourage her to use "expressions that suggest triviality in subject matter and uncertainty about it on the other."

The claims for example that women make more precise colour discriminations than men do: women will describe articles as 'biege', 'mauve', 'lilac', 'lavender' and so on, where men will consider such fine discrimination trivial and unimportant. Her explanation for this is that women are not expected to make decisions on important matters in our society" so "they are relegated the non-clerical decisions as a sop."

Swear-words are another area where only recently have women begun to use words which would previously have been condemned as unladylike or inappropriate or vulgar in a woman's speech style. Even now older men take exception to women who use words like 'shit' and 'fuck' in their conversation, even in contexts where they themselves might use these words in exasperation or annoyance. And the social rule which forbids men to swear in the presence of women is simply another reflection of males protecting women from reality or the expression of strong feelings.

Drawing of a girl with ABC's

Certain adjectives in English are generally classifiable as 'women's words'. Words like 'adorable', 'charming' and 'divine', for example. Lakoff describes these as words which express one's own personal, emotional reactions rather than words which attempt to guage a general reaction. They are appropriate only, for essentially trivial or frivolous referents. Again they reflect the nonserious character of what are considered to be appropriate womanly concerns.

In actual fact, Lakoff claims, it is not simply that they are feminine words it is rather that they signal that their users are not concerned with power in the society. So they may be used by hippies, homosexuals and academics—all groups which society as a whole refuses to take seriously. For these groups it is possible to express "approval of things in a personal way — though one does so at the risk of losing one's credibility with members of the power structure."

Grammar, even

In the region of grammar it is claimed that women use tag-questions more frequently than men do. A tag-question is syntactically and functionally midway between an outright statement and a yes/no question, in terms of certainly. It involves less commitment than a statement, and asks for confirmation, e.g. "John's here isn't he?" Women, Lakoff claims, use tag-questions more often when stating opinions, requiring confirmation and approval, e.g. "It looks good, doesn't it?" And similarly they use a questioning intonation contour with statements more often than men do.

Commands and requests are another area of speech differences. Women are likely to add a number of signals to a request to make it sound less like a command. It gives the addressee some option about whether to agree or not. Compare "shut the door" with "won't you please close the door".

All these features may be responsible for the fact that women's speech sounds more polite than mens. It is part of a woman's role not to impose her own views or claims on others, and the speech-style she acquires allows her to fulfil this role. But it deprives her of a means page 17 of being taken seriously in any context and provides men with reasons for dismissing women as tentative, unsure of themselves and concerned with trivial matters. "Women's speech is devised to prevent the expression of strong statements."

Not to be taken seriously

And it is a well-known fact that in our society any person who cannot state his views forcefully is unlikely to be taken seriously. The person who uses forceful language and extreme, unqualified assertions is likely to 'be paid more attention than the person who, in the interests of fairness and truth, qualifies his statements and points out that there are several points of view to be considered. This is the psychology underlying all propaganda and advertising after all.

In many languages the language used by women Is morphologically different from the men's language; and in some cases the women's forms are also the polite forms for the society as a whole. In Japanese and Korean, for example, Martin says "there is a tendency for man to discriminate different situations calling for honorific [implying respect — Ed] usage, for women to use honorifics all the time." In Koasati, an American Indian language, He as reports that the women's speech forms are more archaic than the mens. But at present only older women use them. Young women are beginning to use the men's forms.

What evidence is there from social dialect research that differences do exist within English between the speech of men and women? In a special dialect survey of speech in New York city in 1956 and another in Detroit in 1967 it was found that women, especially in the upper middle class and lower middle class groups, showed greater 'sensitivity' or awareness of socially stigmatised speech forms than the men in these groups. In other words women used fewer of the speech forms associated with slovenly or unprestigious or lower social class speech.


Women seem to subscribe to the dominant middle-class values of the society. They are quite conscious of the fact that their speech often doesn't conform to the most prestigious forms of the community. And they feel negative towards their own speech and that of lower-class and working-class speakers in general. Self-hatred is a typical minority group trait and Labor describes this as linguistic self-hatred.

In a study of the negro and Puerto-Rican population of New York, Labor concentrated on negro adolescent boys. One of the clearest themes in their speech was their hostility to women. Women were seen as objects, 'sex machines' their worst insults involved insulting the mother of the addressee.

These boys, recognised the middle-class speech forms as prestigious, but did not use them. Their value systems directly contradicted those of the dominant middle-class culture. Girls of the same age and ethnic groups could use the NNE vernacular as fluently as the boys; but they were considerably ahead in reading ability and educational achievement. Again the females seemed willing to adopt middle-class norms and attempt to succeed in middle-class society, where the boys placed great store on a refusal to give-in to the system and despised those who did. The negro adolescents shared the typical minority group attitude of self-hatred.

It seems, that in much of the research available, women's speech forms are the conservative forms and are therefore considered unfashionable and unprestigious. In societies where the social structure is very rigid, the women's role is so clearly defined that she is automatically restricted to forms of speech or language which have no social status. In modern societies we find women imitating prestigious forms which reflect the overt values of the society while men and younger people are adopting new forms. This relates to the explanation of linguistic change suggested by Fisher: "The variety factor is needed to explain why phonetic drifts tend to continue in the same direction this protracted pursuit of an elite by an envious mass and consequent 'flight' of the elite is.... the most important factor in linguistic drift (at all levels)" The new prestige forms however, on the evidence of young people in Trudgill's study are working- class speech and values. It seems that this reversal in the social values of the society has included women in a way that was not apparent in previous research. Perhaps Women's Lib and unisex are having some effect.

We need to identify the linguistic differences and the social distinctions speech diffs reflect, in order to inform women of the social implications of their speech forms, and the reactions they arouse in others, of different sex, age and social status; of the values they are often unconsciously projecting every time they open their mouths. It is interesting to speculate on the basis of Trudgill's evidence in Britain whether in this area, as in others women will be forced to adopt masculine behaviour patterns and value systems in order to avoid discrimination, and achieve recognition for what they are, rather than how they are perceived.