Don’t Say That, It Makes You Sound Like A Girl

LeAnn Brown is a recent PhD graduate from the University of Toronto, a sessional instructor at the University of Calgary, and a research assistant for the University of Manitoba. She studies how gender, sexual orientation, and personal traits are all manifested (or if they are manifested) in people’s speech, and how that shapes power in our society.

This is one of a two-part interview with LeAnn. This week we are discussing how women have traditionally had their speech stigmatized as a proxy for criticizing women in general.

In two weeks our next post will focus on LGBTQ issues.

The research LeAnn Brown does, and that she cites, reflect critical biases in our society. By better understanding these issues, we can work to address and overcome them.

[Men and women have compared and contrasted their ways of speaking since we started speaking]

[People judge how others speak, and often gender plays a role in those judgements]

Michael Iannozzi : What first got you interested in studying the way power, gender, and sexual orientation shape language use?

LeAnn Brown : As an undergrad I heard a little about “genderlects” – this idea that women and men speak differently. I wondered how easily trans gender individuals would be able to acquire a new genderlect and that became the focus of my masters project and some of my PhD research. Looking at cis (i.e., non-trans) and trans gender issues brings up all kinds of questions about power and sexual orientation, so my interest in all these issues evolved out of this first basic question.

MI : How do you define power in a conversation between two people?

LB : There are many different definitions of and kinds of power. A good starting point definition is that you have power if you have access to prestige, status, wealth and opportunities. When we are talking about language and broad social factors such as gender, sexual orientation, race/ethnicity, and class, we’re talking about who has the power to set the norms within a society. English-speaking Canadian society today is for the most part a product of white, English-speaking, Christian, able-bodied, heterosexual, cis gender populations, and therefore is predominantly led in most areas (political, religious, educational, justice systems) by white, English-speaking, Christian, able-bodied, heterosexual men. Not only do they have access to prestige, status, wealth and opportunities, but they also control who else has access. Challenging this kind of power requires social movements – for example, the US Civil Rights movement, the Women’s Movement, challenges to anti-discrimination in the workplace for members of the LGBTQ communities.

All of this is in the background when two people have a conversation, but their own social realities and the context, including the purpose of the conversation, also affects the power relationship. These things are not static as the context or purpose can change along with the power balance. So there is no simple one-off answer to this question.

MI : How does gender play into the weighing of power, and has that changed in the last decade/few years?

LB : In terms of Canadian society, women now have more access to power in social realms than they did historically, but there are still power inequities. I don’t think most people would dispute this given the prevalence of domestic violence against women, the higher proportions of women (and children) living in poverty, gender based pay gaps, and the lack of women in government as compared to men. Language reflects this.

For example, if we look at the history of how the English language was talked about, we find that it was assumed to be the arena of men. The writer Thomas Hardy noted that “[i]t is difficult for a woman to define her feelings in a language which is chiefly made by men to express theirs.” Men were assumed to be standard speakers and writers, using the “correct” grammar and pronunciation. Of course, this did not include all men — only white, native English speaking, educated men. For example, in Jespersen’s 1922 book on English grammar he had specific chapters to talk about the speech of non-standard speakers, like “foreigners” and women. When you are in power, you can decide what is “normal” or “standard” and what is not normal or non-standard (read substandard). This keeps you in your place and everyone else in their place.

Yet research by Labov in the late 1960s and 1970s in the US revealed interesting results that didn’t support this view of language. He found that English speaking women, across race and class lines, produced more standard forms than did their male counterparts. He also found that women tend to be the language innovators, keeping the language alive and vibrant, by participating in, for example, new syntactic forms, new lexical items, and new vowel shifts initially at greater rates than their male counterparts. This is Labov’s famous “Gender Paradox”.

MI : What do these findings reflect about our preconceptions and expectations?

LB : These kinds of results are important because they indicate a big disconnect between what specific speaker groups produce and what specific listener groups think others produce. That is, we have stereotypes about groups of speakers that are not based on actual linguistic output and this holds for gender as well as other social factors.

