Language and the brotherhood of men

I started writing this post on what one Facebook friend called ‘a sad day for women and for justice’: Brett Kavanaugh had been sworn in as a Supreme Court justice in spite of Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony that he was one of two men who sexually assaulted her at a high school party in 1982. As in 1991, when Anita Hill testified to being sexually harassed by Clarence Thomas, the Senate hearings were a stark reminder of pretty much everything feminists object to about the patriarchal treatment of women—their bodies, their experiences and, not least, their speech.

The speech of Christine Blasey Ford featured prominently in media commentary. A couple of journalists contacted me with questions about her speech patterns, and I know of at least one other linguist who was asked for her expert opinion. As this colleague remarked, it was telling that these requests were all about Ford. Nobody asked us to comment on Brett Kavanaugh’s speech patterns, or the language of the male Senators on the Judiciary Committee. That’s usually the way it goes. People don’t tend to treat a male speaker as a generic representative of his sex: they’re more likely to ask what his speech patterns say about him as an individual. Women’s linguistic performances, by contrast, are routinely treated as performances of gender—and this is true whether the commentator is feminist or anti-feminist, sympathetic or hostile to the woman concerned.

One tactic right-wing anti-feminist commentators couldn’t easily use in this case was the one they used against Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election campaign, namely decrying a woman speaker as ‘shrill’, ‘abrasive’, ‘bossy’, ‘harsh’, ‘strident’, etc. Ford’s vocal performance was, by common consent, none of those things. But for the right wing pundit Rush Limbaugh that in itself was a reason to be suspicious:

It’s an odd speech pattern for an accomplished woman. I’m not denying that it could be legit. But it’s a speech pattern that garners sympathy. …she comes off as an up-talker, ends sentences with an upward inflection, which is how young girls — young teenage girls — come off. It makes the speaker sound uber-nice and harmless, non-aggressive, sensitive, vulnerable and so forth, like there’s not a mean bone in their body.

This is an attempt to discredit Ford’s testimony by suggesting that her performance was inauthentic. Why would this middle-aged academic use uptalk, an intonation pattern which is stereotypically associated with teenage girls, if not to manipulate us into thinking she was ‘uber-nice and harmless’? The message is ‘don’t be fooled: this is a plot to bring down an innocent man’. Other hostile comments on Ford’s uptalk and her so-called ‘baby’ or ‘little girl’ voice (like the ones quoted in this Economist piece) conveyed a more familiar but equally negative message: ‘don’t be impressed, it means she’s not a reliable witness’.

Feminist commentary on Ford’s speech was dominated by the idea (first popularized in the 1970s by the linguist Robin Lakoff) that her performance reflected the way women are socialized from girlhood to communicate. Here’s a typical example from the Huffington Post:

For countless women watching, her gestures struck a chord. Every knee-jerk “thank you” and “I’m sorry” felt like words so many had uttered before, part of a familiar display of courtesy we’d all performed at some point ― out of sheer necessity. Out of a desire to make other people, not ourselves, feel comfortable at all costs. …From an early age, girls learn that authority figures will reward them for being amenable and punish them for being “too” assertive.

There are problems with this ‘We Are All Christine Blasey Ford’ line of argument, an obvious one being that we are not all Christine Blasey Ford: women, their ways of speaking, and even the prejudices that confront them when they speak, come in more than one variety. And it was clear that not all women identified with Ford. Some evidently felt more sympathy for Kavanaugh, or for the husbands/sons/brothers they could imagine being in his position.

But in any case, why was there so much emphasis on Ford’s speech patterns? For me, what made the hearings so revealing was the light they shone on men: they showed how men, or more exactly a particular subgroup of highly privileged men, use language to perform both gender and power.

As many commentators noticed, the account Ford gave of her assault suggested that what motivated her assailants, Brett Kavanaugh and his friend Mark Judge, was less a desire for sexual gratification, or even power, than a need to impress and to be approved of by one another. Lili Loofbourow dubbed it ‘toxic homosociality’: two men abusing a woman ‘to firm up their own bond’.

One telling detail in this regard was Ford’s vivid memory of the two men laughing together as they held her down.  According to the neuroscientist Sophie Scott, laughter evolved as a social bonding behaviour: research has found that

you laugh more when you’re with other people and you want them to like you; it establishes that you like them, that you are part of the same group as them, and that you agree or understand.

Language can fulfil the same functions. The New Yorker writer Jia Tolentino commented that what Kavanaugh and Judge were doing in their assault on Ford seemed a lot like what Donald Trump and Billy Bush were doing in the purely verbal exchange that was captured on tape in 2005, and made public a few weeks before the 2016 presidential election. I agree: as I said in my own post about the tape, the speech genre Trump called ‘locker room banter’ is all about male homosocial bonding. It’s another case of men using women’s bodies (in this case, talking about them and what you have done or would like to do to them) to ‘firm up their own bond’.

Banter was clearly part of the culture Brett Kavanaugh and his high school buddies inhabited. Their yearbooks were full of sexual boasting, joking and slang terms that expressed contempt for women. Since written evidence had survived, Kavanaugh could not deny that he was familiar with words like ‘boof’ (anal sex) and ‘devil’s triangle’ (intercourse involving two men and one woman); but when questioned he chose instead to lie about what was meant by these terms (glossing the first as ‘flatulence’ and the second as the name of a drinking game). On the face of it this seemed odd, given that the terms were not part of a secret code known only to his immediate circle; millions of people knew their real definitions. But this is how fraternal loyalty works: as with Fight Club and the Mafia, the rule is that you don’t talk to outsiders, and if you’re forced to talk to them you obfuscate or lie, trusting that your brothers will have your back.

In my post about Trump’s banter I argued that fraternal loyalty is central to the workings of modern patriarchy: its effects are felt far beyond the proverbial locker room. And I would argue that they were felt at the Senate hearings, which became, during Kavanaugh’s testimony, another arena for male bonding. Though it was Kavanaugh’s performance that drew most attention, he was not left to defend himself alone: other men, especially the Republican men who dominated the committee, collaborated in this effort. Of course their support for him was politically motivated; but it was also gendered, expressed in terms of what they shared as men.

One thing the Senators evidently identified with was Kavanaugh’s performance of the role of the devoted family man who has been unable to protect his family from the damaging effects of the accusations against him. In this role he was angry and tearful, prompting some feminists to remark on the double standard which allows men to emote in public without being labelled hysterical or crazy. Several Senators got quite emotional on his behalf: Ted Cruz, for instance, said that

watching your mother’s pained face has been heart-wrenching as she’s seen her son’s character dragged through the mud after not only your lifetime of public service but her lifetime of public service as well. And I know as a father, there’s been nothing more painful to you then talking to your daughters and explaining these attacks that the media is airing.

Another thing that resonated with these men was the idea that any man could find himself in Kavanaugh’s predicament—facing the loss of his career because of something he did as a teenager. Boys, after all, will be boys: who hadn’t got drunk and done stupid things in high school?  (If the stupid things in question were sexual assaults, one answer to this question might be ‘women’.) And as the 85-year old committee chair Chuck Grassley said in a TV interview, who could remember what happened 35 years ago? (Again, one answer might be ‘a woman who’d been sexually assaulted’.)

Their loyalty to Kavanaugh was also evident in the way they responded to his testimony, which was very different from Ford’s. She had been an extremely co-operative witness, answering questions directly when she could and stating clearly when she could not; she didn’t shout, interrupt, argue, ramble, attack the questioner or turn the question back on them. Brett Kavanaugh, by contrast, did all those things–and in most cases he wasn’t challenged. However aggressive, evasive or irrelevant his answers were, his Republican brothers had his back.

I don’t think anyone’s use of language had much impact on the outcome of these proceedings. That was a political decision, and with hindsight we might well think that nothing anyone said during the hearing (short, perhaps, of Kavanaugh confessing to the assault) was ever going to make any difference. But in another way, language was central to this story: it was all about the power of speech.

