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My Exercise in Futility

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Becky Findlay

Critical Feminist Theory: Anne Dalke


My Exercise in Futility

French Feminist Theory and a Defense of Language


Men are from Mars, and Women are From Venus.  This statement pisses me off to no end.[i]  Often the only way a man will accept that I am a feminist is for me to admit that there are certain physical differences (I say differences, but he hears limitations) between men and women’s physical prowess.  A Harvard professor is comfortable enough with his untouchability that he makes a ridiculous statement about men and women’s disparate math and science aptitudes.  Even after years of work towards equality, the desire to boil the divide between men and women down to intrinsic differences still prevails.  We cannot move towards mutual understanding and acceptance if we each believe the “other side” is so inherent unlike us.  This is why transgendered individuals disconcert so many: they defy this simplification.  The brain is still a murky place, with many areas only beginning to be illuminated, but all signs point to the conclusion that women and men’s brains are identical in terms of cognition and language.[ii]  We should embrace this similarity, and point to it to prove the general equality of us all.  Our experiences may be different, but at birth our minds are blank slates of the same dimensions. 

            In the late 1970s, French feminism proposed that women should no longer use the language which their fathers in the patriarchy had imparted to them.[iii]  Irigaray implores women to write with their bodies, and to “come out of their language.[iv]”  Their three problematic assumptions are that because we live in a patriarchy, language would reflect this, that our standard language is patriarchal, and that this matters to the future.  Even if language is patriarchal, this is unimportant to the cause.  The concept of how a language changes does not work in that way.  Language can be shaped by social change, and this is central to the field of sociolinguistics, but people cannot force language change in order to enact social change.   The social change of promoting women to have equal status with men would presumably be the catalyst of linguistic change, but not vice versa.

By presupposing that language is a true reflection of thought, the French feminists became trapped in a circular logic which undermined their own cause.  By promoting the divide between women and men, they block any real dialogue, and prevent the equality of women to men.  I agree that literature has been a bastion of the patriarchy, but it is not women’s speech that has prevented them from entering it.   I will not explain my own uneasiness with the idea of what femininity is, and whether we should embrace or deny it, since this is an entirely different issue.  What is important is that from a linguistics standpoint, almost everything the French feminists assumed about the basics of language was invalid, and continues to lead others down endless spirals of illogic.  

Sociolinguistics is a problematic field; even one of its founders but over the years, some generalizations have been posited with success (for now).   Major sound change occurs on the phonemic level; that is, one sound will vary, and vary across every instance that sound is found in a language (possibly only in a certain conditioned environment of other sounds).  It cannot be applied to certain words, which is the only way the patriarchy could ‘construct’ a language.   So saying that the way a word ‘sounds’ is patriarchal is ludicrous, since “sounds are inherently meaningless.”[v]  In fact, all sound change is conditioned by society, and society ultimately decides whether or not a change will become the new standard.  There are always periods of transition in language, and it is during those times that gender, as well as socioeconomic status, will take part in deciding these changes.  In the forty years that sociolinguistics has been refining itself  all sorts of trends have been noted, and later countered, but it seems that in current society women are the innovators of language, with women about 25 years ahead of their male counterparts.[vi]

Some variations seem to be locked in a stalemate, such as the variant ‘walkin’’ versus ‘walking,’ while others are changing right now.  In terms of stable variants, women tend to use the standard forms more often than men.[vii] Some of the reasons posited for women using are that women have historically been more responsible in the home and in education for exposing children to language, that they “have to acquire social vicariously, whereas men can acquire it through their occupational status and earning power,” or it is more vital for them to avoid the stereotypes associated with local or nonstandard speech.[viii]  However, these forces vary across and within societies, and it is most likely that a multiple factors are at work.

In this case it may be said that women preserve the standard.  It could be argued that this is a response to the constraints that the patriarchy has given them, and their need to work within the bounds of a ‘patriarchal language,’ but the dynamic variations offer another explanation of how women choose their language. 

There is a tenet in sociolinguistics, stemming from Labov’s work in Philadelphia in the 1970s, that the characteristic language innovator is an upwardly mobile, lower middle class woman with widespread connections within and without her social group.  Although such a definitive statement can never be made, it does reflect a larger trend in language today.  Gender seems to be somewhat more important than socioeconomic status in language change; Horvath found that women “behaved more similarly to each other than to men from the same social class as themselves.”[ix]  Large scale change, such as vowel shifts, are led by women, whereas change led by men are isolated in both geographical location, and in linguistic location (they don’t force widespread change.) [x]  Most importantly, women lead what is seen as the stigmatized forms on many occasions.  The Milroys maintain that women have created the forms that later became marked as prestigious. [xi]  So could the static variants be the result of women giving up on a language change, and the men clinging to it?     

Language change cannot be enforced, or stopped, so creating a new language is unfeasible; only the connotations we already have can be changed.  Pinker refers to the difficulty feminists have had in creating new pronouns,[xii] but I offer as an example the widespread use of they and its declension as the generic third person pronoun, for both singular and plural.  This has been used for hundreds of years, but academia still taught that male pronouns were the default; this is becoming an archaism, which is usually a sign that it will fall into absolute disuse.  I believe that this was aided by the education of women and the need for academia to incorporate half of its current population.  It is far easier for people to attribute new meaning to another morpheme than accept an entirely new morpheme in the case of pronouns.  In this case the social change has once again been the cause for the linguistic change.

