Language and Woman's Place


Language and Woman's Place, by Robin Lakoff, New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1975, 85 pp., $2.25.

Feminist activists have devoted an unusually large amount of their energies to matters of language: to publicizing respects in which language as it exists (especially the English language) allegedly fosters sexism, and to promoting reforms that are supposed to purge English of its sexism. Indeed, one of the most tangible effects that the feminist movement has had on American society so far is linguistic: the widespread adoption of Ms. before women's names.

Language reform is in many respects like urban renewal. It is easy for people to find causes for dissatisfaction both in cities as they are and in languages as they are, and to come up with ideas about how they would like things to be; and in both cases, those who clamor for change usually have little understanding of how the thing that they want to change really works (in particular, they view it as far more static than it really is), have badly misidentified problems, and have given little thought to what would happen if things were as they say they want them. Before there can be intelligent feminist language reform, there must be serious studies of the area that is to be reformed. Robin Lakoff's Language and Woman's Place is a major step in that direction.

Language and Woman's Place is an extremely perceptive and well-informed work, and equally importantly, one that displays a refreshing sense of proportion. Lakoff, who is associate professor of linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley, waits until page 40 before touching on any of the more celebrated areas of feminist agitation about language, having chosen wisely to concentrate on points that are much less widely known (many of which she was evidently the first to notice) but which are of more importance in understanding how language affects women and how the status of women is reflected in language. When she gets to the much-discussed matter of English pronouns (both the fact that English distinguishes a masculine pronoun and a feminine pronoun and the fact that the masculine pronoun is used in sentences like Everyone should take his seat, in which persons of both sexes are referred to), Lakoff says that she feels that "the emphasis upon this point, to the exclusion of most other linguistic points, by writers within the women's movement is misguided.…My feeling is that this area of pronominal neutralization is both less in need of changing and less open to change than many of the other disparities that have been discussed earlier, and we should perhaps concentrate our efforts where they will be most fruitful."

The "disparities" to which Lakoff refers include pairs of words that are generally thought to differ only in the sex of the person referred to (bachelor vs. spinster; widow vs. widower; gentleman vs. lady) but in fact have additional differences which reflect and perhaps reinforce respects in which women are at a disadvantage. Take the fact that you can refer to a woman whose husband has died as John Smith's widow but you cannot refer to a man whose wife has died as Mary Smith's widower: he is only a widower, not her widower. This, of course, is a reflection of the fact that in this society we assign women a name and a status through their husbands (she is Mrs. John Smith, and when you are introduced to her, one of the first things you ask is "What does your husband do?"), but we don't assign men a name and a status through their wives (he stays Mr. John Smith, just as he was before his marriage, and you don't ask him "What does your wife do?" unless you have been told that she "does" something). Here the sexism of the language goes a step beyond that of the culture: you can't refer to Arthur Miller as Marilyn Monroe's widower, regardless of your views of the status of husbands and wives.

Lakoff's discussion of the word lady is masterful. She shows that lady is not just a "more polite" word than woman: note the difference in meaning between She's a real lady and She's a real woman, and how ludicrous it would sound to say Ladies' Lib or Ladies' Strike for Peace. Lady means not "woman" but "woman in a standard feminine role." This is why it is insulting to a female M.D. to speak of her as a lady doctor: it implies that her medical practice falls into the area of triviality that is the stereotype of proper activities for women and thus implies about the same estimate of her medical skills (though not of her bedside manner) as would girl doctor. Similarly, a serious art gallery may hold a one-woman show, but never a one-lady show.

The differences between how men speak and how women speak that Lakoff discusses are much less striking than those between words referring to men and words referring to women. Aside from a couple of usages that are pretty well confined to the speech of women (such as divine and adorable in exclamations like What a divine idea!), the differences she cites are things that occur in the speech of both sexes but which one sex is freer to use, in the sense of being less open to ridicule or censure, or open to less severe censure. Women are free to use highly specific color terms (magenta, heliotrope, etc.) which men are "permitted" to use only when they are "specialists," such as a stamp collector talking about stamps or an interior decorator talking about paint. (The laughter aroused when a man speaks of magenta drapes is comparable to the irritation a dentist feels when a non-dentist patient speaks of the buccal surface of the upper right lateral incisor: in either case the speaker's language expresses intimacy with a subject that he is not "entitled" to treat with familiarity—it's as if he had said tu to someone he ought to address as vous; but why is it that just being a woman entitles you to say tu to the world of colors?) If a 10-year-old boy calls you a motherfucker, he may get spanked, but he won't be sent to a psychiatrist; however, if a 10-year-old girl calls you a motherfucker,.…