The ability of men to abuse women with impunity relies on two things: the support of other men and the silence of women. Breaking that silence is a powerful act: in speaking about what was done to her, the woman who was treated as an object becomes an agent. In this case, her decision to speak made Christine Blasey Ford a threat–not only to Brett Kavanaugh’s ambitions, but also to the hopes of the politicians who were using him to advance their agenda. These men worked together to neutralize that threat. And they succeeded, in the sense that their candidate was confirmed; but only because they had the numbers. Not because their speech was more powerful. It wasn’t, and I think some people who supported Kavanaugh–people like Susan Collins and Rush Limbaugh, who were noticeably reluctant to call Ford a liar–knew that. So did all the women who looked at him and saw the faces of their own abusers.

So, appalled though I am by the elevation of Brett Kavanaugh, I do also see some reason to be hopeful. In 2018 as in 1991, a woman testifying at a Supreme Court confirmation hearing told the truth about her life, and the world did not split open. But one day, if women keep on speaking, it will.

Note: quotations from the Senate proceedings are taken from this transcript, which is available on the website of the Washington Post

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Personally speaking

Earlier this month, when Andrea Wulf won the Royal Society’s 2016 Science Book prize for The Invention of Nature, a biography of the scientist Alexander von Humboldt, the Guardian’s John Dugdale wrote a piece headed ‘Why have women finally started winning science book prizes?’  Um, is it because they’re writing more science books than they used to? Is it because the book prize judges are finally recognising their talents? No: apparently women are being rewarded for making science personal. ‘Female science writers’, says Dugdale,

are more likely to focus on people, while their male counterparts are more likely to address a problem, a mystery or an underexplored scientific field.

Men do the difficult, sciencey stuff, while women concentrate on the human angle. It’s yet another iteration of that ancient cliché, ‘men are interested in ideas and women are interested in people’.

Apart from being sexist, this is fundamentally illogical. Why are ‘ideas’ and ‘people’ presented as mutually exclusive options? Don’t most books about science deal with both?  James Watson’s book The Double Helix certainly did: subtitled ‘A personal account of the discovery of the structure of DNA’, it’s both a gripping narrative of scientific problem-solving, and a story about, as the blurb on Amazon’s website puts it, ‘brilliant scientists with great gifts, very human ambitions and bitter rivalries’. Yet somehow it’s remained an article of faith that men aren’t interested in personal stuff, and that women are interested in nothing else.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with being interested in people. What’s wrong is the belief that this is a distinctive and universal female trait. That belief persists because it does ideological work: it naturalises the division of labour that makes women responsible for taking care of others’ needs. It implies that women do this because they want to, and because it’s what they’re naturally good at. It’s an argument that’s been used both to confine women to the domestic sphere and to limit their options in the wider world. Women are good with people, so let them do care work and customer service. If they’re journalists, assign them human interest stories while men report the news. If they’re politicians, give them a ‘soft’ portfolio, like education rather than finance. And so on, ad infinitum.

The same stereotype has pervaded discussions of the way men and women use language.  Women, the story goes, talk about people and in order to make connections with people. Men, by contrast (because there’s always a contrast), talk about objects or concepts, to impart information, solve problems or display knowledge. As Deborah Tannen summed this up in her 1990 bestseller You Just Don’t Understand, men do ‘report talk’ and women do ‘rapport talk’.

Evolutionary psychologists have taken this a step further by declaring that the difference is a product of evolution. According to John Locke’s book Duels and Duets, women’s well-known love of gossip reflects the involvement of their early human ancestors in all-female mutual support networks, where they created ‘feelings of closeness through intimate disclosures about others and themselves’. Men, on the other hand, did not form mutual support networks: rather they were rivals, and their ways of talking reflected that.

Since men were selected to aggress and dominate, but could end up killing themselves, they needed a safer way of achieving their goals. Ritualized duels, using words instead of weapons, filled the bill.

It’s an axiom of evolutionary psychology that human nature doesn’t change: that’s why modern women still gossip and modern men still fight verbal duels—‘even’, Locke informs us, ‘when they are merely socializing with their colleagues and friends’.

In these ordinary duels, men denigrate their friends in a humorous way, often before an audience, but they also hold competitive joke- and story-telling sessions that feature verbal artistry.

So, men duel and women duet; women engage in intimate gossip while men engage in competitive banter. Locke presents this as an absolute divide: no bantering for women and no gossiping for men. ‘Women may denigrate themselves’, he explains, ‘but they do not insult their close women friends, even humorously’. (If you’re a woman and you’re thinking ‘WTF?’ I can only say you’re not alone.) Men, conversely, have no use for the female habit of talking about other people behind their backs. ‘If they have something to say to a foe or competitor, they usually go up to him and say it’.

Well, sorry to spoil a nice neat story, but I’m afraid I’m going to have to call bullshit.

Back in 1990, a student in one of my classes recorded a couple of hours of casual conversation in the house he shared with four other men (all were straight, white and in their early 20s)*. He wanted to answer the question, ‘what do male friends talk about?’ Some of the answers were much as he’d expected: they talked about sports, drinking and dating. But there was another topic which occupied more time than anything else apart from sport–criticism of other men. To give you the flavour, here’s a chunk of the transcript (which I’ve simplified a bit to make it easier to read):

BRYAN: uh you know that really gay guy in our Age of Revolution class who sits in front of us? he wore shorts again, by the way, it’s like 42 degrees out he wore shorts again [laughter]

ED: That guy

BRYAN: it’s like a speedo, he wears a speedo to class he’s got incredibly skinny legs

ED: it’s worse you know you know like those shorts women volleyball players wear? it’s like those it’s like French cut spandex

BRYAN: you know what’s even more ridiculous? When you wear those shorts and like a parka on […] he’s either got some condition that he’s got to like have his legs exposed at all times or else he’s got really good legs

ED: he’s probably he’s like he’s like at home combing his leg hairs

BRYAN: he doesn’t have any leg hair though

ED: he really likes his legs

BRYAN: yes and oh those ridiculous Reeboks that are always (indeciph) and goofy white socks always striped tube socks

ED: that’s right he’s the antithesis of man

So, OK, what is this? Is it banter, or is it gossip? It does have some features of what Locke describes as typical all-male talk: the two men I’ve called ‘Ed’ and ‘Bryan’ are talking in a way they evidently find amusing, and they’re doing it in front of an audience (the three other men who share the house). But in other respects it doesn’t conform to Locke’s template for male verbal duelling: it’s more of a collaborative duet. The speakers aren’t ‘humorously denigrating’ one another, they’re talking about someone else behind his back. They aren’t expressing conflicting views—on the contrary, what they’re constructing is very much a shared view of the ‘really gay guy’ as ‘the antithesis of man’.

Why would young men gossip? The short answer is, for the same reasons anyone gossips. People who study gossip (they include anthropologists, sociologists, historians and linguists) say it’s ubiquitous in human cultures–despite the fact that most communities claim to disapprove of it–because it serves a number of important social purposes. One of these is circulating personal information, which enables members of a community to keep track of others’ activities and relationships. Another is the one Locke emphasises in his discussion of all-female talk, namely bonding. When you talk about absent others you’re constituting them as an out-group and yourselves as an in-group: if what you’re sharing is sensitive information–like a secret or a negative opinion about someone–that will strengthen the feeling of intimacy among those present.

A third purpose gossip serves, especially when it’s critical or judgmental, is to affirm the group’s commitment to particular norms and values. That’s clearly one thing that’s going on in Ed and Bryan’s duet. By describing the absent ‘gay guy’ as ‘the antithesis of man’, they’re also bonding around their own, very different code of properly masculine behaviour.

It may seem paradoxical that the vehicle for this heterosexual male bonding is a kind of talk which is stereotypically associated with women (not to mention that the main subject discussed is the very thing these men claim to have no interest in—other men’s bodies). But it’s only really a paradox if you take the stereotype at face value. The fact is that both sexes gossip: one survey conducted in 2009 found that men reported spending slightly more time on gossip than women. And respondents of both sexes gave the same reason for doing it: they said that gossiping made them feel like ‘part of the gang’.

But if everyone gossips, why has gossip been decried for centuries as a specifically female vice? The historical record is full of injunctions to women to avoid gossip, which was variously denounced as idle, frivolous, anti-social, sinful and even a cover for witchcraft.  Noting that the word ‘gossip’ in early modern English meant a close female companion who stayed with a woman in childbirth, Suzanne Romaine mentions one reason why this role prompted anxiety:

Professions such as midwifery allowed women passage between households, largely free of male control, to exchange …knowledge of intimate matters such as contraception and abortion.

