The language trap [full version]


In order to evaluate the claim that women are the victims of a ‘language trap’, it is important to consider the following; a definition of language, what a ‘language trap’ is, how and if it works and whether or not this truly has an effect on contemporary women. The meanings of ‘language’ applicable to this evaluation are, ‘a body of words and the systems for their use common to a people who are of the same community, nation, geographical area or cultural tradition; communication by voice or a system of linguistic signs and symbols conducted in conventional ways with conventional meanings’ (Dictionary.com, 2008).

The term ‘language trap’ and the concept behind it has been used many times in the last few decades with specific —but not sole— reference to gender and language studies, for example Dale Spender (1980), Deborah Cameron (1985, 1990) and Robin Lakoff (1975, 2004).  For the purposes of this evaluation, a language trap shall be taken to mean, the existence within language of conventions, expectancies and etiquette which serve to maintain the status of women as subservient and inferior to men and to maintain contemporary society’s patriarchal power structure. This essay will show that in the way language is used by and about women they are still the victims of a language trap, but that change to this situation is underway.

Language, according to many feminist linguists, is one of the things that serves to perpetuate inequality of the sexes. From the transference of (female-as-) property rights implicit in the taking of the husband’s surname in marriage (Cameron, 1990), to having to mark collocations (such as career woman, female fire-fighter), right down to the fact that men are ‘Mr’ from a young age, but women must remain ‘Miss’ until married else adopt the dubious and negatively connotative ‘Ms’. The way women construct sentences, engage in conversation and present their views has been and still is on the whole more tentative, less authoritative and more polite than that of the male half of the species. Language, as codified and formatted in dictionaries and the like  (historically by men (Cameron, 1990)), does serve to maintain the oppression of women, but it is not the only thing doing so.

The new wave of anti-feminism, masquerading as liberation and empowerment for women, is doing a fine job all on its own (McRobbie, 2009). Young women these days, while refuting feminism as a dirty word, are being offered a new kind of social contract and new interconnected identities to fit into; “the immaculately groomed young woman in the [post-feminist] masquerade, the sexy adventurous ‘phallic girl’, the (hard) working girl and her ‘pleasing’ global counterpart.” (McRobbie, 2009:8). This is being done through the formulation of a new reality into which women can step, the confines of which may be different, but they are confines nonetheless. In the meantime, political correctness of words becomes relabelled as trivial (along with feminism) as if to suggest that there was nothing wrong or imbalanced with representing the whole of the species as ‘he’ or ‘man’ (Spender, 1980) or male-as-norm (Cameron, 1990:19). Spender goes on to suggest that this leads to a scale of people as being either ‘plus male’ or ‘minus male’ with females by default always embodying the deviant ‘minus’ form. (1980:3). Furthermore, Spender argued that men exert control over women through their control of language and thus reality (the latter supported by the Whorfian hypothesis, 1956). Although as Cameron (1990:14) points out, there is ‘surely something very bizarre about Spender’s vision of men, or an elite of them, getting around a table to decide on the rules of language.’ Cameron and Lakoff’s concepts of the language-reality-inequality issue hold far more credence, particularly in the light of the progress of the last 30 years.

It could not though be said that language is not in a plethora of ways still sexist and thereby entrapping of women. It is the vessel by which ideas, presumptions and potentially erroneous truisms are re-affirmed repeatedly and constantly through simple acts of everyday discourse. These can become ‘so familiar and conventional we miss their significance’ (Cameron, 1990:14) and cease to merely reflect the sexual inequities of society, but to strengthen it. Also, this naming of things by men means that women are denied the capacity for expressing elements of their existence that could not be experienced by men, such as pregnancy and childbirth (Lakoff, 1975) ‘In fact our linguistic habits often reflect and perpetuate ideas about things … [that are] no longer … law, but which continue to have covert significance in our culture… our way of talking about things reveals attitudes and assumptions we might well consciously disown, thus testifying to the deep-rootedness of sexism. (Cameron, 1990:16). Women are denoted by standard linguistic practice as sex objects (Cameron, 1990); euphemisms become dysphemisms and the connotations of equivalent words across genders are frequently quite different, for example spinster vs. bachelor and mistress vs. master. The female forms of such terms are laden with negative (and frequently sexual) connotations (Lakoff, 1975). All of these things are examples of what Lakoff calls the ‘Deficit Model’, which states that women are not disadvantaged through the biological differences of their sex, but rather through socialization. Women have to learn to talk like a lady from a young age and are ridiculed if they don’t acquiesce to these lessons. They have to learn, in effect, to be able to speak in both the languages of men and of women interchangeably depending on the circumstances they find themselves in. Some adjectives have long been reserved for women for example ‘adorable’ or ‘sweet’; both can be patronising and demeaning. Women’s language, as they are taught is appropriate, tends to exhibit verbal traits such as hedges, indicating hesitation; ‘milder’ language, swearing being acceptable for boys and yet abhorrent for girls; and tag questions, offering the interlocutor an opt-out if they disagree with the speaker. Even the intonation of women’s speech has been shown to exhibit less status and confidence; rises in pitch indicate a question where there is in fact no doubt in the mind of the woman making the utterance. These elements have served to insidiously if not overtly undermine the authority and certainty in the minds of female speakers, thus helping to keep them trapped ‘in their place’ within society.

However, these are changing times. Lakoff (1975) and Cameron (1990) both take a non-deterministic view on the sociolinguistic problems for women that are inherent in language; i.e. claiming that although these issues have been until recently essentially fixed, they are not immutable. Time and effort have certainly proved this to be true. In a rare concession to Spender (1980), Cameron agrees that ‘one way in which Spender’s idea of ‘man-made’ language is realistic is in recognising the importance of human agency in constructing and changing linguistic practice.’ (Cameron, 1990:18). Some such [feminist] agents have been taking action by doing things like rewriting the dictionary. In Kramarae and Treichler’s A Feminist Dictionary, they ‘draw attention to the authoritarian and sexist nature of mainstream lexicography (and) demonstrate their own anti-sexist and pluralist alternatives’ (Cameron, 1990: 20). Such activity has raised awareness in speakers and writers to the ‘non-neutral nature of representation… previously unnoticed and unquestioned in our usage [but] now the site of a struggle for meaning, in which our notions of the natural, the masculine and feminine, the elegant and offensive, can be challenged and eventually changed’ (Cameron, 1990:20). Furthermore, as Cameron (1990) and Lakoff (1975) have both argued, acknowledgment of the historical human construction of language leads to the knowledge that the conventions therein can be both deconstructed and reconstructed.

In conclusion because language, like the society it reflects, changes very slowly over time and the work of feminists in the 1970s is on the one hand still being undertaken and on the other hand is being undone, it can be seen that women are still currently the victims of a language trap. This is not to say however that the trap is inescapable and indeed it is evident that change toward equality is underfoot.

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