February 16th, 2006

ozarque figure

Linguistics; gender and language, part 3; power over language

In response to the question, "Who (men or women) -- has more power over the development of American English?", Anonymous commented:
"Some time ago, a reader wrote into one of your newsletters mentioning that in our culture (and many others) small children in their language-learning years get more input from their mothers (and other women) than from their fathers (and other men). If either gender has had more influence on the nature of English, I suspect it's the women."

Suppose we set aside the fact that for the most part men run the publishing industry and the mass media, not to mention the universities, the courts, the government, the textbook industry, the testing industry, medicine, and the sciences. Let's just ignore all that. (We do have Oprah Winfrey as a counterexample, after all.) It's true that the majority of childcare in infancy and early childhood is still provided by women, and it therefore makes sense to say that most of the language input during that critical period comes from women, and is followed by years spent in elementary school, where the teachers are preponderantly women.

From the very first day of the baby's life, the language input from women in our culture is structured to transmit the important values and principles and metaphors and pragmatics rules of that culture. Women do their best, using language, to raise their children so that they will fit well into their culture and be happy and successful there. We could consider just one example of how that works.

For native speakers of American English today, the operational metaphor for any form of disagreement, no matter how trivial, is: Disagreement Is Combat. (Often worded: Argument Is War.) Since the culture has as a primary principle "The most important thing, always, is to get out there and win!", and we have nothing but contempt for losers, the choice of Disagreement Is Combat has certain unavoidable consequences. In combat, there has to be a winner and a loser; that comes with the metaphor. And we establish and perpetuate that metaphor by handling every disagreement with the language of combat. We attack and shoot down other people's arguments, or shoot holes in them. We knock them out of the water with our brilliant rhetoric. We cut them to pieces with our statistics. We don't just have arguments, we have fights and battles. Above all, when we get into a verbal disagreement, we are determined to come out of it the winner. And that metaphor is learned and internalized and made the one and only way to deal with disagreement by the language that infants and small kids hear from their (mostly female) caregivers.

There's no law that says Disagreement Is Combat has to be the metaphor we use. We could perfectly well use Disagreement Is Carpentry instead. When two people build a barn (or a bookcase), they don't worry about who's going to win or lose, they focus on getting the building done. Carpentry deletes the winner/loser component from the context. And the vocabulary of carpentry works perfectly well. We can build our case and structure our arguments and our evidence. We can take apart other people's arguments, and measure them to see how well they fit. We can say, "I built what I thought was an excellent case for what I wanted to do, but he took it apart in about ten minutes and showed me that it just wouldn't stand up." We can say, "I took all the statistics I had and added them to the pile, and that convinced her." We can say, "I just kept hammering on the same three arguments." And so on. We can say, "There's no need for a fight here; we can either build a consensus or build a compromise."

Women could, if they chose, establish and maintain the Disagreement Is Carpentry for their children during the language acquisition years, just by refusing to use the vocabulary of combat and substituting the vocabulary of carpentry instead. The kids would still be exposed to the Disagreement Is Combat metaphor from other people and from the media, but they would at least have an alternative metaphor available and be accustomed to using it in the context of disagreement. Would a whole generation of youngsters who weren't locked into the Disagreement Is Combat metaphor decrease the level of hostile language in American English? We don't know. It's never been tried.