Some historians argue that what really worried men wasn’t so much the sharing of arcane female knowledge as the prospect of women talking about them. They feared their wives would share embarrassing secrets, or spread malicious gossip deliberately to damage their reputations. This fear was not unfounded: at a time when women had very limited access to more public forums, gossip provided an alternative channel for influencing the opinions of others. And in a culture that practised quite extensive sex-segregation, it was one channel men couldn’t control.

But it was never just women who made use of this channel. Men also used gossip as a weapon; they still do. A fair proportion of what men like to call ‘banter’ is sexist and sexualised talk about women, and one of its effects (thanks to the sexual double standard) may be to damage a woman’s or a girl’s reputation by branding her a ‘slut’ or a ‘slag’. This kind of so-called ‘banter’ is just gossip by another name. A more forgiving name, too: whereas ‘gossip’ is associated with meanness and malice, ‘banter’ is more often described using terms like ‘good natured’ and ‘light-hearted’.

The idea that women are obsessed with the personal (meaning the trivial, the venial, the commonplace) takes many different forms, and all of them are basically sexist put-downs. They’re a good illustration of the more general principle that whatever women are said to do will be devalued by comparison with whatever men are said to do–even if what they’re doing is essentially the same thing.

*The men involved in this conversation gave me permission to use the recorded data, which I later transcribed and analysed in this article. The names I’ve given them are pseudonyms.

Getting real about bad advice

It’s been a while since I posted anything about the policing of women’s language, but that’s not because the police have been idle: while I’ve been concerning myself with other matters, it’s been business as usual for the finger-wagging advicemongers. Here’s a recent example which I wouldn’t bother clicking on, since it’s just a rehash of the generic Bullshit Article About Women’s Language that’s been doing the rounds for the last two years. And here’s a piece about uptalk and vocal fry, which does contain one novel feature–a link to this blog, which the author cites to show she considered both sides of the argument before deciding to go with the ever-popular ‘stop it, you’re annoying people’.

Both these pieces use what I’m going to call the ‘let’s get real’ argument, which goes something like this: ‘it’s all very well to call out prejudice/preach tolerance, but the world is the way it is; the faster you adjust the more successful you’ll be’. My function, where a writer brings me into the discussion, is to represent the naive idealist whose extreme and unworldly opinions no true supporter of women should be distracted by.

Along those lines, yet another advicemonger recently informed her readers:

Deborah Cameron argues that it’s basically sexist to examine how women speak at all — they should be allowed to say whatever they want (however doormat they sound)

I’m not sure what she thinks the alternative is. Language wardens patrolling the offices of the nation, and fining women on the spot for saying ‘sorry’ or ‘just’? But the laissez faire attitude she attributes to me is not what I’ve argued for either. No one has total freedom to speak however they want, at least if they want to be (a) intelligible to others and (b) considered a competent member of society. My aspirations for women are more modest: I’d just like them to be able to speak without constantly being told they’re doing it wrong.

But to my critics this is shockingly irresponsible, and does women no favours at all. As they see it, telling women to mind their ‘justs‘ and ‘sorries‘ is like telling a stranger in the toilets she’s accidentally tucked her skirt into her knickers–she might be embarrassed, but she’ll also be grateful.

Some women evidently are grateful. Whenever I criticise some egregious piece of sexist language policing, I get a couple of emails from women who protest that they have personally found it helpful. I don’t argue with them: obviously only they can say whether or not they found something helpful. But in the spirit of ‘let’s get real’, I do have a question about how the advice has helped them.

You might think the answer is obvious: it’s helped them by prompting them to change the way they speak, cutting out the bad habits that make them ‘sound doormat’. But in reality that’s not very likely. All the evidence suggests that criticism of a linguistic feature does a good job of making people aware of it, but has little effect on the way they actually use it. Think of all the grammar, spelling and pronunciation shibboleths (double negatives, ‘aint’, ‘we was’, h-dropping, t-glottalling, saying ‘somefink’, writing ‘it’s’ when it should be ‘its’, etc.) which have been relentlessly criticised for decades or even centuries. Most English-speakers are well aware that these features are stigmatised, and most believe the stigma is deserved. Yet that hasn’t led to a decline in their use: in some cases they’ve spread rapidly since the criticism started.

This isn’t as paradoxical as it sounds. Our ideas about good and bad language may be derived from the pronouncements of authorities (like parents, teachers, or the people who write opinion pieces in the media), but our actual behaviour is much more strongly influenced by the speech of the people we converse with directly. When we talk to someone, we have a tendency to ‘accommodate’ to them, usually by (subconsciously) making our speech more similar to theirs. This is one way speech-patterns like uptalk spread. More generally, a lot of our spoken output is produced without much conscious reflection. It’s habitual, automatic, below-the-radar behaviour, and as such quite difficult to modify.

Of course, there are people who’ve succeeded in altering their habitual speech-patterns, either permanently (like Margaret Thatcher, who lowered her voice-pitch in a bid to sound more authoritative), or temporarily (like the actors and impressionists who can perform in various different accents and vocal personae). But these cases are notable precisely because they’re unusual. Success depends on a combination of aptitude, motivation, structured training and intensive practice; failure is not unusual.

Yet most critics of women’s speech seem to think there’s nothing to it. They have plenty to say about why you should stop saying X, Y and Z, but nothing to say about how you’re meant to do it. The implication is that once you’ve become aware of what you’re doing wrong, you can simply decide to stop. It’s ironic that these critics so often describe the features they want women to stop using as ‘verbal tics’. As much as I hate this inaccurate and trivialising use of the phrase, you’d think the word ‘tic’, meaning an involuntary response which the subject cannot control, might be a clue to the fact that changing your speech-habits isn’t easy.

Occasionally advice-writers do pay attention to the ‘how’ question. One of my favourite examples is a WikiHow entry headed ‘How to stop saying the word “like”’.

LIKE 3

The reader’s mission, should she choose to accept it, is to train herself (I’m using feminine pronouns advisedly: all the visual illustrations depict young women) to use ‘like’ only in its two ‘proper’ meanings, which are ‘enjoy’ (as in ‘I like chocolate’) and ‘similar to’ (as in ‘that tastes like chocolate’), while breaking the bad habit of using ‘like’ as a quotative (‘she was like, who cares?’), an approximator (‘she’s like, five feet tall’) or just an all-purpose filler. The author recognises that this is a challenging task, and offers strategies for approaching it in a systematic way. For instance:

  • Whenever you realise you’re about to say ‘like’, pause. If your ‘like’ was going to be a filler, you’ll have dodged the bullet. If it wasn’t, you’ll have time to think of a suitable substitute.
  • Arm yourself in advance with a selection of potential alternatives to ‘like’. For instance, you could replace quotative ‘be like’ with a more ‘descriptive’ verb like ‘yell’, ‘whisper’ or ‘exclaim’.
  • If the ‘likes’ are still creeping in, slow your speech down to a speed which allows you to consider each word before you utter it.
  • If you’re really struggling, go cold turkey: ban ‘like’ from your speech entirely, even in its legitimate senses. Say ‘I enjoy chocolate’ and ‘it tastes similar to chocolate’.

The last tip is to persevere, since your efforts may not bear fruit immediately. No kidding: it’s hard to imagine anything more fruitless than trying to follow this advice. Whoever was unlucky enough to engage you in conversation would be baffled, if not maddened, by your strange inability to talk at a normal speed, your sudden unexplained silences, your weirdly formal vocabulary and your peculiar habit of reporting others’ speech as though you were writing the dialogue in a bad novel (she quipped, sarcastically). It’s heartbreakingly earnest, and about as much use as the proverbial chocolate teapot.

In that it is not unusual: the world is full of useless advice. Some people have argued that the uselessness of the advice it offers is the secret of the self-improvement industry’s success: if the advice really worked, people wouldn’t keep coming back for more. But some research has raised the question, is it actually advice that people are after?

Research done with people who regularly read self-help books has found that the advice element of the genre is not very important to them. The books are generally marketed on the promise of solving readers’ problems, but readers themselves say that isn’t what they read them for: rather their goal is to understand themselves better. A ‘good’ book, as they see it, provides a description of the problem which they can recognise themselves in, along with an explanation of what’s behind the problem that resonates with their own experience. The benefits they say they get from this include feeling validated (‘this writer understands me’) and feeling more able to cope with their situation. As one woman explained to the researcher Wendy Simonds, ‘if I understand something, I feel a little bit better about it; I don’t feel so overwhelmed and so helpless’.

