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In the defense of language

epeck's picture

       The 1970s saw the emergence of a new form of feminism in France, known as l’ecriture feminine, or the writing of women.  This form was introduced by French feminists such as Monique Wittig, Luce Irigaray, Hélène Cixous and Julia Kristeva, among others[1].  These influential writers and feminists asserted that traditional writing centered on the male experience and was therefore phallocentric.  This phallocentricity essentially either forced women to view the world through a male perspective in their language use, or subjugated them to silence[2].  The introduction of l‘ecriture feminine’ was meant to give a voice to the female experience and allow women to express their unique, non-male experiences and selves.  As society has marginalized women and their experiences, language has been used as a tool of institutionalized oppression and even furthered it[3].  However, language in itself is an organic, and even inherently feminist form of communication. Language itself offers a tremendous amount of flexibility and creativity and ultimately reflects its speakers and the society in which it functions.  Language may reflect a patriarchical or phallocentric society, but language alone is not phallocentric.  Language is open to change, and can be altered by minority or marginalized groups.  The greater cause of feminism would be well served by identifying the flexibility of language and working within its structure and boundaries, instead of resisting it at its core or trying to make dramatic structural changes. 

            French feminists looked at writing as it was, as phallocentric and male privileging.  They put forth the idea that language expresses the male body, or phallus, and represents the world through male experience, particularly sexual experience.  The male sexual experience is said to be structured and predictable, with a buildup to a climax.  The climax and “point” of the male experience is favored over a female experience, which the French feminists described as being more “rhythmic and unifying.”2   According to the French feminists, language in its most masculine form is repressive and dichotomous, and divides the world into binary categories, such as “male” and “female.”  Associated with the categories of “male” and “female” are words such as “active” and “passive,” and “head” and “heart.”2  Women fall on one side of this dichotomy, and men on the other, along with words that are associated with male definitions of success and reason.  Since language is a male domain that excludes women, women are either forced to use male language to try and express their own experiences in terms of male ideals and standards, or must create their own form of language.  French feminism does exactly this, and creates a language that French feminists believed to express the fluid female experience.  L’écriture feminine ideally allows women to finally claim the medium that has been withheld from them and at the same time claim their sexuality, which has often been claimed by and for men1.

       French feminism and l’écriture feminine, while positioning itself against phallocentric or “masculine” language, often seems to be anti-established language.  At times, French feminism and l’écriture feminine seems to blur the line between language and users of language.  French feminists looked at the use of language and searched for a way to make it more accessible to women, but did so by dramatically altering the form and natural use of language.  This severe change in “masculine” language to create “feminine” language seems problematic and very contrived.  It is true that not all of French feminism is concerned with l’écriture feminine, and not all French feminists find a “woman’s language” useful or agree to what it should be, but those who do seem highly reductionist.  By representing women with one, unnatural, structure of language and asserting that women are defined by a unifying experience of sex and sexuality, the French feminists ignore the complexity and diversity of female experience and ignore all of the features of language that can be organically changed in order to promote feminist ideas.

       The assertion that language is male dominated and phallocentric ignores the creative properties of language and looks only at how language is used by some individuals.  Instead of finding a natural way to influence language, the French feminists’ attempt at creating a language of women resulted in a highly unstructured, and unsuccessful new way of writing.  This method of writing does not seem to have infiltrated popular language use, and instead seems confusing to understand and produce and isolating to those who do not see its value.  By losing the structure of language, the French feminists lost a valuable tool of creativity and understanding.  Because of language’s feature of being a discrete combinatorial system it is infinitely creative, within the structure that society has set for it.  By deciding that language is a male sphere, the French feminists also lost sight of language’s organic beginnings in children, and the fact that children pick up language from their caregivers, primarily women.  Language reflects its speaker, and so by changing the language without trying to change its worst offenders, men, the French feminists did not achieve very much in their pursuit of l’écriture feminine.  In fact, they distanced those who used l’écriture feminine from those who did not, probably most women but also men and a divisive use of language does not seem very feminist.

       The creativity of language seems like a property of femininity that the French feminists were trying to express.  Language is made up of discrete parts, on many levels, that can combine infinitely[4] to create new meaning (in fact, we had an example of this in class the other day when sekang came up with a novel word, “feministy,” by combining “feminist” and the suffix “–y”).  The fact that something finite such as a language system can create an infinite variety of meanings works partially because of the structure of language.  Grammar and syntax allow us to play with words and therefore meaning, and use the structures we have learned as a guide.  Because we all (or at least all speakers of the same language) know the common structure, new meanings or words can be invented and understood fairly easily.  By taking away some of the structure of language, which was not invented by man, but was organically formed by populations trying to successfully communicate, the French feminists may have actually ended up reducing the creative possibilities. 

