Category Archives: linguistics

Why do modern speech patterns sound meek and submissive?

As a speech-language pathologist and someone who has studied linguistics, I found Peter Frost’s post from last week, Kinder, gentler speech, quite interesting.  Here are a few excerpts, but I recommend following the link and reading his entire essay:

Before the State came into being, men were organized into small, loosely defined groups where authority was wielded through a mixture of violence, bombast, and charisma. The more you had of these qualities, the likelier you would become the leader, “the big man.” But such leadership could easily slip out of your hands. Power was something that all men held, and it was only through the consensus of the moment that one man held more of it than the others.

Thus, in pre-State societies, power is not a permanent structure that transcends the lifetime of any one leader. Power is the leader. It is highly personal and ephemeral, and these qualities extend to the tools of power, like speech [...]

This situation changes with the rise of the State, in particular with its monopoly on the use of violence. Social relations become more pacified, more structured, and less changeable, thus creating a culture of deference to authority. Speech is still manipulative but subtly so…

I have argued elsewhere that the State’s monopoly on violence created a new cultural environment that favored the survival of meeker and more submissive individuals (Frost, 2010). This environment also improved the prospects for individuals who used speech less aggressively. Because other individuals no longer posed a threat to life and property, and because trust had become the rule and not the exception, people were now freer to use speech simply for communication. It became possible to exchange ideas in good faith and judge them on their own merits.

Considering this, I wonder if his explanation accounts for the even meeker forms of speech that we see in younger generations.  For example, women of my generation (I’m in my forties) generally do not end declarative statements with a rising intonation, but younger women tend to do so.  About twenty minutes ago I said to my supervisor:

“I’m going to write Anna’s* speech and language evaluation report and send it to the school psychologist.”

(*name changed)

The pitch of my voice dropped at the end of the statement, whereas women in their twenties tend to end clauses with a rising, interrogative intonation:

“I’m going to write Anna’s speech and language evaluation report?  and send it to the school psychologist?”

The effect is a more submissive sound.  The only time I usually speak that way is when I’m trying to wheedle my husband into something, but young women do it quite frequently.  Of course, the declarative drop in my voice didn’t give away the fact that I’m actually writing a blog post instead of Anna’s report.  But I’ll get to that report?  I think?  By the end of the day, maybe?

Interestingly, there was a post yesterday at the men’s site Return of Kings (crass site warning) entitled 3 Ways To Stop Being A Little Bitch, which I happened to read.  What I noticed was that all three of the ways involved men changing something about the way they speak.  The author writes:

1. Stop apologizing.

I constantly hear men apologizing for the stupidest things everyday. Yesterday I witnessed a man apologize to me repeatedly at the gym as he shuffled behind me to get to a piece of equipment. I didn’t have to move. He had room. At most, an “excuse me” was warranted on the first occasion. But no, he was so afraid he was going to offend me that continued to cry “sorry” like a little puppy.

2. Stop explaining yourself.

A lot of guy’s first instinct, when they say something that isn’t met with immediate praise and acceptance, is to start rationalizing what they said. This screams weakness and lack of self-confidence louder than anything else I can think of.

3. Stop complaining:

Everyone has a friend or family member that complains a lot. Do you think of this person as confident or strong? No, they appear weak.

In all three cases, the author notes that the modern male speech pattern sounds weak, which means the man sounds meek and submissive.  As our tyrannical liberal State continues to gain power and solidify its monopoly on violence, we might perhaps expect to see our speech patterns continuing to become even meeker and more submissive.

Ladies: Don’t be sassy. Be this instead.

Do men like a sassy woman with moxie?  Modern women seem to think so, yet over my year of blogging I have had a number of male commenters speak derisively about sassiness and moxie in a woman.  They describe a woman with an attitude rather like this woman is displaying:

According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of SASSY is:

1 impudent

2 vigorous, lively

3 distinctively smart and stylish

The connotations of sassy are a woman who is loud, brash, aggressive, back-talking, and with a female masculinity.  A sassy woman with moxie is a go-getter who won’t take no for an answer to anything she wants because what she wants is the most important thing to her.  The word sassy is used to describe females and children but almost never men.  Only women are generally described as having moxie.