This may also be what my correspondents mean when they tell me they find advice on speaking helpful. Not that it’s transformed their behaviour, but that it’s given them a valuable insight into their problems. Their situation may not have changed, but at least someone has explained it in a way that seems to make sense (‘you aren’t getting respect because your tentative and apologetic way of speaking undermines your authority’).

There are parallels here with the experience of feminists. If you’re a feminist, it’s because, among other things, you think feminism explains women’s situation and their problems in a way that makes sense. Most feminists can recall moments when their understanding was changed by a conversation in a group, or by something they read in a book; and most would probably agree that this felt like a positive experience, even though on its own it didn’t solve anything. To change your situation you first need to understand it: that’s one belief feminism shares with self-help.

But there are also important differences. Feminist consciousness raising—the process of reflecting on experience and coming to understand it differently—is meant to lead to collective political action, the goal of which is to change the social structures that are ultimately responsible for women’s situation. Self-help, on the other hand, is committed to an ideology of hyper-individualism, whose two core tenets are (1) you’re in control of your own destiny, and (2) the only thing you have the power to change is yourself.

Not only does this mean that changing yourself has to be the solution to every problem, it also means that self-help has to downplay the social dimension of the problems that confront its readers. Women’s experiences of sexism in all its forms, from being ignored in meetings to being trapped in abusive relationships, are persistently presented as avoidable consequences of their own bad choices or self-destructive behaviour-patterns. The good news, however, is that women can solve their problems by making better choices and adopting different patterns of behaviour. You don’t have to ‘sound doormat’ forever: the remedy is in your own hands.

It’s not hard to understand why many women might find this message of individual empowerment more appealing than some old sourpuss like me banging on about structural inequality. But let’s just get real here. If you believe there is such a thing as society, and that one of its organising principles is gender hierarchy–male dominance and female subordination– then suggesting that women should deal with problems like workplace discrimination by changing their way of speaking will look less like empowerment and more like victim-blaming. It will also look like a mystification: not something that helps women to understand their situation, but something that stops them from seeing it clearly and working together to change it.

Sorry, but it’s complicated

‘Sorry’ may have been the hardest word for Elton John, but to women it comes as naturally as breathing. Women, as everyone knows, apologise. They apologise constantly. They apologise unnecessarily. They apologise for things that aren’t their fault, and for things that require no apology from anyone. They’re like the proverbial cracked records with their ‘sorry, sorry, sorry’.

Recently we’ve become obsessed with the problem of the over-apologetic woman. She seems to pop up everywhere—not just where you’d expect to find her, in listicles with titles like ‘The Seven Ways Women Undermine Themselves At Work’ and products like the ‘Just Not Sorry’ plug-in which I wrote about last year, but also in shampoo adverts, comedy sketches and various other forms of humour (check out #7 in this set of cartoons).

The advice and coaching industry has an obvious interest in endlessly recirculating the idea that women apologise too much (it’s in the same category of female verbal misdemeanours as uptalk and ‘just‘ and ‘I feel like‘–all of them gifts that keep on giving if your business is creating problems that people will then pay you to solve). It’s not so obvious why it also gets uncritically recycled by feminists (there’s an example in this Woman’s Hour interview with the historian Amanda Foreman). It might seem that feminists have nothing to gain by repeating what is, after all, a negative stereotype; but some evidently see it as proving a point about the harmful effects of female socialisation. Excessive apologising, they say, is the behaviour of a person who’s been trained from early childhood to think of herself as a lesser being: to devalue and efface herself, put others’ needs before her own, take up as little space in the world as possible, and defer, in particular, to men.

As a feminist myself I don’t doubt that female socialisation has many damaging consequences for girls and women. But I still don’t buy the argument that women over-apologise because they’ve been socialised to be self-effacing and deferential. It may sound plausible, but here’s why I don’t think it’s true.

First, let’s just go back a step. So far I’ve been taking it for granted that women really are the more apologetic sex. But that shouldn’t be accepted without question: the evidence from research is mixed. Some studies have found women apologizing more than men, but others have found no difference. Which findings you give more weight to is a judgment call, and researchers have different views.

My own view, for what it’s worth, is that there probably is a tendency for women to apologise more frequently than men (though the usual caveats apply: this generalisation may not be valid for every group of women in every context, and it certainly won’t be valid for every individual woman). However, there’s a difference between description and interpretation: even if we accept that this tendency exists, it doesn’t follow that women apologise ‘too much’ (too much in relation to what?), nor that the reason must be their socialised unassertiveness and deference. In fact, if you dig a bit deeper into the research, you discover there are other patterns which don’t fit with that assumption.

One of the most detailed investigations of gender differences in apologising was done in the 1990s by the New Zealand linguist Janet Holmes. Holmes recorded naturally-occurring talk in a range of social situations, and extracted all the sequences that included apologies (183 in total). As well as counting the frequency with which men and women apologised, she looked at who they apologised to, what they apologised for, how they formulated their apologies and how those apologies were received.

Holmes’s is one of the studies I mentioned earlier which did find women apologising more than men. A lot more, in fact: women produced nearly three quarters of all apologies. But there was another, equally striking pattern: the majority of female apologies, accounting for 55% of all the apologies in the data, were cases of women apologising to other women. Apologies from women to men accounted for about 18% of cases, apologies from men to women for about 17%, and apologies from men to other men for just 8.5%.

These figures are hard to reconcile with the belief that women’s apologies are displays of deference and subordinate status. If that were the issue, you’d expect women to apologise more frequently to men than to other women; you might also expect women, as the subordinate sex, to receive fewer apologies from men than they give to men. In this study, however, cross-sex apologies occurred with more or less equal frequency in both directions. Almost the whole of the overall gender difference was the result of the very large difference between women’s behaviour towards other women and men’s towards other men.

What Holmes actually found, then, was not a general tendency for men and women to behave differently, but a more specific tendency for them to behave very differently with members of their own sex. The standard story about unassertive and deferential women doesn’t explain that. Why would women become less deferential when addressing their social superiors, men, and conversely why would men defer to their subordinates, women, twice as often as they defer to their male peers?

But if it isn’t about deference, what is the gender difference about? Holmes offers two suggestions.

The first is that men and women may understand the act of apologising differently, with women seeing it primarily as a way of maintaining good relationships by displaying concern for others, whereas men see it primarily as an admission of inadequacy or guilt. This second interpretation is more negative, and that may explain why men avoid apologising (or dare I say, ‘under-apologise’?) with other men who share their understanding of it as demeaning. (Though it doesn’t really explain why men are more willing to apologise to women: perhaps they think women won’t judge them in the same way, or perhaps they don’t care so much what women think.) Among women, on the other hand, apologising is interpreted more positively: it need not diminish your status, and it may even earn you credit for being a nice person.

Holmes’s second suggestion is that men and women may have different perceptions of what’s offensive enough to require an apology. In her data, a higher proportion of men’s apologies were for relatively serious offences (like forgetting a date with someone or damaging one of their possessions). This led her to wonder if women apologised more because they felt the need to apologise for things men would dismiss as trivial. (Interestingly, she found women were more likely than men to apologise for what she calls ‘space and talk offences’—things like inadvertently touching or interrupting another person. She suggests that women may be more sensitive to these transgressions because they’re so often committed against women–most typically, of course, by men.)

The idea that men have a higher threshold for perceiving behaviour as offensive has received some support from other research. The psychologists Karina Schumann and Michael Ross  got research subjects to keep a diary of all their offensive acts, and to say, in each case, whether they had apologised. They found that women and men reported apologising for a similar proportion of the offences they’d committed, but the raw numbers—of both offensive acts and apologies—were higher for the women than the men. This suggested that women had considered more acts offensive enough to need redress. To test this hypothesis, the researchers designed an experimental task where subjects had to rate the seriousness of various offences. They found, as they expected, that their female subjects gave higher ratings.

