American politics has sparked an uproar all over the world … and all over social media. As a feminist, I am shocked by the recent actions that the American government has taken. As this is a blog about linguistics and language rather than politics, I will be analyzing how speech differs for men and women. The topics include gendered titles, derogatory speech and turn-taking while speaking.
In the English language titles, such as Miss, Ms. and Mrs., are used to distinguish and reveal a woman’s marital status. “Miss” represents a woman who is single, and Mrs. is a title for a married woman. Ms. is a term which is neutral (single, married, uninterested?), which I believe was created for teachers who want to keep their marital status ambiguous, to keep their students guessing. Though, in English men only have one title — Mister (Mr.) keeping their personal lives more confidential than a woman’s.
When a woman is single past a certain age, individuals may refer to her as “an old maid” (hey, she’s just taking the scenic route but she will get their eventually)! This title has a negative connotation associated to it. In comparison, when a man is single past a certain age he is known as a “bachelor”, having a positive connotation, referring to an eligible and handsome man, like George Clooney before he was taken (Pichler, 2009). When I say the word gentleman what counterpart comes to mind? Ladies most likely. Are these terms equivalent? Well, not really. Unfortunately, the title “lunch lady” has a negative connotation and the term lady itself may seem belittling if used in a poor context. These examples demonstrate a power disbalance in our language system. As trashy and addictive the show “The Bachelorette” is no woman will ever say “I’m so afraid to die alone like a bachelorette” … they are going to say “Old Maid”. The linguistics term is “semantic derogation”, meaning words that have taken on a negative connotation when compared to their counterparts (ASL-STEM, 2009).
Does sexism exist in our language system? Let’s analyze swear words. When you are really angry (or just talking casually, depending on your speech habits), you swear. Sometimes a lot. Think of the swear words you use, I’ll let you use your imagination here. How many of these swear words have negative associations referring to a women’s anatomy, sexual behaviour or even female animals for that matter? Are these terms more offensive when said to a male? Are some words stronger than others?
As much as the media claims that women are chattier than men, research shows that this is simply untrue (Eakins & Eakins, 1972). In studies analyzing speech, women are said to start more conversations and discussion points causing men to respond. Women struggle at having their voices heard and have trouble overriding men as their voices are deeper (DeFrancisco, 1991). Moreover, research shows that men interrupt and overlap women’s speech constantly, demonstrating dominance (Zimmerman & West, 1975). A notable point made by transgender women who transitioned from a man to a woman, is that they notice that there is a difference in being heard as a man versus being interrupted as a woman.
Language is something that we don’t often stop to think about. Power relations in society and in language are truthful and do exist. Language is also a gift. I believe that it is our responsibility to learn from history and stand-up for what we believe is true. Whether that is woman’s rights, gay rights and freedom of religion.
“ASL-STEM Forum.” ASL-STEM Forum | Viewing Topic: Semantic Derogation. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 Feb. 2017.
DeFrancisco, V.L. (1991). “The Sounds of Silence: how men silence women in marital relations”. Discourse and Society, 2 (4): 413–424
Pichler, P. (2009) Talking Young Femininities, Basington, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.
Zimmerman, D. H. and West, C. (1975). “Sex roles, interruptions and silences in conversations”, in B. Thorne, and N. Henley (eds), Language and Sex: Difference and Dominance, Rowley, MA: Newbury House, 105–129.