Originally published: 26.07.15
Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to speak, as T. S. Eliot puts it, ‘in different voices’. We use language as an index of belonging. At the moment, there’s an idiolect, which I’d like to imagine would immediately tell me whether or not I’m in the presence of the sisterhood. ‘Silencing’ is the new favourite Participle Of Oppression for all parties. Fourth wavers talk about language as a form of literal violence. Radfems say unsisterly things about fourth wavers and bite our tongues. We all thank the goddess for Rebecca Solnit coining the term ‘mansplaining’, and Deborah Cameron writes brilliant critiques of all the idiotic pseudo-scientific arguments that all misogyny would disappear if only women would learn to Talk Proper and adopt the diction equivalent of a fine natural baritone.
This feels recent, but actually, language policing isn’t new. Medieval advice literature is full of it – they have a special verb, ‘rabelen’, which means ‘garbling, usually of prayers’. Clerics constantly warn their charges against speaking too fast, dropping syllables out of words, ‘over-skyping’ (not what you think, but skipping over words by accident), saying words without the proper heartfelt emphasis, singing out of tune, and gossiping, slandering, lying and swearing. There’s even a demon, a sort of anti-patron-saint of Language Policing, known as Tutivillus, whose job is to gather up mis-spoken syllables and out-of-tune notes into his sack, keeping them as evidence against the guilty party. My favourite story involves a young medieval monk on the wind up, who, when it was his turn to set the psalm, started three notes higher than the usual. The older monks found their voices unequal to the strain and dropped belligerently out of the litany, and the chronicler of this distinctly unfraternal episode concludes, conveniently, that “it was all the work of the demon”.
You might think that this delightfully batshit advice has nothing to do with gendered forms of speech – after all, the point is that younger monks can still hit the high notes and older monks feel crabby that they can’t. Or you might think that it’s an interesting reflection on medieval masculinity that a high voice could be a point of pride. But the context is key here. This advice is actually found in a text addressed exclusively to women. It’s called The Myroure of Our Ladye and it was written for a group of nuns. Subtly, this text gives its audience a message: there’s something wrong with a voice that’s at the high end of a man’s normal pitch. There’s something wrong with the voices of most women.
That’s a theme I’m coming across a lot – most recently, here. The piece is by Naomi Wolf, and boils down to ‘women, who are younger than I am and considerably less brilliantly feminist, allow me to patronise you with poorly understood generalisations about linguistics’. The subtitle includes the unforgivably trite, finger-wagging warning “you’re disowning your power”. Now, to me, power is something you have, and exercise, in relation to other people. You cannot single-handedly ‘disown your power’ (unless, I suppose, we’re talking BDSM. Let us never talk BDSM). What Wolf means is, women, you’re being treated badly but I’m going to assume the fault lies with you.
Now, I could just have put this out of my mind and linked to the pretty comprehensive take-down of language-policing by Cameron, which I’ve already mentioned. And I did link. But I also got stuck on one sentence, which attempted to give a measurable, concrete example of women letting themselves down with their silly ladyspeak. Wolf writes:
“At Oxford University young women consistently get 5% to 10% fewer first-class degrees in English – and the exams are graded blindly. The reasons? Even the most brilliant tend to avoid strong declarative sentences and to organise their arguments less forcefully.”
There is so much wrong with this that it makes me slightly inarticulate with fury. Oh, who am I kidding? It makes me want to type numerous strong, declarative sentences, most of them liberally sprinkled with my most masculine of profanities. You see, this chain of logic presumes that blind marking of exam scripts means that the problem is with the students’ work. Not that academics might (shudder gasp!) be fallible human beings who bring in unconscious bias to their syllabus, their setting of questions or marking of scripts. Nor that – and I think this is the hard truth – it may in fact not be possible to design a non-misogynistic English degree. But these issues are serious.
Say you’re an academic setting the questions for next summer’s final exam. There are obvious pitfalls (which people mostly try to avoid, but don’t always manage): Do you pick questions on Geoffrey Chaucer, John Gower and John Lydgate, or Christine de Pizan, Marie de France and Julian of Norwich? Do you use quotations from Paul Strohm and Derek Pearsall or Jill Mann and Carolyn Dinshaw? Then there are slightly less obvious, less avoidable issues. Shall we have a question (or questions …. imagine ….!) on women in a paper on medieval literature? Will that prime female students to remember that, throughout most of English literary history, women have been oppressed and mocked? Will it prime them to realise that people have been making oh-so-sadly-practical arguments, like Wolf’s, about women acting as their own worst enemies by talking too much, too little, too this, too that, for centuries? If we have a question on women’s bodies, or sexuality, or violence (all good, popular topics), will it be particularly fun for the women who’ve real-life experience of what Rachel Moss bitingly terms ‘Chaucer’s funny rape’? I could go on, but you see the problem. When women write those blind-marked exams, they do so surrounded by an academic conversation that has very little space for women, and in which much of that space is full of uncomfortable reminders of women’s unequal status through history.