       Another naturally feminist aspect of language is that marginalized populations, although at times oppressed by the tool of language, have the ability to alter the language of the majority.  “They’re, like, way ahead of the linguistic currrrve,” by Douglas Quenqua, describes the linguistic phenomena of rapid change[5].  In the article, Quenqua describes how teenage girls have introduced linguistic changes to the American population.  Specifically, the phenomena of “upspeak,” when speakers make declarative sentences sound like questions, and the use of “like” are looked into.  Although these linguistic patterns are often assumed with “cuteness” or frivolity, linguists have recognized that these stylistic additions are actually used for social purposes.  Perhaps the most interesting feature of language that is described in this article is its dynamic nature.  Although teenage girls are not always the most privileged population or the population with the most social capitol, their language use has spread though the population quickly.  The past two decades have seen a major rise in the use of upspeak and “like.”  It is not uncommon to hear men and older individuals using these linguistic styles that were once though of as “girly” and therefore silly5.  This subtle invasion of teenage girl into the common vernacular shows that language changes at an amazing speed, and can be influenced by a group of individuals who may not have a large impact on other aspects of society.  The idea of a marginal group easily and naturally affecting change on society, and especially on such a permeating aspect of society as language fits in well with feminist ideology. 

       The French feminists were onto a good idea.  They saw that language as it was used could oppress women, and didn’t always serve well to express female experiences.  However, instead of working within the bounds of used language, the French feminists tried to create a new structure, or lack of structure, that ignored the ways that language can be changed – from within an acceptable societal use and by following the current structure, or at least not by making drastic changes.  Other feminist groups have looked at language and identified specific word uses as sexist or antifeminist, such as the use of words such as “chairman” instead of “chairperson,” or the use of male gendered words such as “he” in general situations.  These groups have tried to spread social change by either promoting gender neutralization or gender specification, either by trying to use words that don’t look specifically at gender, or words that recognize female referents.  These attempts have been somewhat successful and have definitely started to become a part of used vernacular3.  These attempts to make the realm of language more “feministy” by using the already acceptable structure of language and focusing on small, changeable words or structures, seems much more promising than the complete chaos of l’écriture feminine (although it is perhaps only seen as chaotic because of our lens of phallocentric language).  There is still change to be made in language, and it is clear that women and girls are major forces of change in the process of the evolution of language.  As language becomes less privileged, through the use of the internet and blogs, it begins to more closely resemble speech[6], and hopefully will begin to represent the ideas of feminism and be a platform that these ideas can be discussed on.

[1] Jones, Ann Rosalind. "Writing the body: Toward an understanding of 'Écriture féminine."  Feminist Studies, 1981. Web. 29 February 2012. 

[2] Murfin, Ross C. "Feminist criticism and Jane Eyre." A Critical History. 459-67. Web. 29 February 2012. <>. 

[3] Pauwels, Anne.  “Feminist language planning: Has it been worthwhile?”  Linguistik Online.  Web.  29 February 2012.  <> 

[4] Senghas, Amy, Kita, Sotaro & Özyürek, Asli.  “Children creating core properties of language: Evidence from an emerging sign language in Nicaragua.”  Science.  Volume 305, pgs. 1779-82.  17 September 2004.   

[5] Quenqua, Douglas. "They’re, like, way ahead of the linguistic currrrve." New York Times.  02/27/2012.  Web. 29 February 2012. <>.

[6] Graddol, David.  “The future of language.”  Science.  Volume 303, No. 5662, pgs. 1329-31.  27 February 2004. 


Anne Dalke's picture



I love sekang's neologism of "feministy," picked up and re-distributed by MC, and now a keyword in my vocabulary!

And while we're thinking about feminist collaborations, be sure to check out and respond both to michelle.lee's Look Into Language and aybala50's Game of Unspeakable Language....

So: we had some real interesting conversation, after your last webevent on Persepolis, about the feminist qualities and limitations of autobiography. What I see happening here is much more open-ended exploration than on the first round; I'm very much liking the evolution of your thinking....

Stepping off from the work of the French feminists (which you call "highly reductionist" and "divisive," because it defines women "by a unifying experience of sex and sexuality"), you show how "marginalized populations"--most recently, young girls--"have the ability to alter language." And then you call for further "organic change" in language use, which better represents "the complexity and diversity of female experience." I think your reference to the ways in which internet usage has made written-language more "speech-like" is a real opening in this direction.

What heartens me here is your focus on the creative flexibility of language, and your celebration of the ways in which we can all re-shape it to our own ends, and thus open new possibilities for future use.

I invite you to look, not only @ the suggestions I made in response to michelle's webevent, but also to a roundtable I hosted a year ago @ the Society for Science, Language and the Arts, which might offer you another way of looking @ what you dismiss as a "highly unstructured, and unsuccessful new way of writing." Our focus there was on what Paul Grobstein used to call "frog-brain writing," that is: language that intends to represent the unconscious. It seemed to us not divisive but actually more universal than much writing intended to represent consciousness, which is narrative, reflective, and organized in terms of space and time, compressible (= reducible to a precis), and clearly distinguishes between self and others.

"Frog brain writing" is associative, lacks organization in space and time and is relatively incompressible (in the sense of not being mappable in any form more compressed than itself). It can’t be reduced to precis or meaning, and offers no clear distinction between self and other; it is not addressed to an audience.

Seem to you a possibility?