Women’s language has always been a subject for debate. It’s easy to dismiss criticisms that come from old white men but what happens when women are correcting other women’s speech?
I went to an amazing talk the other day by Debbie Cameron called ‘The Problem With Women’s Language.’ Refreshingly, the focus on the talk was not telling women how to change their speech, but asking why they should have to?
The examples Cameron focussed on were instances where women are seen as either less assertive or less intelligent than men, through their word choice. She used the example of the ‘Not Sorry’ app for emails which replaces ‘weak’ and ‘ineffectual’ language such as ‘sorry’, ‘can I just…’ and ‘I’m no expert’ with more assertive and ‘masculine’ phrases. Intended to help women, and actually developed by a woman, this app seems to be well intentioned. The problem is that the edited emails came accross as rude and antisocial. Sometimes replacing words just didn’t work gramatically, and the tone was changed dramatically.
The problem goes deeper than this though, and becomes a problem for women rather than with women. Why is the solution to make apparently femisised traits more masculine? Is it always appropriate to be more assertive? And are women even more demographically responsible for these speech trends than men? Cameron has done extensive lingustic research which can be found in her book The Myth of Mars and Venus.
One of the most striking parts of this talk was when she mentioned the prejudice against ‘uptalk’ and ‘vocal fry’ in women’s speech. This is when the pitch goes up at the end of a sentence? Like you’re asking a question but not? Thought to be a characteristic of ‘valley girl’ speech, Cameron’s research found that men were just as guilty of this as women are.
So is it, like, even fair that we’re telling young women how to speak? Why are polite emails and different inflexations seen as feminine? And most importantly, why is it wrong to be feminine? Young women were also found to be the innovators of new language trends. I’m no expert, but I think we should just leave young women alone and let language evolve.