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Review: [untitled] Author(s): Barrie Thorne Source: Signs, Vol. 1, No. 3 (Spring, 1976), pp.

744-746 Published by: The University of Chicago Press Stable URL: . Accessed: 09/10/2011 05:50
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Book Reviews

being unduly provocative, and often apparently based on intuition rather than any solid evidence. A stimulus to rethink sex roles and relations it is; a classic of sexual science it is not.

Language and Woman'sPlace. By Robin Lakoff. New York: Harper & Row, 1975. Barrie Thorne, Michigan State University Robin Lakoff is one of the first linguists to address directly the topic of language and the sexes. This slim volume contains two essays. The first, originally published as a journal article, has both provoked debate and provided new research topics for those working in this area. The second essay, "Why Women Are Ladies," extends the earlier argument but also reflects a shift in Lakoff's assumptions about the relative value of female versus male speech. In the first essay Lakoff discusses language used "by and about" women. The latter topic concerns the way language defines women differently from men, tending to derogate females (as in nonparallel terms like "master" and "mistress") and to define them in terms of their relationships with males (e.g., we say "Mary is John's widow," but not "John is Mary's widower"). Lakeoff's evidence, drawn from introspection and anecdotal observations rather than systematic empirical work, is least problematic in this sort of semantic analysis. Her data-and assumptions-are more controversial when she discusses the use of language by the sexes, or the ways in which women and men speak. Lakoff claims that women, more often than men, use speech patterns marked by uncertainty, triviality, and lack of clarity and forceful self-expression. For example, she believes that women tend to use "empty adjectives" like "adorable" and "divine," tag questions which convey uncertainty, question-like intonation patterns, and compound request forms. In the second essay Lakoff posits overall sex differences in speaking styles: women's speech, she claims, is governed by "rules of politeness" and centered on "interpersonal exploration," while men tend to use "factual communication" which is "logical, direct, and to the point." In weighing Lakoff's argument, I found myself puzzling over several issues. The first concerns the empirical status of her assertions about sex differences in speaking patterns. While Lakoff does not claim to have systematic evidence (she quite accurately calls her observations a "taking-off point for further studies"), the tone often slips into assertion of fact. Since stereotypes abound in cultural assumptions about sex differences, one must proceed with caution. Lakoff does not discuss the possibility that stereotypes may infuse even a researcher's notions of sex-typed behavior.


Spring 1976


A second issue has to do with the relative value of female versus male speech. Lakoff tends to assume the intrinsic superiority of male forms (which she often equates with "neutral" speech; the male is posited as the norm). Lakoff depicts women's language as a handicap, picked up through socialization. For example, she writes that a female who uses women's language "finds that she is treated-purely because of the way she speaks and, therefore, supposedly thinks-as someone not to be taken seriously" (p. 61). This line of argument, often found in writing about women, can easily lead an author to blame the victim, to argue that it is women's fault that they are subordinate to men (to be sure, women are seen as victims of socialization, but that is in their biographical past and seems somewhat impersonal). Lakoff's argument tends in this direction because of her focus on individual speakers and the presumed responses to their style of talk. This approach is one-sided because it neglects the context of ongoing interactionbetweenthe sexes, interaction shaped by and expressing sexual inequality. For example, if women use hesitating and uncertain speech patterns, it may be because in mixed conversations men tend to interrupt women (a sociolinguistic finding that Lakoff does not mention). Male and female speech must be analyzed for interrelated patterns of dominance and subordination. Rather than being overvalued as the "norm," or the more desirable style of talk, men's language should be examined for patterns of domination and control. And female speech should be analyzed with an eye notjust for its submissive dimensions but also for possible strengths (e.g., there is some evidence that women's speech is more supportive and self-disclosing, attributes that may be termed positive). It is also possible to argue that particular speech forms are inherently neither inferior nor superior but that, given the structural roots of sexism, no matter how women speak, they and their speech will be devalued. In the second essay, Lakoff is not so quick to assert the superiority of male forms. She continues to imply that the male is the norm (e.g., in maintaining that male speaking styles represent "the rules of conversation"), but she allows that "neither of these two styles is good or bad: each is valuable in its own context" (p. 74). While this position moves closer to opening up a reexamination of the presumed superiority of male speech, Lakoff still does not adequately confront the question of male dominance in conversational styles. A final issue concerns the relationship of linguistic and social change. Lakoff describes linguistic forms as symptomatic rather than partly constitutive of sexual inequality. She argues that language change always follows social change and hence that efforts to alter sexist language directly (e.g., the adoption of "Ms." as a title) are misguided. Many, myself included, would disagree with this position. I would argue that language is an intergral part of social life, not just a symptom; that


Book Reviews

sexist language helps maintain and transmit sexist institutions; and that efforts to change language are a valuable part of feminist strategy. Lakoff has helped open an area of study rich in importance for sociolinguistics and for feminist analysis. Her essays, however, need critical reading. She tends to take for granted some of the very assumptions most open to reassessment by those interested in language and the sexes.

Woman'sEvolution: From MatriarchalClan to Patriarchal Family. By Evelyn Reed. New York: Pathfinder Press, 1975. Harriet Whitehead,Stanford University In Evelyn Reed's Woman'sEvolution, one finds what is getting to be, after Elizabeth Gould Davis and the republication of Diner, a drearily familiar format: the revival of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century anthropological speculation on the origin of the family fleshed out for contemporary feminist tastes with new misinformation and more of the same old misinformation as that which fueled the speculations of Bachofen, Morgan, Frazer, Freud, or Engels in the first place. This is not to say that Victorian speculative anthropology was without redeeming scientific value; far from it. The theoretical principles articulated through the rococo images of "savage" society as it appears in such works as Freud's Totemand Taboo, Durkheim's The ElementaryForms of the Religious Life, or Morgan's Ancient Society form the foundations of modern social science, and one must, in the final analysis, forgive (most of) these writers their ethnographic weaknesses and peccadillos in the interests of acknowledging their genius. Having done so, one then goes on either to put the formulations of our forebears to use according to contemporary standards of debate (for an example, try Emmanuel Terray's Marxism and "Primitive"Societies) or, if ethnographic butchery must still be performed, perform it in the service of new theoretical breakthroughs (e.g. Levi-Strauss's "structural anthropology"). Evelyn Reed is doing neither of these things. In Woman'sEvolution, she embraces the concepts of Engels's The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State so unreflectively as to reduce his reasoning to Darwinian parody: "The driving necessity to achieve the one-father family and do away with the divided matri-family opened the road to private property" (p. 406). Contemporary anthropology is dismissed as "hostile to history" for its refusal to recognize "survivals" (p. xvi); and the entire effort of the book is then expended in cooking the ethnographic record for proof of the author's version of the matriarchy-to-patriarchy theory-a version that is at times ingenious, at times ingenuous, but for the most part intricate, improbable, and exhausting. We are asked to accept primitive societies, all the institutions of which are either surviv-