Robin Lakoff is the man.

My sister likes to say that to me when I’ve done something great (or even just OK); she drops her voice and it usually ends up sounding like “You duh maaaaan, Molly!” and she makes some caricatured, masculine gestures to accompany it (flexes her biceps, furrows her brow, fist-pumps, and generally imitates a football player after a touchdown). And then there was that movie with Amanda Bines (oh Amanda Bines, where are you now?), She’s the Man. Super. Loved-it. Maybe that’s where Kelsey got it. Anyhow, Lakoff is the man. Though I am not sure if she would like me saying so. . . Or maybe she would? If you haven’t read “Language and a Woman’s Place” go. Find it. Now! It’s a linguistic page-turner–if such an illusory beast exists.

Not to say that I agree with everything she says (said–it was published in 1973). On the contrary. The margins of my copy of her article suffered a barrage of purple-pen comments while I was reading. But she is so snarky, so clearly invested, so smart! I have to ask a question about this reading for class, and I fear that I don’t know how to choose. Reading this article felt like re-reading my life. As if suddenly the cause of all my insecurities, the explanations for my habits, the way my parents raised me, its all LINGUISTICS. OK, I don’t totally buy that all of that is linguistically-driven, but you get the idea.

Lakoff says: “If a little girl ‘talks rough’ like a boy, she will normally be ostracized, scolded, or made fun of. In this way society, in the form of a child’s parents and friends, keeps her in line, in her place” (47). So of course I want to interrogate my own experience. Was I trained to ‘speak like a little lady’? I have no clear memories of having my speech habits compared to that of little boys. . . I was one of four girls, so perhaps the comparison was unlikely. I know that my sister, Kelsey, swore once or twice as a child and my mom tried to discourage the behavior by putting Tabasco sauce on her tongue–but Kelsey found it tasty, and eventually, like the rest of us, just modeled her speaking habits after those of my parents–who didn’t speak ‘roughly’ to us. My husband, on the other hand, always says he learned to swear by listening to his mom watch sports or in bouts of road-rage. I don’t think he was discouraged / encouraged to speak in any particular way. Now, when we are with our respective sets of parents, of the two of us, my speaking patterns are more likely to slide into the deferential, polite, tag-question-laden speak of younger-me–especially if I am speaking with my dad. But can I attribute this to gendered-speaking training? It is not so much that I was a girl and taught to speak a ‘girls’ language,’ but that I was taught to speak in the language of my home.

Lakoff says: “We might ask why fine discrimination of color is relevant for women, but not for men. A clue is contained in the way many men in our society view other ‘unworldly’ topics, e.g. high culture and the Church., as outside the world of mens work, relegated to women and men whose masculinity is not unquestionable”. Men tend to relegate to women things that are not of concern to them, or do not involve their egos” (49). OK: 1) Lakoff minimizes / trivializes “fine discrimination of color” but I am curious if this isn’t an oversimplification in this specific instance–a deft handling of color, or image, or design by an artist, an architect, or a designer (among other, undoubtedly), I think would classify as relevant to men in these professions. BUT! you say, These men are involved in the ‘unwordly’ activities that are reserved for a specific, often effete, group of men. OK, what about fine discrimination of color in sports jerseys? I know some male Michigan fans who are quite particular about the naming of Michigan colors–maize and blue, thank you, NOT yellow and blue or gold and navy, MAIZE and BLUE. I suspect this is not a recent phenomenon and that there are examples of masculine fine color discrimination elsewhere. 2)  Lakoff says that men ten to “relegate” to women topics / words / power. But this is a point where she seems conflicted. Who or what really has the power in linguistics. She is self-consciously aware that male speakers (and female speakers, too) are often unselfconscious about language use. Her first sentence: “Language uses us as much as we use language” (45), is in some ways a pronouncement of the agency of a language OVER its speakers. But then, in this moment, she blames men–seeming to say that men use language purposefully to deny women certain powers. But not only that, men create / adapt language to serve the same purpose. Can you imagine a group of men sitting around, tapping cigar-stained fingers, and declaiming, We men won’t talk about colors anymore! Such silliness! A women’s subject, to be sure! Lakoff’s treatment here ascribes men with an intentionality that I am not sure she actually means. But it did get me thinking about who / what actually has the power in language. Do the deep meanings of words and syntactical structures really creep into our brains, make us oppressive? 

And then she drops “Middle America.” As a current resident and native of the region, I can be a little prickly about representations of it. Lakoff writes: “. . . and while perhaps the majority of Middle America might condone the use of (b) for men, they would still disapprove of it use by women” (50). (b) reads like this: “Shit, you’ve put the peanut butter in the refrigerator again.” I suppose I am tired of “Middle America” being used as a euphemism for conservative, prudish, unfashionable, quaint, culturally-backward, irrelevant. . . Even if my Minnesotan parents would be unamused if I added “shit” to my particles-toolbox. But why bring Middle America in at all? It’s interesting to me how pragmatic Lakoff’s approach to linguistics is. Maybe this is something I have to learn about the field in general: Do linguistics see it as part of their jobs not only to analyze language use and patterns, but to bring that knowledge to the “people”–and even to foment speech revolutions, if certain cases demand it? Are linguists, by nature, social reformers? (And if they are, won’t one of them please take up the case of the poor, belittle Midwest?)

A final note about cursing. She writes, “Ability to use strong particles like ‘shit’ and ‘hell’ is, of course, only incidental to the inequity that exists rather than its cause” (51). I wonder, if women are less likely to use these words, and they are models for other young women who take up the same speech patterns, don’t the speech patterns themselves, then cause a renewal of inequity?

I also wondered as I was reading about moves by ‘liberation’ groups to re-claim certain words. And the possibility that there is power in women’s access to a wider lexicon (of neutral and woman’s words) than men. And it is problematic that Lakoff positions women as victims of the language (while men are the creators / maintainers). And, if lots of linguistic choices are made through habit and unconsciously done, how do we know that such speech patterns actually illicit negative judgements on the part of the listeners? And, do we need to differentiate, more specifically patterns of speech vs. patterns of writing? And, does today’s society’s *adoption* of Ms. indicate what Lakoff said it would: “women’s status in society [has changed] to assure her an identity based on her own accomplishments” (72)?

Yep. There’s a lot to say about Robin Lakoff. Like she’s the man. And why not she’s the woman? I suppose she is that too, but I think she’s right–“woman” bares some negative indexical (?) stigmas. Like when a contestant on Jeopardy thank his wife who is a “wonderful woman“–bringing to mind someone eminently capable . . . with the kiddies, the dishes, after-work foot-rubs, the laundry.

One thought on “1.15.13

  1. I fucking love theorizing about cursing! I’ve only really read theories about cursing from the masculinities side of gender studies, but I’m going to need to read Lakoff now because I LOVE when a woman can curse like a sailor and I love to curse myself (a quality I get from my mother!!)

    PS: Amanda Bines has been drinking and driving, having her mug shot taken, and getting into some pretty serious twitter wars with Lindsay Lohan of late. Thought you should know 🙂

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