Slutspeech? : A Feminist Consideration of Dialect, Discourse, and Discrimination


Speech, Status, and Stereotypes:

The Avoidance of Stereotyping in Discourse as Facilitated by the Use of Prestige Speech

 By Michele Habel-Coffey

            Janet Holmes asserts that we indicate aspects of our social identity through the way we talk.  She states, “Our speech provides clues to others about who we are, where we come from, and perhaps what kind of social experiences we’ve had” (Holmes 2).  But what exactly are these clues and who gets to decide what they mean in an absolute sense?  Where do facts end and where does a biased speculation begin?  We may reasonably conclude a person is from, perhaps, the southern United States based on the recognition of a familiar accent but can we also conclude that they are likewise stereotypically uneducated?  Certainly, the former would be a relative certainty and the latter a prejudice based on pure conjecture. And similarly, when concerned with the female gender, is there a connection between linguistic choices and resulting conjectures about her sexual behavior that are based on such unfair prejudices?  In that vein, do females make choices to shift to a prestigious dialect to gain power, as has been often asserted or is it also to avoid such prejudices?

At the University of Michigan this semester, we discussed a number of overt reasons for the use of a prestigious dialect by both men and women.  Dr. Jamie Lee, a professor of sociolinguistics, shared a personal anecdote about an overt choice to use English in a Japanese business meeting. The decision was influenced by the prestige of the English language and the resulting superior position it secured for Dr. Lee, but also by the more covert desire to avoid being stereotyped as an inferior – a possibility given her Japanese may have revealed her non-native status and further, her Korean ethnicity which still triggers stereotypes of inferiority amongst the formerly colonist Japanese culture.

We also studied a number of authors who similarly established the prestige associated with standard dialects, like Standard American and British English, specifically amongst the middle-class population.  The most notable of these was William Labov’s study of the post-vocalic /r/ wherein it was discovered that not only did the use of prestige speech increase exponentially within social classes, but was most consistently used amongst the middle-class, with a notable difference between the middle-class and lower-class groups (Spolsky 39-40).  Janet Holmes, in her book An Introduction to Sociolinguistics, indicated that sociolinguists describes this pattern as “sharp stratification” meaning that “people are often more aware of social stigma in relation to vernacular grammatical forms, and this is reflected in the lower incidence of usage in vernacular forms among middle-class speakers in particular” (Holmes 151).

A number of the reasons put forth indicate that this behavior in women is necessitated by the fact that “women have less power and social status than men, and that women seem more conscious of their social status than men” (Gordon 47).  Researcher Susan Gal found, in 1978, that in a German-Hungarian community in Austria, an increasing use of German (the prestige language) was significantly connected to modern progress and economic advancement. Women dominated this transition and were aware of the possibilities for financial gain that could be facilitated by the use of a prestigious language choice, hence the overall shift to German (Gordon 47).

Rounding this out, is Trudgill’s initial work in 1972 and 1974, that gestures to women’s “greater consciousness of social status” to substantiate the findings of his sociolinguistic study of Norwich speakers, and suggests that “women are highly sensitive to linguistic norms because of their insecure social position” (Gordon 47).  The process behind this being that traditional forms of female labor, i.e. housework and child-rearing, do not convey a position status and prestige and women therefore seek to neutralize this assumed inferiority by speaking in a language form that is considered socially superior.  Conversely, men can articulate themselves in the vernacular without associated stereotyping because “they possess the covert prestige associated with masculinity” (Gorden 48).  In recent years, there have been other attempts to explicate these linguistic choices and yet Trudgill’s findings remain a vital part of the overall academic discussion of this phenomenon, as they were in our course this semester.

This brings me to the work of Elizabeth Gordon, a linguist from the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand.  Her article, entitled “Sex, Speech, and Stereotypes: Why Women Use Prestige Speech Forms More Than Men”, explores the notion that a women’s choice to use prestige speech forms and to style shift more than men, is not because they are self-promoting or seeking to be classed in a higher social position, but is in fact more a covert matter involving the avoidance of being stereotyped as a member of a lower social class.  More specifically, females do so to avoid being labeled promiscuous.  Evidence produced in a survey of New Zealand middle class speakers demonstrated that the stereotyping of the female using a lower prestige dialect was not restricted to mere social or class position, but included the assumption of potential sexual immorality.  Society continues to maintain a double-standard with regard to men’s and women’s sexual behavior and this necessitates a female’s need to use a prestige form of speech as a way of avoiding association with this lower-class stereotype (Gordon 50).

History demonstrates prolifically that moral judgments are imposed upon people solely because of the dialect.  A New Zealand study includes a plethora of comments regarding speech associated with lower-classes noting it is “lazy speech” including “degenerate vowel sounds” and “disgraceful dipthongs” (Gordon 48).   Studies by Gordon et al. in 1983, 1989, and 1990 reflect that lower class children were described as “being badly influenced by the “home and the street”; they were characterized as “lazy, rude, vicious, and unwilling to open their lips or move their tongues properly when they spoke” (Gordon 48).