Readers who know something about the study of language and gender may think that Holmes’s arguments are somewhat reminiscent of what’s been labelled the ‘difference’ or ‘two cultures’ approach, because it treats differing patterns of language-use among men and women as the product of quasi-cultural differences. The idea is that the sexes behave differently because they understand things differently, and they understand things differently because their experiences and values are different. But you can’t say that one sex’s way of doing things is better or worse than the other’s, any more than you would say Japanese culture is better or worse than Greek culture. They’re just different: ‘different but equal’. The classic statement of this position is Deborah Tannen’s popular bestseller You Just Don’t Understand, which has been criticised by other scholars (full disclosure: I’m one of them) for glossing over the issue of structural sexual inequality. Does Holmes’s explanation of gender differences in apologising invite the same criticism? Is she saying that women’s tendency to apologise more than men has nothing to do with power and inequality?

The short answer is no: Holmes’s position is not the same as Tannen’s. She believes that ultimately, ‘power is the issue’:

Women’s ways of talking differ from men’s because each group has developed interactional strategies which reflect their societal position. The different patterns of interaction into which girls and boys are socialised are not randomly different. Their features are attuned to the requirements of the society.

As a general observation this is not, of course, incompatible with the popular story about over-apologetic women (which says that women’s societal position requires them to be unassertive and deferential). The trouble with that story is that it leaves some patterns unexplained (in particular, the difference Holmes observed between cross-sex and same-sex behaviour). The relationship it posits between apologising and subordinate status is too simple and general to account for the reality of women’s (or men’s) behaviour. But there’s another way to relate apologising to the requirements of an unequal, male dominated society. Rather than treat it as a general expression of female powerlessness, we could connect it to a more specific feature of social structure which is directly linked to women’s subordinate status: the division of labour which makes caring for others a female responsibility.

The aim of an apology is to maintain or restore harmony. Apologising says: ‘I accept that I have given (or might give) offence, I regret that and I ask for your forgiveness’.  By implication it also says: ‘your feelings matter to me: I understand that you may feel bad and I want you to feel better’. In that sense apologising can be seen as a form of emotional labour, part of the work of managing your own and others’ feelings. And willingness to perform emotional labour is one of the most basic things that’s expected of women just because they are women. Even when they’re not explicitly cast in a caring role (like ‘mother’), women are routinely expected to pay attention to others’ feelings, and pour oil on troubled waters when harmony is threatened. They’re expected both to apologise when others are or could be offended, and to forgive when others have offended them (Holmes found that women were less likely than men to reject an apology and more likely to accept one).

I would argue that women’s apologising behaviour has more to do with these gendered expectations than it does with lack of confidence and self-esteem. In fact, I suspect that for some women, this behaviour may actually be a source of self-esteem. Not all women embrace their prescribed role with joy, but even if we don’t much like our jobs, most of us derive some satisfaction from being good at them. And while selflessness and nurturance may be poorly rewarded in material terms, they do come with moral and social benefits.

In this case one key benefit may be the approval of your female peers. Although you often hear women castigating themselves publicly for the sin of ‘over-apologising’ (a term  which covertly treats what men do as the norm), the high frequency of apologies between women suggests that privately they may not regard men’s behaviour as the gold standard. And indeed, why should they? What’s wrong with showing concern for others? From a feminist perspective, nothing: the problem isn’t that caring is inherently worthless or degrading, it’s that the responsibility for caring is unfairly distributed, obliging most women to do too much while most men do far too little.

This already unfair distribution of rights and obligations can give rise to a further injustice, with men getting more credit than women when they do show consideration for others. In a study conducted by a group of researchers in Israel, subjects were asked to imagine that a work colleague had scheduled a meeting and then failed to turn up for it. They were then given a letter which the colleague had supposedly written, apologising for the inconvenience and promising it would not happen again. The letter was always the same, but some subjects were told that the writer was their boss, others that the writer was their subordinate. In addition, the writer was presented to some subjects as male (‘David’) and to others as female (‘Rachel’). After reading the letter, the subjects were asked to judge the sincerity of the apology and to say how willing they were to forgive the writer.

The researchers found that people’s judgments were influenced by both status and gender:

the most effective apology was by a male manager, followed by a female manager, a male subordinate and finally a female subordinate.

They explain:

The less expected an apology, the more effective it is.  …When an apology is not socially obligatory, [it] will be more accepted and more highly esteemed.

A subordinate who apologises to the boss is merely doing what’s expected, whereas a boss who apologises to a subordinate is perceived as displaying unusual magnanimity. Gender has a similar (though slightly weaker) effect. A woman who apologises is meeting others’ expectations, whereas a man is exceeding them, and the response is therefore more positive. The researchers conclude by suggesting that managers shouldn’t treat apologising as a ‘powerless’ and therefore risky move: done strategically, it can actually enhance your reputation. Especially, it seems, if you’re a man.

Where does this leave us? Again, I’d say it’s complicated. On one hand, I think we should reject the popular stereotype of the over-apologetic woman, along with the language-policing it’s used to justify. It isn’t true that women ‘over-apologise’ because they are timid, deferential creatures: the fact (if it is one) that they apologise more than men seems to have more to do with showing concern for others’ feelings. Do feminists really want to disparage that as a weakness?

On the other hand, as Janet Holmes points out, women and men don’t make linguistic choices in a vacuum: they are expected to behave in certain ways, and if they choose not to they will pay a price. Maintaining harmonious relationships is an obligation imposed on women rather than something that just comes naturally; it is one of the many unjust burdens women carry in this world, and as such there is every reason for feminists to criticise it. The question is whether we can find a way to do that without ridiculing, shaming or bullying women for the way they do or don’t speak.

A matter of opinion

I feel like opinion pieces on the state of the language are getting more annoying all the time.

If you’re wondering where that came from, the answer is that I’ve just read a New York Times opinion piece published this weekend, in which the history professor Molly Worthen complains that young people preface everything they say with ‘I feel like’.

[They] don’t think, believe or reckon. They “feel like.” Listen for this phrase and you’ll hear it everywhere, inside and outside politics. This reflex to hedge every statement as a feeling or a hunch is most common among millennials. But I hear it almost as often among Generation Xers and my own colleagues in academia. As in so many things, the young are early carriers of a broad cultural contagion.

The contagion she’s talking about is relativism: we no longer deal in facts or principles, only personal feelings which brook no argument or disagreement. Also—although this might seem to be in tension with the first, ‘no arguing with my feelz’ point—we’re not willing to commit to our beliefs because we’re worried about causing offence. According to a student Worthen quotes, saying ‘I feel like X’ is ‘an effort to make our ideas more palatable to the other person’.

The student has a point. Hedging–using linguistic devices that reduce the strength of your commitment to a proposition—is often done for purposes of politeness, or in other words to make whatever you’re saying or doing ‘more palatable to the other person’. That’s why we often write something long-winded and tentative like ‘I was just wondering if you’d got my email’ rather than the blunter, slightly accusatory ‘did you get my email?’ Or respond to a caller we don’t know with ‘I think you’ve got the wrong number’ rather than just ‘wrong number!’

This is normal linguistic behaviour, and you might think it’s preferable to showing no consideration for anyone else’s feelings. But people who write opinion pieces on language (or give ‘expert’ advice on language) have got it into their heads that hedging is the enemy of effective communication. According to them, it’s clutter. It’s ‘weak’.  It detracts from your message and undermines your authority. And–not coincidentally–it’s the particular vice of women.

Opinion pieces on this subject invariably feature women who’ve seen the light and repented of their sins. They’ve cut down on ‘just‘ and taken ‘sorry‘ in hand. In Molly Worthen’s column there’s another quote from a student who’s trying to cure herself of ‘feel like’:

I’ve tried to check myself when I say that. I think it probably demeans the substance of what I’m trying to say.

In 2013, Jezebel ran a piece entitled ‘Ladies, what’s up with the “I feel like” verbal tic?’ The writer begins with a confession: she’s searched for the phrase ‘I feel like’ in her Gmail inbox, and been overwhelmed by the number of results. Her correspondence is full of sentences like, ‘I feel like I look too meek in my profile picture’. Or, ‘I feel like I’m being unhelpful’. She comments:

We are feeling so many feelings, and we are very aware that we are feeling these feelings.

