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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Call Me, Tweet Me: Women: the powerless gender

Published: December 2, 2011
Section: Opinions

Embarrassing but true: my Ohio accent is stronger when I’m talking to cute boys. Oh-high-oh becomes Oh-hao and all of my syllables slur together, just enough that my speech becomes the Midwestern version of a Southern drawl. I tilt my head, put my hands on my hips, and speak with the “powerless language” that women supposedly use, according to some anthropologists.

It’s distressing to be raised by feminist parents, work as hard (if not harder) than the boys back in Ohio, and get into a top-notch college, only to find out that when I say “maybe,” make statements in the form of questions, and limit my cursing, I am identifying myself as part of the “powerless” sex.

In virtually any society, men and women are different. Obviously. Some differences are physical, but the majority of those differences, such as speech and gender roles, are simply manufactured by society. I have always hated classifying gender stereotypes and roles—often dichotomies, they separate members of a society, and those who don’t fit in one way or the other are ostracized. Powerlessness can be a descriptor of individuals, but I can’t imagine using it to generalize half of the population.

Being powerless is a life sentence of inferiority. Some may manage to climb social ladders until they have reached a point of superiority, but it’s rare. “Powerless language” is a suitable term for those who are, in fact, powerless (at least comparably) but it can’t be applied to American women as a whole.

In 1973, Robin Lakoff, a linguistics professor, published a list of ten basic traits of language used by women. Her list included characteristics like hedge phrases (sort of, kinda, like), apologies and indirect requests (I’m so thirsty vs. Can I have a drink?). Seven years later, William O’Barr and Bowman Atkins spent two and a half years analyzing court cases to expand on those speech differences.

After listening to witness testimonies, they concluded that the differences between men’s and women’s speech existed, but the differences Lakoff listed were not characteristic of all women and were not limited to women. More often, it was people in subordinate positions who spoke in Lakoff’s “powerless language.” The men and women with power, whether from a certain social status or status in the courtroom (such as an expert witness), spoke much more comfortably. Despite admitting that speech qualities such as tagging, using empty adjectives, and letting oneself be interrupted could not be applied to all women, they continued to consider it a more feminine than masculine manner of speaking.

English is generally much more gender neutral than many other languages, but as a society we’ve still found a way to use language and speech to dichotomize gender. From gendered pronouns to considering adjectives to be feminine or masculine traits, gender becomes a part of our everyday lives. To me, the term “powerless language,” whether it is being used to refer to women or a more general group, implies that someone has been put into a position in which he or she is powerless and unable to become powerful. Especially in modern America, women are not markedly less powerful than men, and it seems there must be a better term to fit the way women speak.

Even if powerless language was given a less evocative name, it still shouldn’t be used as a blanket term or generalization for female speech. Nancy Bonvillain notes that results of gendered speech research is inconsistent, which she credits in part to the fact that gender is only one factor that accounts for someone’s speech. This idea fits with O’Barr and Atkins’ research, as it partially attributes powerless language to social status and position. Any number of social phenomena can cause women to speak differently than men. Being “powerless” is usually not one of them.