As I sat in my syntax class at Swarthmore, I found myself wondering how the syntax of a language might be patriarchal.  The idea of a hierarchy, which some say is a purely masculine idea is definitely evident in the tree diagrams we draw above the sentences, assigning each phrase a ‘head’ or ‘governor.’  But that is only our representation of a sentence, isn’t it?  The hierarchal system makes the most sense for linguists, whereas another system involving each word possessing the same value is not as successful in explaining linguistic phenomena.  So there may be something inherently hierarchal, but yet again, we must resist the urge to conflate language and thought takes over.  The idea that syntax reflects the linear directed way that men ‘must think’ reveals the common Western assumption that we bear the standard, the norm.  In other languages there are wholly different syntactic structures, replacing Subject-Verb-Object for Subject-Object-Verb,[xiii] among others.

Despite the problems raised by each trend and the daunting task of trying to form a theory that accommodates them all, one important principle can be gleaned from their very contradictions: that being in the oppressed gender does not prevent you from creating innovations in language, or from squelching them.  Each individual has the capacity to cause language change, but may or may not

The very existence of a dynamic rather than static language could be seen as proof that our language is not patriarchal.  It is the customary combinations of words, the choice of male-gendered items to denote the generic, and the connotations that society has placed upon words that give us the sexist language that we have today.  French feminists attempted to prove that this was so ingrained as to be a part of every fiber of language, but it is through the choice of words that we display our prejudices and complicity in the patriarchy. 

It seems that the French feminists did not address the linguistics issues properly, or did not have the resources to do so. Either way, their resulting arguments are predicated on the claim that language is a patriarchal construction and a more grievous assumption: that language is equal to thought.  The two seem to have arisen simultaneously, each existing thanks to the other.  Here’s where the irrelevancy comes in:  even if language were constructed by men or women over time, does that mean that it is a reflection of women or men’s thought?  Following this logic, the language must reflect how men think, and therefore cannot encompass the female experience, or the psyche by extension.  Similarly, since literature has been constructed by men, women could never fully express themselves within its given parameters. 

An important distinction linguists make is that words have meaning placed on them, that we use a “language of thought[…]merely clothed in words whenever we need to communicate them to a listener.[xiv]”  However, it is dangerously attractive to assume that people think in words.  The logic goes that when a woman struggles to find the words to explain herself, it is because she must think in male words. 

Wolff quotes Virginia Woolf saying that a woman should be “altering and adapting the current sentence until she writes one that takes the natural shape of her thought without crushing or distorting it.”[xv]  This is a dilemma to all writers, male and female.  To use syntax to transcend its boundaries is the mark of a great writer.  Most importantly, it is men’s insistence that there are only a few ways to manipulate that language in print, only one standard for each type of literature that is sexist.  They have begun to realize how limiting this is, as women poets and writers did long ago.  It is not due to a limitation on their femininity, but to the limits of language in general, among men and women, to express complex emotion.[xvi]

Although I would prefer not to make a generalization about feminism(s) and its cause, I think that most feminists I know and have read would say that they aim to give equal rights to men and women, to focus on the metaphysical similarities..  If women and men fundamentally think in different ways, this shows that they are fundamentally different.  If men and women are different, why would they desire the same rights?  Moreover, since women and men cannot ever fully understand each other, due to language, they can never improve their understanding of each other, and should recognize the exercise as futile.  Differences in language has been used many times to explain away the differences among cultures, simply another way to ‘other’ different ethnic groups, or even groups that are the same in everything but language.  It has been used before to excuse prejudice, and we should be wary of this when we apply it to issues in feminism.



[i] No, really; I die a little every time I see it.

[ii] Pinker, 457.

[iii] Jones, 325.

[iv] Irigaray, 205.

[v] Cheshire, 438. 

[vi] This means that the men who will use the same variations I do, will be born in 2013. 

[vii] Cheshire, 425.

[viii] Cheshire, 426-427.

[ix] Cheshire, 429.

[x] Cheshire, 430.

[xi] Cheshire 429. 

[xii] Pinker, 111.

[xiii] Which is actually the most common structure

[xiv] Pinker, 45.

[xv] Wolff, 52.

[xvi] The relative ease of doing this between men and women is what I hope to address in my larger paper.


Anne Dalke's picture

Choosing and Using Language

A very striking attempt, Becky, to speak from the particularity of your own social and intellectual location--as a linguistics major--about the salience of the structure of language for feminist praxis. I very much look forward to your further work in this area.

As you pursue a larger project, perhaps you can address some of my confusions. Some of them have to do with the larger claims you are making--do you really believe that "we cannot move towards mutual understanding and acceptance" if we think we are "unlike" one another? That people who are different would not "desire ht same rights"? (Can't we imagine structures of equality among people who differ from one another?)

And some of my confusions have to do with linguistic particularities: "women tend to use the standard forms more often than men," yet they "lead" in the use of "stigmatized forms on many occasions," yet (third contradiction?) they create "the forms that later became marked as prestigious." Perhaps "only our representation of a sentence" is hierarchical, not the sentence itself? By why would "the hierarchical system make the most sense for linguists" if it doesn't represent the sentence more successfully than one in which each word possesses the same value?

I'm confused, too, about the distinction you make between qualities "ingrained" in language and those expressed in our language "choices" (is not what we choose already in use?) I'd also like you to explain more fully how you understand the relation of words and thoughts. To say that thought is "merely clothed in words" is a fine-sounding metaphor, but I don't really understand what relation it signifies. Do we have thoughts first (what form do they take?) and then apply words to them? I'm remembering some discussion by Vygotsky about "inner speech" which indicates a different process: that we think in words?

Looking forward to clarification!