Ah yes, feelings. As everyone knows, women are emotional creatures who talk endlessly about their feelings–whereas men by implication converse in a mixture of syllogisms and statistics. The writer suggests that ‘I feel like’ sounds ‘indulgent, verging on narcissistic’;

when I say “I feel like” I feel like (ha) a touchy-feely liberal girl who learned to talk about her feelings in school.

It’s this self-indulgent touchy-feeliness that bothers Molly Worthen. She downplays the association with women, saying that men in her classrooms also say ‘I feel like’ all the time. But she continually invokes the opposition between thinking and feeling, reason and emotion, which in western thought, as many feminists have pointed out, is gendered through and through. As Genevieve Lloyd puts it, ‘rationality has been conceived as transcendence of the feminine‘.

Worthen’s argument that we’ve become too touchy-feely rests largely on an observation about the contemporary use of words–that ‘feel like’ is now preferred to ‘think’–and on closer inspection this is linguistically naive. The phrase ‘I think’, which she takes to be both completely different from and self-evidently preferable to ‘I feel like’, actually does the same job: it too can be used as a hedge. So can other verbs of knowing or sensing, like ‘believe’, ‘understand’, ‘guess’, ‘imagine’, ‘see’, ‘hear’. We often use them to indicate that something we’re saying might be speculative, provisional, open to doubt or disagreement. (‘She’ll be 90 this year, I believe’. ‘I imagine you’ll want to put this on the agenda’.)  And then there’s ‘seem’, as in ‘it seems to me…’. It may sound a touch more formal, more the sort of thing a middle-aged academic would say, but otherwise, how exactly is prefacing a point with ‘it seems to me’ any different from beginning it with ‘I feel like’?

I suspect Worthen’s preference for ‘think’ reflects the simple idea that the core meaning of ‘think’ is about cognition whereas the core meaning of ‘feel (like)’ is about emotion. At one point she worries that ‘the more common “I feel like” becomes, the less importance we may attach to its literal meaning’. But that ship sailed long ago: when they’re used in the way she’s talking about, the sense-perception verbs ‘feel’, ‘see’ and ‘hear’ are metaphors for more complex cognitive processes. If you tell someone ‘I see what you mean’, you haven’t literally ‘seen’ anything, you have grasped the import of something. Similarly, many uses of ‘feel’ carry little or no trace of either the ‘touch’ or the ’emotion’ senses of the word–they are metaphors for inferring or judging (‘Members of the jury, you may feel that the prosecution’s evidence…’)

The Jezebel piece included various quotes from women repeating the same folk-theory about ‘I feel like’ privileging emotion over reason and inoffensiveness over rigorous argument.

It takes the teeth out of any argument you make and makes it okay for you to be wrong. Like you don’t have to stand by your opinion because it came from a temporary, emotional place. I use it a lot when I don’t want to offend anyone.

I feel like is used for girls to tentatively express their opinion in a nonthreatening way, in a way that can either be added on to or diminished depending on how the other person reacts to it.

Is it, in fact, for girls? The writer of the Jezebel piece contacted the linguist and blogger Mark Liberman to ask whether it was true that ‘I feel like’ is used mostly by women and millennials. Using data from a corpus of telephone conversations, Liberman found that the the short answer is ‘yes’: younger speakers use ‘I feel like’ more than older ones, and female speakers use it more than male ones. However, the gender gap is probably explained by something I’ve mentioned on this blog before—the tendency for young women to be linguistic trendsetters, adopting innovative ways of speaking before their male age-peers. If something really is a trend, the men will eventually catch up.

The alternative explanation—that women use ‘I feel like’ more because it’s a hedge and women hedge more—was not supported by the telephone corpus data, which suggest that men hedge just as much as women, they just use different linguistic forms to do it. For instance, men use ‘I guess’ more often than women. (Though not ‘I think’, where it’s the women who are slightly ahead.)

Most people are small-c conservatives when it comes to language: they rarely hail new usages with delight, and often spend decades denouncing them as abominations. What bothers me about this isn’t the reaction itself, it’s the accompanying tendency to construct elaborate justifications for it. Instead of just saying ‘I find this way of speaking annoying’, pundits insist that it’s a symptom of some larger social disease. Vocal fry is a sign that young women are throwing away all the gains of the last 50 years. ‘I feel like’ threatens the foundations of democracy because it’s ‘a means of avoiding rigorous debate’.

This is overblown nonsense, and it also has the effect of making the most innovative language-users, young people and especially young women, into objects of relentless criticism–and not only of their speech, but sometimes also of their character. Criticism which they internalize, as is illustrated in some of the quotes I’ve reproduced. When young women are worried that the way they express themselves demeans them, when they’re berating themselves for being ‘indulgent verging on narcissistic’, it might be time for the people who write this stuff to consider keeping their opinions to themselves.

 

Woman-made language

From time to time in Language: A Feminist Guide, I think it’s good to reflect on the  herstory of feminist linguistic ideas and interventions. A while ago I wrote about the feminist dictionaries which proliferated during the 1970s and 1980s. And this week I want to write about another ambitious project of that era: the creation of a women’s language by the linguist and speculative fiction writer Suzette Haden Elgin, who died earlier this year.

Stories about women’s languages—languages used only by a community’s women, and not known by the men—have been told since Europeans first travelled to the Americas, but it has generally turned out that these accounts were misleading. What early observers were noticing wasn’t the existence of completely different male and female languages, but significant variation in the way men and women used the same language: sometimes this resulted from the operation of taboo, with women being forbidden to utter certain words or sounds, and therefore resorting to variant forms or circumlocutions that men had no reason to use. More recently, some popular discussions of the Chinese script called Nushu (‘women’s writing’) have referred to it as a ‘women’s language’, but in fact it isn’t a separate language, it’s a different way of writing Chinese, which women developed at a time when they had no access to education. It’s a tribute to women’s ingenuity, but also a product of their historically subordinate status. The same is true of the fictional women’s language Suzette Haden Elgin developed in the 1980s.

In 1984 Elgin published Native Tongue, the first novel in a trilogy exploring ideas about language, gender and feminism. Rather like The Handmaid’s Tale, which came out the following year, Native Tongue is set in a dystopian future where North American women have lost their civil rights and are subject to the authority of their male relatives. The women whose lives the book centres on are linguists, members of a privileged but hated caste: in a world where Earth’s prosperity depends on interplanetary trade, it is linguists who perform the crucial task of facilitating communication between humans and extra-terrestrials. Linguist women are unlike others in that they work outside their homes as interpreters. At home they are responsible for bearing and rearing the next generation, and when their reproductive lives are over they are sent to the ‘Barren House’ to knit, gossip and drink tea. Or at least, that’s what their menfolk think they are doing: in fact they are planning to overthrow the patriarchy using the language they are busy creating—a new language which, unlike all previous languages, expresses the perceptions of women rather than men.

The theoretical idea which Elgin explores in this narrative was popular among 1980s radical feminists (readers of my own generation may associate it particularly with Dale Spender’s Man Made Language, first published in 1980). It’s a version of what’s commonly referred to as the ‘Sapir-Whorf hypothesis’, after the two American linguists, Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf, who proposed it in the early 20th century. Their hypothesis was that your perception of reality was shaped (or in more extreme versions, determined) by the grammar of your native language. A person who grew up speaking a ‘standard average European’ language would experience even such basic phenomena as time and space differently from one who grew up speaking, say, an indigenous American language like Hopi. The feminist spin on this idea, as implied by Spender’s title, was that language had been created by men, and expressed a male world-view, which women also internalized in the process of learning to speak. To escape from this form of patriarchal indoctrination, and give authentic voice to female experience, women needed to (re)invent language for themselves.

In Native Tongue, Elgin takes this idea both seriously and literally, by having her female linguist characters invent a new language, called Láadan, from scratch. She could have chosen to evoke this imaginary women’s language by simply scattering a few indicative words and phrases through the text, but she decided to take it a stage further by creating a full sound-system, grammatical structure and a basic vocabulary for Láadan. As she explained in an interview in 2007, she conceived of this as a ten-year thought experiment:

My hypothesis was that if I constructed a language designed specifically to provide a more adequate mechanism for expressing women’s perceptions, women would (a) embrace it and begin using it, or (b) embrace the idea but not the language, say “Elgin, you’ve got it all wrong!” and construct some other “women’s language” to replace it. The ten years went by, and neither of those things happened; Láadan got very little attention, even though SF3 actually published its grammar and dictionary and I published a cassette tape to go with it. Not once did any feminist magazine (or women’s magazine) ask me about the language or write a story about it. … My hypothesis therefore was proved invalid, and the conclusion I draw from that is that in fact women (by which I mean women who are literate in English, French, German, and Spanish, the languages in which Native Tongue appeared) do not find human languages inadequate for communication.