Interestingly enough, Gordon cites the work of George Bernard Shaw, Pygmalion, which we studied as “My Fair Lady”.  Shaw, in his work, noted that sexual immorality was “the factor that distinguished the respectable from the non-respectable working class” (Gordon 49) which is described as the “deserving and undeserving poor” (Gordon 49).   This is a theme that is recurrent throughout literature as well, wherein sexuality and moral normalcy are reflected by members of middle class families.

Here and now, in modern society, Gordon sought to provide evidence that such moral judgments are still being made about lower class people simply on the basis of their speech, in particular with regard to a woman’s sexual proclivity.   She found herself inclined to do so after some discussions she was having with 17-18 year old students revealed a tendency toward this stereotyping. In particular, she noted the boy’s labeling of a working-class middle aged woman, introduced in a speech clip, a as “slut” and “slag”, simply on the basis of her speech style.  They also stereotyped a woman using a higher-prestige speech style and “snobbish and proud” but made no reference to her sexual inclinations.  To Gordon, this provided credibility to the notion that the stereotype equating promiscuity and lower-social class was alive and well in modern society.  She drew further distinction by noting the particular differences in the language of sexual labeling itself: a female is “the town bike” or “an easy lay” whereby a male is merely “sowing his wild oats” (Gordon 50).

Her hypothesis was that “a woman is especially likely to style shift to more prestigious language in situations where she might be judged by people who do not know her” (Gordon 50).  She even cites Lakoff, who stated in her research that girls are brought up to talk and behave like “little ladies”; thus they are encouraged to be “passive, polite, and refrain from swearing” (Gordon 50). Gordon then postulates that, “style shifting to a more prestigious speech variety therefore conveys that the female speaker is not lower-class, and is consequently a respectable person, because behind the accepted modes of behavior for middle class women there still exists the unspoken implication that these are also indications of morality” (Gordon 50).

To support her hypothesis, she developed a method whereby recordings were made of three speakers, using varying and authentic forms of local dialects associated with social hierarchy.   Participants were asked to pair the speaker they heard with photographs of a woman dressed in three different reflections of local fashion.   The results reflected that the clothes and dialect most likely to be associated with lower-class women elicited a distinct negative stereotype.  The speaker/model called “Linda” was seen by almost all of the 107 participants as having the lowest intelligence, the lowest family income, and being the most likely to smoke and be promiscuous – a conclusion reached solely through the observation of a photo and a corresponding speech clip.  Even her friendliness and humor were in doubt for some of the participants, and more so in the eyes of private school girls.  The results suggest that today, as historically, lower-class female speakers are still seen as more likely to be sexually promiscuous than females in higher social classes.

Gordon’s study assigns a clear relationship between certain types of vernacular speech patterns and a resulting prejudice about the speaker.  She demonstrates specifically that in order to avoid the stereotype of promiscuity by default, some female speakers will make the shift to a prestigious speech form.  To Gordon, language is a vessel that can work to undermine a prejudice or to perpetuate it and the psychology of this prejudice is directly related to language.  Another recent study that confirms such a relationship between language and prejudice is “Language and Prejudice: Direct and Moderated Effects” by Katherine Collins and Richard Clement (May 2012).  Their study indicates that “language is a sign… that makes group membership salient, which, as an indirect consequence, may make the speaker a target of prejudice” (Collins & Clement 383). More significantly, that “the majority of studies show that when language signals group membership, either by accent or by specific in-group-specific phrasing, there is a shift in how the speaker is perceived” (383).  Clearly then, that shift in perception can be negative or positive relative to the bias of the recipient toward the particular dialect of the speaker in question.  As demonstrated in Gordon’s study, when that dialect is associated with females in a lower social class, the resulting bias is inclined toward the presumption of sexual immorality regardless of a lack of evidence to support it.

So while it is clear that prejudice can be both bred and born based on the language of the speaker and the bias of the listener, what is not clear is then what can be done to counter such prejudices. Certainly, as members of a growing global community, it is desirable to attain a level of communication that avoids the attribution of negative identity traits in the absence of facts to support the existence of such traits.  Collins and Clement offer that “while language is generally used to support prevailing social norms that it may also be a tool to change social norms and stereotypes” (Collins and Clement 389).  What remains unanswered is how exactly to construct that change amongst a growing and diverse global population.  I would assert that education is the key. The beginning to that change is the understanding of how we generate and perpetuate prejudices via our language choices and our perceptions of the choices of others.  The journey would then be, through that awareness, to recognize our unsubstantiated prejudices and to alter them accordingly.  It is only then that we can take steps to make certain that we see one another by the color of our character and not the color in our words, and even in our skins.  Until such a time exists, it is likely that people in general, and women in specific, will have to continue the shift to prestigious speech forms to avoid such prejudices.  In addition, to ensure it is the content of their speech and not the speech form itself – subject to unfair biases – that is being considered.

Works Cited

Clement, Richard and Collins, Katherine A. “Language and Prejudice: Direct and

Moderated Effects”.  Special Issue of Journal of Language and Social  Psychology 31.4 (2012): 376-396. Web.

Gordon, Elizabeth. “Sex, Speech, and Stereotypes: Why Women Use Prestige Speech

Forms More than Men”. Language in Society 26.1 (1997): 47-63.

Holmes, Janet. An Introduction to Sociolinguistics. Essex: Pearson Education Limited, 2013. Print.

Spolsky, Bernard. Sociolinguistics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. Print.

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