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Born in 1942, Robin Lakoff studied at Radcliffe College and Harvard University, where she earned undergraduate and graduate degrees. Currently, she is a professor of linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley. An early contributor to MS magazine which was founded in 1972 to give expression to the feminist movement in the United States, Professor Lakoff has long shown interest in the role of language i 10510i812k n women's lives. The following essay was first published in Ms in 1974.
You Are What You Say
“Women’s language” is that pleasant (dainty?), euphemistic never-aggressive way of talking we learned as little girls. Cultural bias was built into the language we were allowed to speak, the subjects we were allowed to speak about, and the ways we were spoken of. Having learned our linguistic lesson well, we go out in the world, only to discover that we are communicative cripples -- damned if we do, and damned if we do not.
If we refuse to talk “like a lady”, we are ridiculed and criticised for being unfeminine. (“She thinks like a man” is, at best, a left-handed compliment.) If we do learn all the fuzzy-headed, unassertive language of our sex, we are ridiculed for being unable to think clearly, unable to take part in a serious discussion, and therefore unfit to hold a position of power.
It doesn't take much of this for a woman to begin feeling she deserves such treatment because of inadequacies in her own intelligence and education. “Women’s language” shows up in all levels of English. For example, women are encouraged and allowed to make far more precise discriminations in naming colours than men do. Words like mauve, beige, ecru, aquamarine, lavender, and so on, are unremarkable in a woman's active vocabulary, but largely absent from that of most men. I know of no evidence suggesting that women actually see a wider range of colours than men do. It is simply that fine discriminations of this sort are relevant to women's vocabularies, but not to men's; to men, who control most of the interesting affairs of the world, such distinctions are trivial – irrelevant.
In the area of syntax, we find similar gender-related peculiarities of speech. There is one construction, in particular, that women use conversationally far more than men: the tag question. A tag is midway between an outright statement and a yes-no question; it is less assertive than the former, but more confident than the latter.
That statement indicates confidence in the speaker's knowledge and is fairly certain to be believed; a question indicates a lack of knowledge on some point and implies that the gap in the speaker's knowledge can and will be remedied by an answer. For example, if, at a Little League game, I have had my glasses off, I can legitimately ask someone else: "Was the player out at third?" A tag question, being intermediate between statement and question, is used when the speaker is stating a claim, but lacks full confidence in the truth of that claim. So if I say, “Is Joan here?” I will probably not be surprised if my respondent answers "no"; but if I say, “Joan is here, is not she?” instead, chances are I am already biased in favor of a positive answer, wanting only confirmation. I still want a response, but I have enough knowledge (or think I have) to predict that response. A tag question, then, might be thought of as a statement that doesn't demand to be believed by anyone but the speaker, way of giving leeway, of not forcing the addressee to go along with the views of the speaker.
Another common use of the tag question is in small talk when the...