Elizabeth Entenman
May 29, 2019 7:08 am
HarperCollins, Getty Images

Women are constantly judged for the way they talk. Things like uptalk, speaking with vocal fry, and using the word “like” are interpreted as signs of insecurity and weakness. But in reality, they’re useful tools that women—and men—use to have more meaningful conversations. That’s just one of the many insights author Amanda Montell shares in her new book, Wordslut: A Feminist Guide to Taking Back the English Language.

Montell, who studied linguistics at NYU, found that people were always fascinated by her background in language and gender. They enjoyed her tidbits about hidden sexism in curse words and insights about the importance of gender-inclusive language. So she decided to write a book about it, and the result is a fascinating, enlightening, and entertaining look at how gendered language hurts women and other marginalized genders (while supporting men).

We spoke with Montell over the phone about why gender-neutral pronouns are great, how to take back language if you’re feeling silenced by it, and, as she puts it, how “language is the next frontier of modern gender equality.”

HelloGiggles: Wordslut examines the intersection of language and gender. If the concept of language and gender being linked is completely foreign to someone, how would you explain it?

Amanda Montell: It’s totally foreign. It was foreign to me, too. It had never occurred to me before I took this class on sex, gender, and language that they were connected. It varies in languages all over the world, but essentially, we as speakers take language completely for granted. These sounds that come out of our mouths, and these sentence structures that come naturally to us—this is what you come to study as a linguistics major—there is this incredibly complex structural thing happening underneath them that we implicitly learn from birth. When it comes to sociolinguistics, we’re talking not so much about sentence structures and phonetics and phonology, we’re talking about the way that language communicates and reflects culture and culturally-invented phenomena like gender, class, geographical region, etc. Gender pervades the English language in ways we don’t even realize.

HG: You start the book off with a bang with a list of gendered insults. Why was calling attention to them important to you?

AM: The reason why I open the book with the chapter about gendered insults is because the idea that when we go to insult someone’s behavior, that gender is at the forefront of the way that we criticize them, is totally nuts. If someone is being conniving or overly aggressive toward you, and that person is a woman, your instinct is to call them a bitch as opposed to any other insult that isn’t gendered. There are a few non-gendered insults to choose from, it’s just that we infuse everything with gender. And that applies to the ways we insult people, the ways we talk about our children when they’re born, and even the praise we give children when they’re little; girls are more likely to be praised as “pretty princess” and boys are more likely to be praised as “clever,” “smart,” and “strong.” From a very early age, we’re all conditioned to use these subtly and overtly gendered words to refer to one another, and that informs how we see gender in real life.

HG: It shocks me how many people still say “hey guys” as opposed to “hey everyone” or “hey folks.”

AM: The “guys” thing is something that’s brought up to me, like, twice a day. Because, I think, people REALLY love that phrase. And I totally get why. First of all, it fits this tricky lexical gap that we have in English where we lack a second-person plural pronoun. But also, there’s something really cozy about “you guys.” It feels very familiar, and people love using it. “You guys” is a fairly new phrase; sociolinguists first noticed it cropping up in the ‘80s. When our parents were kids, nobody said “you guys.” And they were actually really shocked when this happened, because it was post-second-wave feminist movement where there were a lot of pushes for gender-inclusive language, like saying “chairperson” instead of “chairman” and “chairwoman,” and using “server” instead of “waiter” and “waitress.” And now, all of the sudden during that tide of change, this brand-new gendered term cropped up.

I’ve heard a lot of people say to me, in defense of their use of “you guys” because they like it so much, that to them, it’s gender-neutral. I can totally see why they would think that. But when you step back, you notice that there’s no way that “you gals,” by parallel, would earn the same sort of lexical love. “You guys” feels more casual and natural to us. Well, why is that? It must be because we associate masculinity with casualness. It just reflects the same default male thinking that pervades so much of how we think and how we talk. It says something about how we perceive the genders. Women are princesses and high-maintenance, and dudes are chill. “You guys” really rolls right off the tongue, but I’ve found that I personally haven’t used it in years. And that’s not because I’m self-policing or because I’m sad that it’s politically incorrect; it’s because once you open your eyes to these sorts of parallels, you’re like, “Wait. No. This TOTALLY reflects the default male thinking,” and you don’t even want to use it anymore. But until you have that education, and until you understand where “you guys” comes from and what’s uncool about it, then you’re just going to say it. That’s what I’m saying—we just kind of unconsciously consent to a lot of gendered language that’s ultimately perpetuating ideas that we probably don’t agree with.

HG: In Wordslut, you point out that the things perceived as “wrong” with female voices—uptalk, vocal fry, using the word “like”—are actually tools we use to have more meaningful conversations.

AM: Stuff like vocal fry and uptalk and “like”—a lot of these qualities were pioneered by women. There are some theories as to why women are linguistic innovators, the most compelling of which is that language can be a really useful tool for women to gain social and socioeconomic agency when there aren’t a lot of other tools given to them to do so. Women often are linguistic innovators, but because of our existing biases about women—that they’re dumber, that they’re ruining the English language, that they’re ditzy—those are the first things that people associate with these speech qualities. There’s a social utility to these qualities, and they’re not inherently bad; we just project our existing ideas of women and how they talk onto them.

People think that women say “like” too much, and that it makes them sound like Valley girls. But sociolinguists have done these empirical studies into what “like” is and found that there are actually six different forms of it, and they all serve a specific social utility. They’re just homonyms, but we’re not looking closely enough, so we don’t notice that.

