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Let her speak: why women can never catch a linguistic break

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

In the past few years, women’s speech has emerged as the latest topic of endless discourse and criticism.

An online search for the phrase “women stop saying” garners 550 million results, and a short scroll through the list shows just a sampling of the breadth of articles picking apart the ways women speak. The use of “just”, “literally”, “so”, and “like”; excessive apologizing; and the vocal fry are just a few examples of trends criticized for their associating with weakness, immaturity, and lack of intelligence by both men and women alike. But if these speech patterns have such connotations, why do women keep using them? And why are they criticized in the first place?

The answer lies within the ways language is distributed across social groups. While a single language can be divided into various dialects based on geographical distribution, it can also be broken up into an array of social dialects, or sociolects, based on the active social groups within a language. These sociolects can be built around ethnicity, socioeconomic background, gender, sexuality, or any other significant social identity, and can intersect. While dialects and sociolects all represent equally significant and relevant variations of a shared language, linguistic prescriptivism — the idea that every language has a “standard” variety that is inherently “correct” and therefore superior to any other dialect or sociolect of that language — places a higher value on the prestige dialect, or standardized variety, of a language. It is no coincidence that the “standard” dialects within the English speaking world have all been based on the speech of wealthy, white men. This linguistic power structure has mirrored the reality of white heteropatriarchy in American society today. For women, people of color, and people of lower socioeconomic status, this means that their sociolects all have an inherent stigma, opening these sociolects up to criticism and prejudice.

As women have increasingly entered academia and the workforce in the past few decades, their speech has come in contact with the speech of men in power. Despite this shared space, women’s speech has resisted assimilation into the prestige dialect, and women continue to use innovative and evolving language trends. This is because women have a surprisingly significant role in the course of language change, as well as the benefit of linguistic freedom that speakers of the prestige dialect do not have. The unique role of women in linguistic change is known as the Gender Paradox, a phenomenon first observed by researcher and author William Labov, known as the father of modern sociolinguistics. The Gender Paradox observes that women tend to use prestige forms of linguistics variables more often than men, but simultaneously are more likely to use innovative and new linguistic variables, effectively leading language change over time.

This paradox is theorized to be caused by the combination of linguistic insecurity women face in a male-dominated world, and the linguistic freedom they experience as speakers of a sociolect. While much has changed in terms of gender equality, men still outnumber women in leadership positions, especially in the corporate world. This power imbalance has led to linguistic insecurity among women, meaning women feel insecure about the way they speak and hypercorrect their speech to match the prestige dialect of their male peers. Similarly, excessive apologizing and the overuse of “just” also reflect this insecurity, and the intent to appear intelligent, friendly, and charismatic in a setting in which women are the minority.

While women hypercorrect to match the prestige dialect when necessary, young women are almost always the originators of new, innovative linguistic variables that eventually spread to the rest of the population. Theories for why this is vary, but recent research has hypothesized that women, as a social group outside of heteropatriarchy, have less to lose through language innovation. Unlike straight white men, who use language as a form of power and status, young women have the freedom of using innovative linguistic variables without losing any power or status, since their sociolect is already stigmatized.

Despite the misogyny they face in the linguistic power structures of white heteropatriarchal society, women remain in full control of their own linguistic choices. Whether they choose to adapt to the prestige dialect as a means of achieving social mobility in a male-dominated world or to use creative variation in an ever-evolving language, women’s speech is powerful, rule-breaking, and a compelling force of resistance.

And that is, like, literally so cool.


Carolyn Ford is a Copy Editor at The Rational Creature. They study Journalism, Linguistics, and Gender and Sexuality studies at NYU.

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