What did Elgin think would constitute ‘a more adequate mechanism for expressing women’s perceptions’? In the first place, she thought a women’s language would encode women’s perceptions in its core vocabulary. Her Láadan lexicon includes an elaborate vocabulary for specifically female bodily experiences: for instance, there’s a set of structurally related verbs with meanings like ‘to menstruate joyfully’, ‘to menstruate painfully’, ‘to menstruate early’ and ‘to menstruate for the first time’. There are also words expressing concepts derived from (what Elgin took to be) common female social experiences, like radiidin, meaning ‘a non-holiday: a time allegedly a holiday but actually so much of a burden because of work and preparations that it is a dreaded occasion, especially when there are too many guests and none of them help’; and ramimelh, meaning ‘to refrain from asking with evil intent, especially when it is clear that someone badly wants the other to ask’. It’s not that these ideas are inexpressible in English and other actually existing languages, but they can’t be expressed so economically. One of Elgin’s feminist grievances was that women are accused of ‘going on and on’ when they try to explain what they feel. She designed Láadan to forestall that criticism by condensing complicated experiences into single words.

She also designed the grammar of the language to pre-empt certain kinds of arguments about meaning or intention, which in her view often became an excuse for male hostility towards women (‘hey, don’t get upset, I only said X, I wasn’t being critical/accusing you of anything/telling you what to do!’ or ‘can’t you take a joke?’) In Láadan every sentence begins with a speech act marker indicating that what follows is a statement, question, request or command (Elgin suggests that the last of these should be rare among adults talking to other adults), and the marker has an ending showing how the speech act is intended (e.g. neutrally, angrily, humorously, to teach the hearer something or to tell a story). Sentences end with an ‘evidential’ marker (these exist in some natural languages too) revealing what evidence the speaker has for whatever they have just said (e.g. they know it’s true because they observed it directly, or they believe it because they heard it from a trusted source, or they saw it in a dream—or alternatively they don’t have any evidence). For instance, ‘the woman was weary’ can be expressed in Láadan as

Bíi [speech act marker indicating that what follows is a statement] eril [past time marker] óoha [weary] with [woman] wáa [evidential marker signalling that the information came to the speaker from a trusted source]

In her book about the history of constructed languages, Arika Okrent suggests that these grammatical features have little to do, specifically, with the perceptions of women, and that Elgin, being a linguist, probably included them just because she thought they were neat. That may be the best explanation of why she chose to make Láadan a tone language (not something you’d do if your top priority was getting standard average European speakers to learn it); but I think her grammatical choices probably did have a more political motivation. Apart from her speculative fiction, Elgin was also the author of a linguistic self-help book called The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense, which was animated by concern about the use of words to hurt, mislead or manipulate others. The grammar of Láadan may have been intended to make those things harder to do. That isn’t exclusively a feminist concern, but it’s in tune with the feminist values that are emphasized throughout her writing—in one critic’s summary, ‘community, communication and faith in the sisterhood of women’.

Elgin’s faith in sisterhood wasn’t always justified by the reception of Láadan. Some lesbian feminists accused her of prejudice on the grounds that the language contained no lesbian terminology. She apologized, and offered to rectify the omission by adding new lesbian vocabulary (she invited her critics to suggest words). But this encounter with the sometimes brutal realities of feminist politics caused her considerable distress. She also found it discouraging that while Láadan languished in obscurity, Klingon—a language constructed to express the worldview of hyper-masculine warriors—thrived. By the time she wrote the third novel in her trilogy, Earthsong, Elgin had concluded that the creation of a women’s language was not the solution to the problem of, as she put it, ‘humankind’s violence on this earth’. In this book Láadan has failed, just as Elgin thought it had failed in the real world, and the linguist women have turned to other forms of resistance. (I’ll say no more than that, since some of you may want to read the trilogy for yourselves–if you do, details are at the end of this post).

Back in the 1980s I loved reading the novels (as both a linguist and a feminist, how could I not), but I was never moved to learn the language: I was always sceptical about the idea of a language ‘expressing women’s perceptions’. Which perceptions would those be, and which women would they belong to? There is no set of perceptions which all women share. Women speak with many voices, in many languages, reflecting our different histories, cultures and political commitments. That doesn’t mean we can’t communicate, or find common ground. It just means we can’t take understanding, let alone sisterhood, for granted. These aren’t natural by-products of being female, but things we have to make an effort to create–accepting that we won’t always succeed.

I also believe that Dale Spender was wrong: just as there is no such thing as a universal language of women, so there is no ‘man made language’. In many times and places men have controlled the means through which speech and writing were publicly disseminated, but that doesn’t mean language itself was their creation. If language really belonged to men, and if it really forced women to perceive the world through a male patriarchal lens, how could Dale Spender have told us so in Man Made Language? How could Suzette Haden Elgin have created Láadan?

Though Elgin was disappointed by the lack of feminist enthusiasm for her creation, she still maintained that the experiment had been worthwhile. Perhaps she hadn’t entirely given up on it: she once said that patriarchal revolutions always failed because their leaders tried to take the quickest route from A to B, whereas a feminist revolution would succeed by being content to meander slowly towards its goal. Apparently she wanted to call the last volume of her trilogy The Meandering Water Tribe (a proposal her publisher vetoed). She compared the power of feminism to the force of water: ‘it wears away resistance gently but inexorably over time, and is almost impossible to withstand’.

The books in the Native Tongue Trilogy—Native Tongue (1984), The Judas Rose (1987) and Earthsong (1994) —were reissued in 2000-2002 and are still available.

The fembots of Ashley Madison

Content note: this post includes some explicit sexual material which readers may find offensive and/or distressing.

‘Life is short. Have an affair’.

That was the sales pitch for Ashley Madison, the website for people seeking ‘discreet’ extra-marital sex that recently came to grief after hackers dumped a load of its users’ personal data on the web. It turned out that the website was basically running a scam. Straight men, the majority of site-users, were paying to hook up with women who did not, for the most part, exist. Real women did use the site, but they were massively outnumbered by fake ones.  Profiles were cobbled together by employees, and then animated by an army of bots which bombarded male subscribers with messages.

The bots’ opening gambits were merely banal: ‘hi’, ‘hi there’, ‘hey’, ‘hey there’, ‘u busy?’, ‘you there?’, ‘hows it going?’, ‘chat?’, ‘how r u?’, ‘anybody home? lol’, ‘hello’, ‘so what brings you here?’, ‘oh hello’, ‘free to chat??’. But if a man responded (using his credit card as instructed), they started to sound distinctly bottish. ‘Hmmmm’, they would confide, ‘when I was younger I used to sleep with my friend’s boyfriends. I guess old habits die hard although I could never sleep with their husbands’. Or: ‘I’m sexy, discreet, and always up for kinky chat. Would also meet up in person if we get to know each other and think there might be a good connection. Does this sound intriguing?’ No, actually—it sounds like you’re a bot.

Some men did suspect fraud. In 2012, one site-user complained to the California state authorities, though nothing came of it at the time. What tipped him off wasn’t, however, the bots’ clunkily-scripted lines. It was being contacted in a short space of time by multiple women who supposedly lived in his area, who hadn’t looked at his profile, and who sent him identical messages. All things that might have passed unnoticed if the bots hadn’t been operating on such an industrial scale.

The Ashley Madison bots were pretty basic. But the sex industry is a serious player in the world of AI bots—more sophisticated programs that can learn from their interactions with humans, and produce novel, unscripted messages. David Levy, who has twice won the Loebner Prize (a competition based on the Turing test for machine intelligence, in which a computer has to convince human judges it is also human) is the author of a book called Love and Sex with Robots, and president of Erotic Chatbots Ltd, a company whose name is self-explanatory. Recently it has gone into business with an enterprise that makes high-end sex dolls. At the moment, sex dolls are designed to satisfy their owners’ physical and aesthetic requirements: few of them talk, and none of them could be said to converse. Chatbots, on the other hand, talk, but they’re not usually physically embodied. Bringing the two things together in one package—a doll that looks and feels realistic and can also make human-like conversation—seemed like an obvious (though technologically ambitious) business proposition.