Men say they dislike sassy women with moxie, yet I have observed a lot of sassy girls flirting with guys and drawing them in, so I really wondered if they truly don’t like this back-talking attitude.  I asked my commenters to weigh in.  Farm Boy explained:

It seems to something that is somewhat easy to do, and yields somewhat positive short term results (in this it is similar to nagging). It gets a fella’s attention, and seems exciting (at first). However, with time, it is grating; it is like listening to a child play the same simple kid song over and over….Moxie is just another manifestation of the difference between the SMV and MMV. Moxie gets one noticed with respect to the SMV, but is MMV poison

Novaseeker agreed:

For short-term sex, it can create sexual tension that can create a heightened atmosphere of sexual arousal. For long-term relationships/marriage it is terrible. It’s popular among women for the same reason that stripper heels are — it attracts men sexually who want sex now…Moxie is indeed an odd term, but one which, to me at least, generally implies a kind of “in your face” aspect that, again, can be sexually attractive for short-term mating attraction, in my view, but can also grate over the long term. And sass, a more straightforward term, generally means disrespectful talk, back talk and so on. Again, attractive for flirting for STR, but in a LTR constant sass is definitely a negative for me.

And Cail Corishev had similar thoughts:

I think a woman can be sassy in a way that says, “Hey, I’m trying to get your attention; I’ve got a sense of humor and I’m fun to banter with.” That can be very attractive. But then there’s sassy that’s disrespectful, like the kind that prompts a parent to tell a smart-alec kid, “Don’t sass me.”

Likewise, most of the definitions of moxie — energy, verve, vigor, pep, courage, nerve — are attractive in a woman, if they’re directed to the right ends… I think most guys would prefer a wife with those qualities over a wilting wallflower. But if her attitude is, “I have moxie and therefore I don’t need a man,” that’s another story, and not attractive at all.

 

Just being difficult and unpleasant is not sassy or strong.  I have noticed that some women feel absolutely driven to start arguments over nothing or to make things harder than they need to be, and these women often justify their annoying behavior by saying that they are strong and  independent women with moxie.  No, dear lady, what you are is a bitch.

Being sassy, difficult, and having moxie are not particularly attractive traits in a married woman, or a woman who hopes to be married.  Frank writes:

Maybe I only speak for myself, but being quiet, shy and introverted is probably one of the most feminine (and sexiest) traits a woman could have. In fairness sometimes those who have “fire” can be sexy as well, but too often they come across as more masculine and thus become a major turnoff.

Not all men like quiet and introverted, but a similar characteristic might be sweetness.  A girl who is sweet and demure is almost universally considered attractive as a wife.  The problem is that sweetness often doesn’t get a man’s attention, and a sweet girl can be left on the sidelines simply because she goes unnoticed.

A sweet and demure young woman.

Yet sweetness doesn’t quite cover this dynamic that men apparently enjoy.  As Alte notes:

If a woman is generally pleasant and pretty, a bit of witty sassiness (as opposed to rude meanness, with many women apparently not knowing the difference) will increase her appeal because a dry sense of humor is proof of intelligence. But it will only increase her appeal to men who are of similar or higher intelligence, which is why cute-and-sassy women don’t notice that any men are turned off by it, even though many are.

I think she is right about the dynamic, but the word sassy does not precisely describe this.  I think there is a much better word which captures all the positives of sassy with none of the negatives.  In fact, this word predates sassy by nearly 400 years in the English language and is the word from which sassy is derived.  The dynamic that a married woman, or single but marriage-minded girl, should employ is not sassy but rather saucy.

According to Merriam-Webster, the Definition of SAUCY is:

1 served with or having the consistency of sauce

2 impertinently bold and impudent

3 amusingly forward and flippant : irrepressible

4 smart, trim <a saucy little hat>

At first glance, that definition isn’t much different than the definition for sassy.  But the connotations are very different.  Think about the difference between a sassy child and a saucy child.  A saucy child makes you laugh, but a sassy child makes you want to put her in a very long time-out.

