Women, culture and language

In our just-released December 2012 issue of MultiLingual, Hannah Berthelot dives into the realms of language, women and culture, and how these intersect in our industry. Her opening tales of getting verbally harassed in Paris caught my attention because they conjured up memories of my own. The only night I have ever walked around in a group of four women, our arms linked aggressively, cursing violently at males in order to keep them from approaching, was in Paris. My friends were getting groped repeatedly until I started acting like someone had dared me to yell obscenities for conversation, and for some reason that actually seemed to work. I don’t know, maybe I just sounded crazy. But it was a crowded New Year’s on the Champs Elysees, an hour or two past midnight, and the men, judging from their accents, were not actually French. Slightly similar things happened in Italy with non-Italian men, to the point that I have wondered to what degree stereotypes from a certain country might be created by other tourists or non-natives.

But it’s still an intriguing idea: that language and culture are tied to the way women are treated. And, yes, you have to wonder which came first, the way languages tend to include different noun classes and registers for women, or the way women are perceived in the cultures corresponding to these languages. Perhaps they emerged together and have lived side by side, changing with the times, with regimes.

In the United States, there’s a perception that women tend to have a slightly different way of talking than men. Supposedly, they use softer language (“Hey, would you please do this for me if it’s not too much trouble?”) than men (“Dude, do this for me. You’re a pal”). As Berthelot mentions, Asiatic language tend to have similar, and more encoded, registers for men and women. All of this may or may not affect the way that women are seen as leaders — feminine language is typically also used to show subservience to someone of higher status. But then, what happens when women in positions of authority give direct orders? Is it culturally off-putting?

And how do we best overcome this if so?

We’ve posted the article online, and would like to hear your comments.

Katie Botkin
Katie Botkin is a freelance writer. She has a master’s degree in English with an emphasis on linguistics and has taught English on three continents.


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