With the vocal fry—we’re projecting existing ideas that we already have onto it. There were studies decades ago in England where it was found that men were more likely to use vocal fry, and it was associated with hyper-masculine, authoritative speech. But because women started using it in American English, we were like, “Oh, that must be cringe-y. That must be ditzy.” And everybody just notices it in Kim Kardashian, even though lots more people are using it and it’s catching on quickly.

With something like uptalk and “like” and hedges and asking questions, a lot of what these things do are to make communication more effective. So often, question-asking and hedges are used to check the face needs of participants in the conversation and build solidarity and community so that people can communicate better. The difference is that because of our gendered socialization and because women are given more space to talk about more vulnerable topics with one another, and while men are expected to talk about sports, current events, politics, and not talk about people or their feelings as much, those conversations don’t require as much hedging and vocal fry and uptalk, because they’re not delving into these sensitive topics. Women are having deeper conversations. And when you’re having deep conversations, you need hedges. You need these questions and softening features, because you’re not just talking about the fucking weather. [Laughs.]

HG: One of the most frustrating chapters is about how hard it is to be a woman in the public eye or a position of power because of the expectations society places on women. Can you explain the concept of the linguistic double bind?

AM: The linguistic double bind talks about how our expectations of women, and our expectations of people in positions of power, are really disparate and conflict. When we’re talking about how someone sounds, we expect women to be polite and nice and dainty, so we expect them to sound that way with their delivery, word choice, and tone. When we’re perceiving someone in a position of authority, we want them to sound direct, not as polite, and not as wishy-washy. But those two standards are in conflict. Our expectations for how a man should sound and our expectations for how a person of authority should sound just align better. Because of that, women who attempt to speak in public from a position of authority wind up being criticized for one of two things: either they sound too nice and too polite, but at least they’re reflecting our standards of femininity adequately; or, they sound direct and authoritative, but they’re perceived as a bitch. The two women that I use to illustrate those two sides of the bind are Scarlett Johansson, who has a sexy, raspy, sweet voice, and Hillary Clinton, who has this “shrieking,” “dogmatic,” “hysterical” voice—those are not my words; those are the words the press uses to describe her.

It definitely is generational, so it is getting better. The more women bosses that we have, and the more natural it becomes to have women in positions of authority, our standards about how they sound will drop away. Social change and linguistic change happen side by side. You can’t just tell someone, “Don’t hate vocal fry because it’s coming from a woman.” They will stop hating vocal fry the second that they stop hating women. I think as long as it becomes more natural for women to lead, people will feel less threatened by it and criticize how they talk less.

HG: Why do you think people are so rigid about the rules and obsessed with NOT changing the English language?

AM: There are so many reasons why. First of all, rules make people feel really safe. Grammar is such a steadfast thing to people that when you start changing it on them, they get really freaked out, because those rules make them feel safe. The people who love these grammatical rules are also the people who benefit from them, or the people who benefit from the way our society is set up, which is to make everything more accessible to men and to empower men. When we toy with grammar and when language changes—and this isn’t just true of the current time that we live in, this is always true—the older generations get really squirmy and nervous, because it represents younger thinking and more progressive thinkers rising up and taking over. That makes them feel threatened and shakes what makes them feel safe. People love rules; people love binaries. And when you question them and force them to see that things are more complex than that and that things should probably change, they get really nervous.

The other thing, and this is especially true for American culture, is that in our society, grammar is connected to the American Dream. Grammar is connected to socioeconomic class. If you have good grammar, it means that you’re well-educated. It means that you’re well-read and that you went to school and that you know how to follow the rules. And if you aspire to be a CEO, which you should because you’re an American, then you need to sound like one. And if you don’t sound like a CEO, then you’re giving up on your American Dream and on morality itself. We connect morality with grammar in this culture. It’s part of the reason why progressives on the political left, when someone says something bigoted and they make a grammatical error in that bigoted statement, critiquing that bigot’s grammar is the first thing that they’ll weaponize. But grammar and morality are not actually connected. Having good grammar does not make you a good person. But we think it does, because it’s so connected to class in this culture, and because we have these American standards.

The progressive values of welcoming more identities into the picture is a lot to get on board with if it’s not something you grew up with. When it pervades the very language that you feel “allowed” to speak, it feels threatening for people. But that’s always been true, because language has always changed, and young people have always been at the cusp. We’re in an interesting time right now, because there is so much conversation happening surrounding the gender and sexuality spectrums, and language is at the center of it. But this aversion to wanting to change your grammar—it’s been around for a long, long time.

HG: If someone feels silenced by or left out because of the English language, how can they take it back? What can they do?

AM: For me, I love talking about language so much. I love that there are linguists who are doing these empirical studies on something as simple as the word “like.” In my experience, I’ve found that people are enchanted to talk about these empirical studies having to do with language. If you feel like someone is criticizing you for your hedges or your uptalk or for cursing or for some dialect feature that you have, if you’re armed with some fun fact from a study that a linguist did showing why that speech quality is there, then you can share that with that person, and odds are they’re going to be tickled by it. You’re using this fun, nerdy science to communicate a political idea or a gender equality idea. I’m so obsessed with that—using this nerdy research that these brilliant linguists have done to make a more gender-equal world. That’s what I love; that’s what I’m trying to do here.

Wordslut: A Feminist Guide to Taking Back the English Language is available wherever books are sold.