A saucy woman is clever, witty, flirtatious, and need not be loud.  She can be a bit naughty and sexually titillating but she is neither bawdy nor obscene.

 
 
 
 

A saucy wench awaits her Captain.

A saucy woman gets a man’s attention with her faintly sexual wit, but she never turns from sweet into bitchy.  A saucy woman is thinking about her effect on the man, not solely about her own agenda.  She truly wants to please him, but she doesn’t want it to be entirely effortless for him, either.  And a saucy woman never disrespects her man in public; sassy women do that all the time, seeking to humiliate him and to make herself look good at his expense.  A saucy woman flirting with a man makes him look good.

A sassy woman says, “You can’t make me.” And shakes her finger at him.

A saucy woman says, “I want you to make me if you can.”  And shakes her hips at him.

Both women are daring the man to try, but which one sounds like more fun?

On the gender/sex lexical debate.

Words change over time in order to reflect the culture where the language is spoken.  The whole purpose of words is to differentiate shades of meaning so that we can communicate information to other humans as precisely as possible; as the needs of a language’s speakers change, the words they use will need to change and adapt, too.  Languages have been changing and adapting since, oh, forever actually.  The language you are reading now descended from the same common ancestral language, Proto-Indo-European, from which most of the other languages spoken in Europe descended, excluding a few such as Finnish, Hungarian, Estonian, and the freakiest of all languages, Basque.

Why aren’t we all still speaking Proto-Indo-European?  There are a number of reasons, but one reason is because different groups of speakers living in different places will need to talk about different things and draw different semantic distinctions.  Because of this (and other reasons), languages are always evolving and changing.

One part of language that changes is its lexicon.  For instance, if you read Laura Ingalls Wilders’ series of books about pioneer life, you will see the word “store boughten” or “boughten” used, as in Almanzo received a boughten cap for Christmas.  It was unusual to buy such items in a store back then, since everyone made them at home, but nowadays buying things in the store is the normal way to acquire them, so we would never call such things “boughten”.  Instead, we want to differentiate things that are made at home, since that is now the exception.  Therefore, I might wear a homemade dress, and you might eat homemade jam.  The language adapted with the culture; the word boughten has fallen out of use and the word homemade has taken its place.

So it is with the words sex and gender.  The word sex used to be used to refer to the male and female of a species and the word gender was used to refer to grammatical markers on nouns, articles, and adjectives.    If you are in your Russian 101 class, you need to use the word gender when referring to the fact that stol (table) is grammatically masculine and sobaka (dog) is grammatically feminine.

But when else would you need to use the word gender to talk about grammar?  Um, never actually.  We don’t have gendered grammatical declension in English, so it isn’t something we need to talk about outside of the second language classroom.

In our grandparents’ day, the word sex was perfectly unambiguous for talking about the male and female of a species.  If you used the word sex, everyone knew that’s what you meant, and no one would be confused about whether or not you were actually talking about sexual intercourse.  It wasn’t ambiguous because up until the sexual revolution, people didn’t talk about sexual intercourse (or any other kind of sexual activity) outside of their doctors’ offices or their Anatomy and Physiology classes.  Since they spent so little time in those places, there was no imminent need to make a distinction about which kind of sex you meant.

But now we talk about sexuality all the time.  It’s common in our culture, and if you say the word sex to someone on the street and ask them to define it, I would bet that the vast majority of people will immediately think about the sexual meaning of the word and not the male/female meaning of the word.  We talk a lot about sexuality but very little about grammar, so where we really need to draw our linguistic distinction in order to give semantic precision is between sexuality and maleness/femaleness, not between grammar and maleness/femaleness.  The most expedient way to do this is to stop using the word sex to refer both to sexuality and to the male and female of a species and instead use sex only to refer to sexuality.  The word gender can then be used to refer to the male and female of a species and for the most part no one will be confused because how likely is it that you are talking about foreign language grammar?

