part II – introduction: women’s talk

This is the manuscript blog; Best read in sequence so start with 1 and work your way through. Enjoy!

The English language itself acts as a barrier to an expression of women’s equality but so too are we restricted in the way we talk. Becoming aware of the extent to which we are constrained and silenced by our customary language use is a real eye-opener for women.

Lets start with what we know about women’s talk.

First of all there is a lot of it; we are the talkative sex.

Then too there is the belief that we are empty headed and that a great deal of what we say is nonsense.

On top of that there is a long list of demeaning words that devalue women’s language use – and there is no equivalent list of such negative words for men.

When women get together and talk about their world, about relationships, meals, good babysitters, the double shift, the state of the planet and the problem of adolescent males – their words are dismissed as gossip, nagging, chatter and prattle etc.

When men get together and talk about their world, about football, fishing, cars and sheds, they are doing much the same thing as women – except when men talk about their world they insist that they are talking about REAL and important issues. When men gossip it is called men’s business.

This is one of the best examples of the way men’s words are given more weight than women’s – by men who have had the privilege of deciding the rules.

It’s a reminder of Margaret Mead’s famous quote:

Men may cook, or weave or dress dolls or hunt hummingbirds, but if such activities are appropriate behaviour for men, then the whole society, men and women alike, votes them as important. When the same occupations are performed by women, they are regarded as less important.

Men’s words are
authoritative, credible, reliable – in contrast to women’s words that cannot be trusted.

This is one reason that it was easy to brand Julia Gillard as a liar – even though the actual words she used were –‘ There will be no carbon tax under a government that I lead but lets be absolutely clear I am determined to price carbon’.

In contrast, PM Tony Abbott, who was so often been caught out for ‘contradicting’ himself  (read lying) that he stated quite openly that no one should believe anything he said, unless it was in writing. But he was a male: little was made of his confession of untrustworthiness.

His reliability, authority and credibility were taken for granted.  Whereas women’s word is always doubted.

Rape  – where it is a woman’s word against a man’s – is one of the few crimes where corroboration is required. If you have your handbag stolen you don’t have to provide a witness. But if you are a victim of rape – you have to prove it happened: and the unquestioned authority of men and the untrustworthiness of women, works against every woman who is sexually assaulted or violated.

Men have had public power since records began and this has provided their legitimacy. They have systematically deprived women of education, professional work, equal voice and status – and then mocked them for not being educated, professional, or equals.

Otto Jespersen, the so-called ‘father of linguistics’ was one such man. He was the first authority I encountered when I began my research in the 1970s on the way women and men talked to each other. His chapter on women was stated with contempt.

Women, he said, were only transmitters of language; they couldn’t come up with anything new. This was partly because they didn’t get out in the world, and only ever heard the language they learnt from birth, and which they then duly transmitted to their own children.

That women’s meanings aren’t present in standard dictionaries is not – as Mr Jespersen suggests – because they were incapable of making them up: it’s because they weren’t permitted a public hearing, and anything they did come up with would generally have been considered inappropriate on all sorts of grounds!

Any innovations in the language said Mr Jespersen, came from the efforts of virile men. (Maybe he had a point; only men were quoted in Johnson’s dictionary.)

He also asserted with great confidence that women speakers were more conservative and more refined; that they avoided any hint of vulgarity. Women of all the countries of the world – he wrote – were far too shy to name the parts of the body: men, however, were much more praiseworthy. They were bold and inventive; they usually had rude names for such anatomical characteristics  – only used among themselves of course!

‘Men will certainly with great justice object that there is a danger of the language becoming languid and insipid if we are always to content ourselves with women’s expressions’, writes Jespersen, ‘and that vigour and vividness count for

something’ [1]

He noted that women speakers went round in circles, didn’t finish their sentences, and didn’t speak with authority.

We were truly a linguistically miserable and impoverished lot. If I had accepted the ‘truths’ of the discipline I would probably have been sufficiently discouraged to slit my wrists – or do a PhD on Anglo-Saxon grammar; my worst nightmare!

But then I started to think about all his assertions. He offered no evidence for his declarations of women’s many deficiencies. And I began to get angry, rather than depressed.  For while his verdict on women’s inferior language had been quoted and gone unquestioned for fifty years – there was not a single study that I could find that would back up Mr Jespersen’s opinions! And that’s all they were; sexist prejudices (though we didn’t have the word sexism then).

He had however started some research trends; there were quite a few people who were trying to pinpoint the source of women’s deficiencies; what was it about the way women talked that made them hesitant and lacking in confidence in their speech?

I remember the tag-question. Maybe women’s lack of confidence came from the use of tag questions that they added to the end of a statement? ‘I’ll be home after eight, OK?’

But when the research studies were undertaken – they found that men used more tag questions than women!

I didn’t hold my breath waiting for the conclusion that men’s use of tag questions led to a lack of confidence in their speech. Researchers just went off trying to find what women were doing wrong – somewhere else.

That was when I decided I would start from scratch. I would tape the talk of women and men and just see what I got. For three years I taped such talk almost every day; at conferences, with colleagues, on social occasions, in university bars. (All without permission I might say – wouldn’t be able to do it today!)

When I figured I had enough material I sat at my desk to undertake the enormous task of transcribing tapes and documenting the ways women and men talked to each other.

The first tape proved a dud: disappointing. A social occasion and not enough talk from the women to make any comments.

Second tape: what a coincidence; a staff meeting – only fragments of women’s talk.

Third tape: ‘Oh my goddess’. I was going to have to write a PhD on women’s talk as ‘Oh – did you really?’ ‘How amazing!’  ‘Mmmm that must have made you feel good!’ ‘Ah, I would never have believed it’ etc etc etc etc

I decided there and then that women were good at the art of conversation – where the art of conversation was getting men to talk – generally about themselves.

Man Made Language.

Only then did I have moments of uncomfortable reflection. For three years I had been taping the words of women and I had not noticed that it was men, not women who were doing the talking. Not once had the received wisdom in my head that women were the talkative sex been challenged.

Cultural blindness is the curse for all of us.



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