This is all before we get to the real issue. The quotation presumes that what ought to be rewarded in any good student is ‘strong, declarative sentences’ and ‘forceful’ arguments. This is … well … problematic. ‘Chaucer is the greatest English poet’ is a strong, declarative sentence. It is also utterly lacking in nuance, understanding of English literature, and awareness of the past century of scholarship. In short, it’s shit. And an essay made up of such strong, declarative sentences would also be extremely tedious. Language policing is a very blunt tool. And, increasingly, I notice how much it fails to hit anything even resembling its target.
The other day, a friend of mine sent me an article to read. Written by Karen O’Donnell, it argues that a form of speech that’s often derided as being feminine – expressing emotion – is crucial to the progress of academia. She explains:
“I am currently writing a PhD and in one chapter I touch upon a sensitive issue that is very close to home. One of my supervisors encouraged me to think about whether or not I would be able to defend this part of my work without getting emotional. My other supervisor encouraged me to think about why being emotional might be seen as wrong and whether I wanted to challenge that perception.”
This rang true for me, too. Increasingly, what I write about in my research, and what I teach, is pretty close to home. And it is emotional, and it should be. I want to speak – in ladyspeech or not -because these issues matter to me. A few weeks ago, I went to a conference, which was ostensibly about manuscripts. But – and I really should have blogged about this before – it was also incredibly unusual in terms of the way gender issues were playing out, both in papers and amongst the people there. If I can count correctly, out of 127 people, there were 41 men and the remainder were women. My friend Carissa Harris gave a brilliant paper about sexual violence against women, which is still playing over in my mind. But what I loved about this specific conference was that, having listened to a paper on gendered sexual violence, we didn’t have to switch politely back into impersonal academic mode – there were too many women sharing other stories, calmly acknowledging that this is a personal as well as an academic issue. And the personal, emotional aspect of that debate was made so much more possible because of the weight of numbers: there were enough of to acknowledge each other’s experiences as emotional, personal, and valuable.
Why do I mention this? I mention it because the first metaphor that springs to mind to describe my experience is ‘speaking the same language’. I wanted to imagine we were all speaking an idiolect, a special language, a coded set of terms that helped us to understand each other’s points about misogyny and rape, survival and women’s experience.
But, really, we weren’t. We were simply speaking. What felt new, was that we were being heard.
When O’ Donnell writes about being ’emotional’, part of what she is talking about is breaking a silence. Her research will require her to give voice to an argument, reflecting experience and emotion, which is not part of the established academic conversation. We could – and the language-policing types would – argue that perhaps she should find a way to have this conversation in suitably ‘academic’ language, to remove the overt emotion from it. But then, it wouldn’t be the same conversation, and it might not even convey the same experience and argument. It would be leaving academia a little bit narrower, a little bit less honestly representative of women’s experiences and perspectives.
What’s needed is not a broader academic language, nor a space for women to speak in the ways women speak. We need a space in which women can be heard. Those women at Oxford, who are struggling to be heard, are not struggling (I trust and believe) because of their lack of ‘declarative sentences’. In the article Wolf wrote, the answer was right there: in the experience of Professor Elleke Boehmer, when women try to speak up “male students speak first and second and even third.”
Women are discouraged from speaking up by myriad pressures that tell them their voices are less worth hearing – pressures that reduce their voices to twittering sound (as I’ve said before), or to meaningless feminine noise. We’re pushed to believe this fiction that women’s speech is always excessive – too high, too fast, too loud, too much – simply because women’s speech is a reminder that women exist to speak. For some people, there will never be a ‘right’ way for women to speak – so we need to speak up anyway.
Reading Medieval Books! I rant about women in literature and history, occasionally pausing for breath to be snarky about right-wing misogynists. I promise pretty pictures of manuscripts and a cavalier attitude to sentence structure. Twitter @LucyAllenFWR