A response to Naomi Wolf

Dear Naomi,

A few years ago, when you were in Oxford finishing your thesis, you came to one of my lectures on language and gender. So I was disappointed when I saw your latest piece in the Guardian, exhorting young women to stop using ‘destructive speech patterns’. Evidently I did a poor job of explaining the basics of my subject. Professional pride compels me to give it another try.

The patterns you’re mostly complaining about, vocal fry and uptalk (aka creaky voice and high rising terminal intonation) are not new phenomena in English, but in recent years they’ve become more noticeable because more people are using them more frequently. Like most such shifts, this one started among younger speakers. In language-use as in other practices of self-expression (like fashion, music and art), it’s the rising generation—adolescents and young adults—who tend to be innovators. And in the case of language, it’s typical to find that young women are a step ahead of young men.

Because of that, people often categorize innovations as female ways of speaking when actually they aren’t exclusively female: it’s more that there’s a general trend and young women are at the cutting edge of it. In time the guys will catch up. With uptalk they already have. The pattern has also spread to older speakers. I sometimes use uptalk myself, and I’m betting you do too. We just don’t do it as much as the younger speakers who are its most advanced users.

But if everyone does uptalk, just to different degrees, then it doesn’t make sense to interpret it as an expression of young women’s lack of confidence and their reluctance to project authority. If that was what uptalk expressed, men wouldn’t have followed women’s lead by adopting it.

The same considerations apply to vocal fry. It isn’t just used by women like Kim Kardashian and Britney Spears (not that either can be accused of lacking confidence). Their male peers use it extensively (have a listen to these American ‘fry guys’), and it’s also a well-documented feature of the speech of upper-class Englishmen, the kind who get firsts at Oxford and then go on to run the country. No one listens to their creaky voices and judges them ‘less competent, less trustworthy, less educated and less hireable’.

Not only do you assume that since uptalk and vocal fry are used by young women they must be expressions of female powerlessness, you go on to argue that these speech patterns are actually causing women’s powerlessness, and urge women to reclaim their power by changing the way they speak. That’s back-to-front logic: it’s a bit like saying that if only African Americans would stop speaking African American English the police would be less likely to shoot them. It misses the point that negative attitudes to the language of subordinate groups are just manifestations of a more general prejudice against the groups themselves. People may claim that their judgments are purely about the speech, but really they’re judgments of the speakers.

If you don’t like uptalk or vocal fry, fine: with language as with fashion and music we’re entitled to our personal preferences. But with language, people have a bad habit of presenting what are actually personal preferences as if they were objective facts. They don’t say ‘I find X annoying’, they say ‘X is bad and wrong’. I’m sure you, and many others of your generation (and mine), really do hear uptalk as annoyingly tentative and vocal fry as a witless affectation, but you shouldn’t assume that your reaction is natural and that everyone will naturally share it. To the young people who’ve grown up with these speech patterns, they aren’t annoying mannerisms, they are perfectly normal and unremarkable.

Ultimately that view is bound to prevail, for the simple reason that the people who hold it are younger than the ones who don’t. By the time they reach the age you are now, most people will talk like them. Their own teenage kids will have to come up with some new thing to distinguish their generation from their parents’, and the cycle will start again. Another wave of linguistic innovation will produce another wave of articles pontificating on young women’s destructive speech habits.

That brings me to what I find most troubling, and more than a little ironic, about your Guardian piece. Three weeks ago, another article about what’s wrong with women’s speech (this one accused them of over-using the word just) prompted me to write a blog post containing these words:

This endless policing of women’s language—their voices, their intonation patterns, the words they use, their syntax—is uncomfortably similar to the way our culture polices women’s bodily appearance. Just as the media and the beauty industry continually invent new reasons for women to be self-conscious about their bodies, so magazine articles and radio programmes like the ones I’ve mentioned encourage a similar self-consciousness about our speech.

You made your name by writing a book that criticized the policing of women’s bodies and their appearance. You recognized that the constant pressure to look ‘better’—thinner, prettier, more groomed, more stylish—is a form of social control, fuelling a never-ending quest for physical perfection whose inevitable failure leads to alienation and self-hatred. And yet when it comes to women’s speech, you take the same approach yourself that the beauty industry uses to sell its products. First convince women they have a problem, then present them with a solution. ‘Detoxify your language and be a better, more successful person’.

What’s really destructive and undermining to women is not their way of speaking but the constant criticism to which their speech is subjected. Telling women their speech-habits are bad and wrong is not going to make them more confident speakers: it’s more likely to reduce them to silence. Continually repeating that women’s speech lacks authority just gives people yet another reason to dismiss whatever they say as unworthy of serious attention.

As you observe yourself, Naomi, patriarchy is inventive. Always inventing new ways to blame women for their own oppression. And new ways to dress that up as ’empowering’. Teaching young women to accommodate to the linguistic preferences, aka prejudices, of the men who run law firms and engineering companies is doing the patriarchy’s work for it. It’s accepting that there’s a problem with women’s speech, rather than a problem with sexist attitudes to women’s speech. The business of feminism is surely to challenge sexist attitudes—to work against prejudice, not around it.

Yours,

Debbie

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