When I first read about this I was sceptical, for reasons that are succinctly summarized in this comment left by a man:

Don’t you realize, the whole reason to get a doll is so we DON’T have to listen to them talk after sex?

But while this may be the prevailing attitude among the minority of men who regularly fuck inanimate objects, there are reasons to think it is not how most men feel. In surveys of men who buy sexual services, a high proportion typically claim to want some kind of human relationship. Silent, sullen prostitutes who make no effort to get to know the client, talk to him or pretend the encounter is enjoyable for them are apt to prompt complaints from punters, even if those punters also describe them as physically attractive and compliant.

You might think this issue would also deter men from having sex with robots: you can’t have a human relationship with a non-human entity. However, many experts believe otherwise. Studies of people who work with robots in other contexts have found a strong tendency to anthropomorphize them, projecting personality traits and feelings onto them which, outside fiction, they do not have. The military sometimes uses robots to do dangerous tasks like disarming bombs, and sometimes the robots get blown up. Human soldiers reporting these incidents say things like ‘poor little guy’. One group whose robot got blown up held a funeral for it.

So, there could be a market for talking sex robots. But what kind of conversation will they make?

The less ambitious developers are just hoping to improve on the current generation of ‘unintelligent’ sex chatbots, programmed to spew out the sort of random messages Ashley Madison’s subscribers got. You could do this by giving them a sexed-up version of the capabilities displayed by Virtual Assistants like Siri and Cortana. They wouldn’t pass a Turing test, but they’d be able to, as one developer puts it, ‘follow simple instructions’.

Erotic Chatbots Ltd. has more ambitious plans. At the moment it’s developing a bot that can ‘talk dirty’. Levy explained in an interview how you train a bot to do that:

You give them lots and lots of examples and they generalize from those examples and they can make the whole of their conversation sound like somebody who talks dirty in a loving way. We teach [the bot] and it generalizes, but it will talk about any subject. You can talk to it about Italian food and it will interject about lasagna. “I could have a great time with lasagna!”

His business partner Paul Andrew chipped in:

We’ll be using erotic writers to help us program the language, so we’re actually going to work with people who do this for a living, as it were. That way we can give the chatbot a good understanding of the vocabulary and the… talk. I’m trying to think of a good word to use there. Basically, we will give them a really good grounding, and then the chatbot learns. Once they have a vocabulary, once they have a basic brain, they grow themselves. They’re quite competent. We also work with some people who do [sex] chat lines; we’re going to pick their brains, too.

In other words: ‘we’re going to teach our bot to emulate the linguistic characteristics of porn’. In the circumstances that’s not a big surprise. But there is, perhaps, a certain irony in it. Levy and Andrew want to use cutting-edge science and technology to make machines capable of producing one of the most predictable and stereotypical linguistic registers in existence—so clichéd that its human users often sound like bots themselves.

Paul Andrew mentions ‘picking the brains’ of people who work on sex-chat phone lines. Back in the mid-1990s, the linguistic anthropologist Kira Hall did some research on the language used by phone sex workers (their own term was ‘fantasy makers’) around San Francisco. She found their performances traded heavily on stereotypes about women’s language. Like speaking in a lilting, breathy voice, ‘using lots of adjectives’ when describing yourself, and dropping in plenty of elaborate rather than basic colour-terms (your imaginary underwear wouldn’t be ‘pink’ or ‘black’, it would be ‘peach’ or ‘charcoal’). The workers knew these were stereotypes: the language they produced on the phone was nothing like the way they talked when they weren’t taking calls. But stereotypes, in their experience, were exactly what their customers wanted.

Since different customers were into different stereotypes, a skilled fantasy maker needed to be able to produce a range of female personae on the phone—schoolgirl, southern belle, dominatrix, bimbo, Asian woman, Black woman, etc. They prided themselves on being able to ‘do’ personae which were remote from their own real-life identities. One of the individuals Hall spoke to wasn’t even a woman, he was a man who could pass for a woman on the phone. On the question of race, the view was widely held that white women made the best Black women, and vice-versa. As one worker explained to Hall, the Black woman of the (mainly white) callers’ dreams was a two dimensional racist stereotype which white women were actually better at producing (not to mention less uncomfortable with).

Women (and men) who work the fantasy lines are like human fembots, performing a version of femininity that callers will pay to spend time with. Not only does this performance not have to be authentic to be convincing, in the context of commercial sex an authentic (i.e., non-stereotypical) performance of femininity would risk destroying the illusion which is the real object of desire.

But you might wonder, what is sex-talk like when the parties are not in a commercial relationship? Is the language less clichéd? Are the personae constructed less stereotypical? The short answer is, not necessarily. The researcher Chrystie Myketiak has analysed cybersex encounters between peers in a virtual environment which those who study it refer to as ‘Walford’. (It’s an online community which did a deal with a university: the university would host and maintain it in exchange for being able to observe and analyse what went on in it. Its members all consented, and their consent is sought again every time they log on). Here’s a typical extract from Myketiak’s data, in which the two parties have taken the roles of a male and a female (most likely this reflects their offline identities, but we don’t know for sure). In the transcript ‘F’ and ‘M’ identify the female and the male participant.

(M) [his] hot seed fills every crevice of your womanhood…
(M) Keeps fucking you hard, jolting your entire body with each thrust.
(F) Grinds you by twisting and turning, faster and faster… she really wants it rough.
(M) Gives it to you so hard your ancestors feel it.
(F) Is pleasured senseless, she has tears coming to her eyes.
(M) Reaches around and rubs your hardened clit, violently.
(F) Whispers “Know any other wild positions? Hehe…”
(M) Whatever comes to mind is good for me.
(F) Same here… surprise me…

Linguistically, what stands out about this extract is the way the participants mix third-person narrative, second-person address and occasional use of the first person. You don’t get that in other kinds of porn. But the narrative itself is full of porn clichés, and the whole thing is organized around the heteropatriarchal proposition that in sexual encounters, men lead and women follow. Men are dominant, women submissive: whatever men desire is also pleasurable for woman. If he’s violent, that’s OK, because ‘she really wants it rough’.

In a paper she gave at a 2012 conference on robots (there’s a written draft version available here), the lawyer Sinziana Gutiu argued that if AI sexbots are successfully developed they will further entrench these ideologies of gender and sexuality. She thinks this will be a serious problem, because the combination of verbal and physical interaction which intelligent sex robots permit will have an even more powerful effect than porn does now on men’s real-world interactions with human women.

Gutiu points out that the advanced capabilities designers hope to give future robots will make them seem human, and that perception will be reinforced by the anthropomorphizing tendency mentioned earlier. However, some key human qualities will be deliberately left out of their design—like the ability to verbalize pain or emotional distress. Above all, there will never be any question about whether a robot consents to sex. It is there for its user to have sex with as and when he wishes. She goes on:

By circumventing any need for consent, sex robots eliminate the need for communication, mutual respect and compromise in the sexual relationship…allowing men to physically act out rape fantasies and confirm rape myths.

And she believes men’s experience with these nearly-but-not-quite human entities will lead at least some of them to assume that real women can legitimately be treated in the same ways.

Her paper also hints, however, that intelligent sex robots could in principle be designed to do the opposite of what she fears. If they were trained to engage their human user in talk which emphasizes negotiating consent, communicating your desires and feelings, respecting others’ boundaries and being willing to compromise, they could be used to teach a different way of interacting from the one which is modelled in porn. I’m no AI expert, but that sounds to me a lot more difficult than making a bot that ‘talks dirty’. And also, of course, a much less attractive proposition for investors whose aim is to make a profit.

It’s not only the money angle which makes me think that Gutiu’s educational sexbot is less likely to materialize than the pornified fembot of her nightmares. Therapists tell us that the most important reason why intimate relationships fail is a lack of open and honest communication, particularly about sex. But intimacy with another person doesn’t seem to be what a lot of men are looking for. If what they wanted was an intimate encounter with a female human being—a unique, complex individual with her own thoughts, feelings and desires—how could so many men have fallen for the fembots of Ashley Madison?