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 Apparently females attempt some kind of equilibrium by reaching a higher status

in language to compensate for their lower status as members of society,

males attempt a kind of masculine identity by using language to maintain a group solidarity




Status and Standard/NonStandard Language

By Mary Ritchie Key 

Women are to be talked to as to as below men and above children.Lord Chesterfield


The emphasis on femininity and masculinity has blurred the caste system which prevails in our society. This is not a popular theme to discuss and in some bailiwicks it is not acceptable in any form. All kinds of restrictions and limitations have been imposed on a female's linguistic habits, with the idea that these behavioral patterns would ensure her femininity.

Thus she is not permitted to swear or use "coarse" language. She is given titles and respect--males must not swear in her presence--in countless ways she is given "better" treatment. But all of this simply results in keeping women out of the running. In order to continue a caste system it is necessary for those in the lower ranks to accept their status.

To all outward appearances women have accepted this lower status, often in the belief that it was femininity they were perpetuating. Religious instruction that this is right and the natural order of things has helped maintain the womanly image. These are powerful beliefs in the minds of females who want to be "real ladies" and in the minds of males who treasure and revere their "true ladies."

There is evidence in language that this acceptance may only be a superficial mask overlaying other attitudes or feelings though out-of-awareness. In linguistic studies there are many examples of instances where female usage shows an attempt at "proper" language or more "refined" language. One can observe, even within the same family where the rearing and schooling have been identical, that very often the women use standard English and the men do not.

We have already noted the difference of pronunciation in the -ing ending of verbs, with little girls carefully pronouncing -ing, and the boys shuffling off with -in. Other dialects of English have shown a similar status-sex relationship. In South Africa, in the English-speaking universities, the men speak with more dialect features of South African English than the women, who seem to be more sensitive to the social connotations of dialect.

In a dialect of Great Britain, an extensive study was done to test the hypothesis that women "consistently produce linguistic forms which more closely approach those of the standard language or have higher prestige than those produced by men, or alternatively, that they produce forms of this type more frequently. It was concluded that there is a very close relationship between sex differences in linguistic usage and status aspirations. It would appear, then, that women have not universally accepted the position in the lower ranks, and that, out of awareness, and in a socially acceptable and non-punishable way, women are rebelling.

These distinctions are not difficult to maintain, on the other hand, because males, all too often, identify nonstandard language with masculinity. How many American families speaking standard English at home have gone through the traumatic experience of their teenage sons coming home with double negatives and "he don't's"? It appears to be general American tradition that a red-blooded male would rather be caught dead than be grammatical! 

A recent advertising campaign recognized this and exploited the possibilities. on a huge billboard along one of the freeways into Los Angeles, a cigarette company put up a sign which showed a picture of a young man and a young lady. His statement said, "Winston tastes good like a cigarette should" and her statement said, "Winston tastes good as a cigarette should"! A TV commercial continued the grammatical distinction when the young lady in the commercial corrected her companion's grammar by saying, "You mean as a cigarette should. . . ." 

Apparently females attempt some kind of equilibrium by reaching a higher status in language to compensate for their lower status as members of society, and males attempt a kind of masculine identity by using language to maintain a group solidarity. Earlier in the century American Speech published a study of "affected and effeminate words" showing that students equated culture and effeminancy. males, especially avoided words which fell into these classes.

Status distinctions in language are universal. the degree and use of these distinctions differ from language to language. We have seen that status and sex distinctions are closely related in English. Are they also in other languages? It would seem that they are. In Germany I was told that boys tend to use more "dialect" and girls tend to use "standard" language. In Italian and Spanish, upper-class women are very conscious of their pronunciation with regard to the tongue position and placement in the mouth. "It is considered plebian and socially inelegant to have a back articulation, and especially upper-class women affect a very fronted style of articulation.

Jespersen tells of the situation in old Indian drama, where women talk Prakrit (prakrta, the natural or common language) and men talk Sanskrit (samskrta, the adorned language). The principal distinction, however, is rank, not sex. In the discussions of categories we noted that Sanskrit was the language of the upper echelons, and Prakrit was the language of men of inferior classes and nearly all women.

Sapir, in his study of the Yana language, suggested that "the reduced female forms constitute a conventionalized symbolism of the less considered or ceremonies status of women in the community." The symbolic use of language with reference to sex is an almost unexplored area of language research by linguists. In Japanese, female speakers are expected to use polite expressions more often than males.

Japanese is a language which incorporates many honorifics in the discourse. The use of these has to do with the people involved and the role they play. More polite forms are expected in certain relationships, that is, young to old, lower classes to upper classes, and women to men.

In the study done on Detroit speech, which was intended to focus on socio-economic factors, the relation between certain syntactic constructions and status dimensions was shown to be clear-cut. Multiple negation (double negatives) pronominal apposition ("my brother, he went to the park"), plurals, possessives, third singular verb inflections were all investigated as to their frequency and use. 

It was shown that females are more sensitive to these indicators of lower status, and are less likely to use them. Linguists who do field work have noted that dialect differences and unusual forms of speech may be difficult to elicit from women who are more socially conscious of being denigrated. language is one way in which females can better themselves, even if only in their own image.

Many other studies in the past few years have documented that females in the black communities in the United States show a marked differences in their control of Standard English in contrast to the males. It is not clear why this is so; a complex of reasons probably is involved. Black females may have occasion to hear and speak more standard English because of their work as domestics in homes where standard English is spoken. 

Black males have acquired the Power of Words in a style and use of language which is uniquely their own. This versatility and creativity in language is enhanced in a world which is devoid of material evidence of their power. Thus masculinity is signaled by their very special use of language in the way of verbal dueling, playing the dozen, and reciting epics. 

This is not the same language which is found in school and in reading materials--the undesirable effeminate world. But desirable in another sense--the economic sense. Thus the young male struggles with an ambivalence that is seemingly insolvable--to maintain his masculinity and prowess among his peers, or to learn the "feminized" language of the mainstream community.

Analogies between the situation of women and black people have often been made, especially in the last generation since Myrdal's now famous Appendix to his An American Dilemma. Webster's definition of "disadvantage" applies to both: "The state or fact of being without advantage: an unfavorable, an interior, or prejudicial conditions." 

In interpreting male and female differences in any language, it is important to recognize hierarchies of status as well as male/female patterns. It is well to recognize these aspects of the communication systems and the linguistic demands of these systems, as people either do or do not participate equally in the mainstream of society.

Source: Male/Female Language (1975) by Mary Ritchie Key

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According to the author, this society has historically exerted considerable pressure on black females to fit into one of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the Matriarch or the Jezebel.  The selfless Mammy’s behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to white folks’ domestic concerns, often at the expense of those of her own family’s needs. By contrast, the relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.     

Professor Perry points out how the propagation of these harmful myths have served the mainstream culture well. For instance, the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for black females to feel a maternal instinct towards Caucasian babies.

As for the source of the Jezebel, black women had no control over their own bodies during slavery given that they were being auctioned off and bred to maximize profits. Nonetheless, it was in the interest of plantation owners to propagate the lie that sisters were sluts inclined to mate indiscriminately.

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Ancient African Nations

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery / George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of Haiti 

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update 24 February 2012




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