What’s wrong with women’s speech, Part 352

Last week, people started getting very excited about an article alleging that women’s tendency to use “just” makes them sound weak.  An old university friend and I on Facebook found ourselves both somehow annoyed, and had a good time exchanging examples of “weak” speech like “just fuck off!”  The whole thing reminded me of old criticisms of women’s use of tag questions, now debunked.  So I was thrilled to read this lovely blog post.

A small sample:

This endless policing of women’s language—their voices, their intonation patterns, the words they use, their syntax—is uncomfortably similar to the way our culture polices women’s bodily appearance. Just as the media and the beauty industry continually invent new reasons for women to be self-conscious about their bodies, so magazine articles and radio programmes like the ones I’ve mentioned encourage a similar self-consciousness about our speech. The effect on our behaviour is also similar. Instead of focusing on what we’re saying, we’re distracted by anxieties about the way we sound to others. ‘Am I being too apologetic?’ and ‘Is my voice too high?’ are linguistic analogues of ‘is my nail polish chipped?’ and ‘do I look fat in this?’

5 thoughts on “What’s wrong with women’s speech, Part 352

  1. The other thing about this is that supposedly deferential language is affected by context like everything else. I think women sometimes use placatory (perhaps better description than deferential) language when they are in a position of greater power. For example I know someone who is quite high up in a male dominated organisation and she uses a lot of placatory or indirect language. “Have you thought about doing x?” is an example. It’s politer and more respectful than saying “you’re doing it wrong”, but it doesn’t indicate a lack of authority.

    This is one of my pet peeves – ‘women’s way’ of doing things (as far as it even exists, as others have rightly pointed out) is always problematic in these accounts, whereas men’s (as far as it exists) is taken as a norm. It does depend on context – is a woman actually being deferential, or she just being polite and considerate of others?

  2. Mark Liberman’s take appears today at Language Log.
    Short version: the claim about ‘just’ doesn’t have any real empirical support, but that doesn’t matter to its proponents — “It doesn’t matter very much whether it’s true, as long as it’s felt to be morally instructive.”

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