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Feminine Language

I had the pleasure of reading a book called Wordslut: A Feminist Guide to Taking Back the English Language by Amanda Montell for another one of my PhD classes this past year. She quickly became one of my new favorite authors. I highly recommend reading this book which is an examination of languages and journey into the feminine space.

First of all, I had no idea that my obsession with words and their meanings all these years had a name. Discourse. I’ve always just called myself a "word nerd" and now I am a student of discourse analysis!

One of the most significant things I learned was about the language women use and how it is a deterrent to authority and respect. Here is a list of all the spoken “sins” women engage in per the author:

  • Discourse markers like I mean, so, etc.

  • Vocal fry

  • Uptalk

  • Filler phrases

  • Over-apologizing

  • Empty adjectives

  • Heavy emphasis

  • Being ultra polite

  • Indirect responses

  • Hedging

  • Tag questions

  • Avoidance of cursing

  • Hypercorrection of grammar

The usage of any of these things in everyday corporate language or mixed gender settings help females navigate the double bind. Margaret Thatcher, for example, took voice lessons to lower her vocal range to prevent vocal fry – which is a higher “screechy” pitch that females get accused of that degrades credibility and authority.

I often train my clients to stop over-apologizing, using filler phrases and words (over-talking) and being indirect. These are quite common. After reading this book, I realized that I am guilty of discourse markers, tag questions and uptalk. I am hyper aware now when I’m in meetings of these things and how I am devaluing my expertise using them.

The author also talks about studies in how men speak to men and how women speak to women. She describes them as competitive (fratriarchy – brotherhood by minimizing those on the outside) versus cooperative. Men of course are much more competitive in conversation and women are more cooperative. Men typically use vertical language where they take turns. Women use horizontal language where they finish sentences and overlap with one another. Women will use hedging and men will have minimal responses. Countless studies and observations have led to her conclusions. Since reading this book, I am observing very similar structures in my trainings.

Our perceptions of these phenomena are the real issue. The masculine language is still predominate in leadership and the C-suite. Because of this, women’s speech tendencies are unaccepted or stick out as a sore thumb often in executive environments.

My favorite discourse analysis the author does is around cuss words, or usage of derogatory language for men and women. I will now think about the history of those words and how using them perpetuates power differentials in social norms. I won’t call a man a pussy if I think he is weak. Pussy is a strong powerful phrase to describe female genitalia that should remain positive and not pejorative toward a man. The way I listen to language and the use of pronouns in our culture has forever been altered.

You should read this book if you are interested in the way language reflects and reinforces power structures and social norms. Montell goes through the history of English as well as various global languages and cultures showing contrast and consistency with our own language toward women and other marginalized groups. She also describes why insults and cuss words are so fun to say – because they are plosive – because they create phonetic delight. There is an entire chapter about cussing and why the “f” word is so fun to use.

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