It was Robin Lakoff’s work in the early 1970s that truly focused on the question of “genderlects” (i.e., language differences by gender). Her work has been downplayed as it was based on her own intuitions as a white academic, rather than through studies of actual people in everyday life, but she is an important figure in my opinion for a couple of reasons. First, she clearly identified the limitations of the work, but also acknowledges that these language differences are primarily about differences in power. Women’s language reflected powerlessness and men’s reflected power, so it’s not inherently about gender roles but about the power each gender role is allocated in the societal scheme. Second, she identified specific variables that women tended to use in her experience. These variables were then picked up and used by later researchers in their own quantitative research. For example, hedges (e.g., sort of, kind of, I guess), fillers (e.g., you know, like), and tag questions (e.g., You’re going, aren’t you?).

Later studies (e.g., Shuy, 1993) looking at court hearing transcripts supports Lakoff’s first point. In court, when a witness and a lawyer or a judge converse there is a clear power difference: the witness is the least powerful person in the conversation. Many of the linguistic cues Lakoff identified as part of women’s language — the use of hedges and fillers for example — are found in witness speech, regardless of their gender. Interestingly, Shuy’s research suggests that the use of these less powerful linguistic devices leads to the speaker being disbelieved, and this has consequences in terms of legal outcomes and sentencing.

MI : What are some examples of the way features of “women’s speech” are viewed negatively?

LB : What is interesting to me is whether a variable is stigmatized because it is non-standard or because it is used by women. Uptalk is a great example. Simply put, uptalk makes a statement take on a questioning intonation and in North America it is often thought to be used exclusively by young women (innovators!). Lakoff also noted uptalk in women’s language as expressing hesitancy and the need for reassurance. Uptalk is interesting because it is something everyone seems to notice. In North American English, uptalk is strongly associated with young women and as negatively making the speaker appear unsure or inept.

For example, I had a young woman explain to me during a workshop that she had been explicitly told in her university business program to never ever use uptalk as it would damage her credibility and professional image. There are many popular online articles and YouTube videos on presentation skills that address the horrors of uptalk.

Interestingly, a small study of Ontario speakers (Shokeir, 2008) found that while women used uptalk much more than men did, it was not exclusive to women, and it was not exclusive to younger women. Everyone is using it, women more so than men, but older women were using it at similar rates as the younger women. Shokeir (2008) further found that for men, uptalk was connected to negatives such as uncertainty, but for women it reflected positive attributes like friendliness.

In terms of power, is uptalk negatively viewed because it is associated with a lack of power or the speaker sounds uncertain, or because it is considered to be something used by young women? Does the ban on uptalk in business classes reflect a culture that values power or devalues friendliness, or devalues women in general? Will uptalk be used in Canada by women and men, and/or will Canadian men change their associations of uptalk into something more positive? That’s something to keep on the radar. This is a good example of who gets to set the standard and how new things that don’t fit the standard are not viewed positively until more people (i.e., those with more social prestige) use it.

MI : Why do you think this kind of “policing” of language is so popular?

LB : Language is often an “acceptable” way of othering people. Criticisms of language use are the framework to continue to produce and justify prejudice and discrimination. There are great examples of this on YouTube videos that attack young women (and I would assume other groups traditionally discriminated against). When you look at the video content it isn’t about the language use, it’s about misogyny, couched in terms of language use. Ironically, the very language use being attacked is often used by the critic.

So for example, in one video I presented at a workshop a young man mimicked a young woman he allegedly disliked because of the way she speaks. He did this by using like excessively. But he uses like excessively in his own speech too. The video content makes clear that this young man found this woman he was mimicking (and women who speak like her) “morally wanting” yet he chose to explicitly attack her speech rather than her moral character.

[I am made and remade continually. Different people draw different words from me. - V. Woolf]

[I am made and remade continually. Different people draw different words from me. – V. Woolf]

A big thank you to LeAnn Brown for sharing her research and knowledge with the blog.

Recently there has been a lot of discussion surrounding “vocal fry”: the creaking or croaky sound a voice can make often at the end of a sentence. It has been criticized in same way as HRT. However, also like HRT, it has been found to not only be used by women (not even close), but it is hardly a new phenomenon.

Certain aspects of language can be (rightly or wrongly) associated with particular groups, and is often used to discredit and criticize them. However, there is a diversity in the way we use and abuse language that does not reflect who we are as people.

You can find stories surrounding the vocal fry kerfuffle here:

Thank you very much.

Take care eh,

Michael Iannozzi