Lakoff indeed attempts to relate the fact that far more women than men are psychiatric patients to the "double bind" that she sees male/female language differences putting women in: women are expected to "talk like ladies," but a person who talks like a lady removes herself from serious competition for respect as a person. The term "double bind," referring to a situation in which an authority imposes a requirement on someone but will punish him if he complies with that requirement, is due to Gregory Bateson, who sees double binds as a cause of schizophrenia. Lakoff doubts that the double bind of male/female language differences leads to real schizophrenia, but she sees it as a respect in which "society is putting a far greater strain on its women than on its men;" she holds that "fighting the paradoxes a woman necessarily faces tends to break down a woman's mental resources; therefore a woman is more apt to run into mental difficulties and, when she faces real stress, to have fewer inner resources left to overcome her problems."

Lakoff could have made a better case for these points if she had widened her perspective here. The differences that she cites between male and female speech are much smaller in scale than those between ghetto black English and "standard" white English, or between many regional dialects and the more prestigious dialects, and it might seem at first glance as if her position implies that blacks and Appalachian whites should have 10 times the psychiatric problems that women do. However, there is an important difference, namely that when a black or an Appalachian white wants to become a part of urban white society, acquiring urban white English will help him to do so and will not cause him to be ridiculed behind his back (or at least, not by urban whites). Learning a prestige dialect may cause him problems by antagonizing or alienating his relatives and old friends, but those problems aren't a double bind; whites may penalize a black for being black, but they don't penalize him for trying to talk and look like a white. Moreover, as was pointed out eloquently by Dr. Peter Breggin in the August 1974 REASON interview, women who visit a psychiatrist for help in replenishing their "mental resources" are likely instead to be administered a mental coup de grace; women have far more to fear from male psychiatrists than from male gynecologists. And women whose problems are connected with an attempt to break out of a stereotyped female role are particularly liable to become victims of a psychiatrist.

One major gap in Lakoff's book is comparison between English and other languages. While she includes a little material about Japanese, she does not get into much detail, which is a pity, since Japanese has much more striking differences between male and female language than English does (for example, only women may omit the verb to be) and thus provides an excellent opportunity for testing hypotheses about how language is related to sexism in the culture. (Do women form the majority of psychiatric patients in Japan too?) Some popular beliefs collapse in the face of facts about other languages; for example, Hungarians and Turks don't appear to be any less sexist than Americans despite the fact that their languages don't distinguish between he and she. However, doing a solidly based cross-linguistic study would take a long time, and Lakoff probably has done the best thing by publishing her fairly extensive observations about English now and thus making other investigators aware now of questions that they should raise in investigating other languages.

I will close this review by calling the reader's attention to an interesting point of contact between feminist language reform and a libertarian author who is not normally associated with feminism. A potent way of defusing any sexism in the use of he as a "common gender" pronoun is to be found in Harry Browne's How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World. Browne adopts the policy of consistent use of he as a common gender pronoun: he uses he whenever there is any chance that persons of both sexes might be included. Most persons use "common gender he" inconsistently, by switching to she when "typically" a woman is referred to (as in A teacher should respect her pupils' intellects), that is, they switch to she when a "literal" interpretation of he would conflict with stereotypes of sexual roles. Browne's consistent use of common gender he results in sentences where an interpretation of he as "that male person" would either conflict with the stereotypes (A teacher should respect his pupils' intellects) or impose a female point of view (You shouldn't worry if your spouse spends a lot of time with his parents), which means that male chauvinists can't maintain their chauvinism and still interpret all "common gender he" as implying "typically male." By contrast, saying he or she (as some feminists have recommended) fosters the standard sexual stereotypes in a way that saying he does not: if you say he or she, you imply that women aren't included unless they are specially mentioned, and you make it easier to talk about cases where only one sex is included than where both are Browne's solution to the problem of sexism in common gender he amounts to an application of Gresham's law. A he that is really unspecified as to sex would drive out of circulation a he that meant "typically male," because it would be "on a par" with it but would have less content; the more that people are confronted with instances where he has to be interpreted as covering both sexes, the harder it will be to convey "typically male" by using he.

James D. McCawley is professor of linguistics at the University of Chicago and is working on a book entitled The Eater's Guide to Chinese Characters.