Here’s the wikipedia version of how gender came to be used to refer to the male and female of a species:

Sexologist John Money introduced the terminological distinction between biological sex and gender as a role in 1955. Before his work, it was uncommon to use the word “gender” to refer to anything but grammatical categories. However, Money’s meaning of the word did not become widespread until the 1970s, when feminist theory embraced the distinction between biological sex and the social construct of gender. Today, the distinction is strictly followed in some contexts, especially the social sciences and documents written by the World Health Organization (WHO). However, in most other contexts, even in some areas of social sciences, the meaning of gender has undergone a usage shift to include “sex” or even to replace the latter word. Although this gradual change in the meaning of gender can be traced to the 1980s, a small acceleration of the process in the scientific literature was observed when the Food and Drug Administration started to use “gender” instead of “sex” in 1993. “Gender” is now commonly used even to refer to the physiology of non-human animals, without any implication of social gender roles.

OK, so it looks like there was some kind of socio-political agenda behind this change, given that sexologists and feminists had a hand in it.  Yet I don’t think they have done anything wrong linguistically (they have, however, done almost everything else wrong).  The sexual revolution changed what we talk about, for better or worse, and our language has merely evolved to reflect that.  We might consider whether all this sexy talk is a good thing or not, but it would be silly to cling to an old linguistic convention that obscures rather than clarifies meaning for modern speakers.

Yet sometimes people will insist that everyone must use the word gender only to talk about grammar, even though we rarely need to do so, and the word sex to talk about both sexuality and the male and female of a species.  What may be happening there is that some people are looking for an easy way to mark high-status group identification: We here know ever so much more than those proles who use the word gender to refer to the males and females of a species!  This reminds me of a retired English professor I worked with when I taught at a community college;  he insisted upon using the subjunctive form of be, as in “If you be men of great learning…”  I always wondered why he stopped at the use of the subjunctive and didn’t just go whole hog and use ye instead of you.  Really, he was probably just trying to make sure everyone understood that he was a real professor with a PhD and the rest of the adjunct faculty, with our lowly Masters’ degrees, couldn’t be expected to understand complicated stuff like outdated syntactic rules.

The next time someone scolds you for using the word gender to mean the male or female of a species, ask them how well they speak Proto-Indo-European.  If they are a little rusty in it and give you some excuse about not having used it much since college or that they can still read it but can’t speak it, then tell them you are going to use the word that has evolved to differentiate your intended meaning properly in modern English.

And on a final note, it is definitely the case that PC-speech has led to some clear linguistic absurdities.  I have observed feminists saying things like, “All the various genders…”  This is quite stupid; there are only two genders (where gender refers to the male and female of a species; in grammar there are three genders), so the correct phrase is “Both genders”.  Everything other than male or female is a genetic anomaly and can be referred to by the appropriate syndromal name.  So, dear reader, if you have an example of silly feminist linguistic shenanigans that serve no useful purpose (unlike the gender/sex semantic evolution), feel free to leave it in the comments for group entertainment.

Edit: Both Novaseeker and Kristor write that they are using sex instead of gender not as an act of class snobbery but rather as an act of socio-cultural linguistic activism.  Novaseeker writes:

…the common parlance has changed but it wasn’t “evolution” but rather “engineering”. It was engineered top-down. And done so for very obvious political reasons. Buying into the terminology simply reinforces the distinction between biological sex and social gender — which is precisely the point of the adoption of the new term, to drive a wedge between what is given at birth and what you socially are. It’s the way the game is played.

I don’t use the word gender other than when referring to language (which is not common, but not as uncommon as it is for some others, perhaps, due to my job) not as a status marker, but as an act of resistance against this attempt to reengineer language for socio-political purposes.

And Kristor agrees:

…PC linguistic usages are a kind of jizya…When we abjure them and cleave to traditional usages, we commit acts of sedition against Leviathan.

Further reading:

Kristor: PC is Jizya