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Bird talk

“Women’s speech is always, in some sense, birdspeech, always, by virtue of gender, sub-human, other. It requires interpretation before we know what it means, and it places us on the margins of the main discourse.” (Jeanne de Montbaston/Lucy Allen).

For all its supposed isolation out there beyond the pale of acceptable discourse — marginal words in the mouths of marginal people — we know a good deal about slang. We know its lexis, and keep chasing down the new arrivals; we know its lexicographers, some very well; we know its speakers, and note that far from monosyllabic illiterates, they coin some of the most inventive usages currently on offer. We knows its preoccupations and that as a vocabulary it shows us not how we might like to be, but how we are: at our most human.

And above all, we know that it’s made and used by men.

At which, might I suggest a pause.

What happened to the women?

We know about women in slang: there isn’t even the usual sexist dichotomy, plenty of whores, whether literal or figurative, but mothers? Not really, since mother, when she does appear, is usually no more than abbreviation for a longer, far from savoury polysyllable. But what about woman and slang. Women as coiners, women as users? At which point we meet one of language’s most intriguing, but still unexplored questions: what is the relationship of women to slang? Do they use it, do they create it, and is ‘female’ slang different to the well-known ‘male’ version? It is an important question, and as yet, we have no answer. Girls and women’s position as sexual objects within mainstream slang has been well documented. What about them from the subject position, as language users and linguistic innovators.

As a slang lexicographer I have long espoused the men-only theory. I am no longer so sure. Because women have always used slang, both between themselves and in conversation with men. That the themes of this slang have been seen as male-generated does not diminish this truth. In addition, thanks to the online world in general and specifically that of social media, there continues to develop a type of all-female slang focused on themes that concern girls and women. A development that represents a new, even revolutionary change in the way we speak.

Coarse, obscene, confrontational: mainstream slang militates against the traditional stereotypes of ‘femininity’. Its sexism is innate and unavoidable. Yet slang ought to be a woman’s ally. On the margins of standard language, it rebels against linguistic norms. If, in social terms, women have been and still are a marginal group, slang would seem to provide an outlet for challenging restrictive social norms.

Slang is not seen as ‘talking proper’. Similarly, as recent media discussions show, allegedly female speech patterns such as ‘vocal fry’, ‘up-talk’, and tag-questions are seen as similarly ‘improper’. Like slang, regularly seen as the cause of social failings such as the inability to tackle job interviews, speech patterns such as ‘up-talk’ are paraded as causes of professional inequality for young women. Slang disadvantages its users; so too, it is claimed, does ‘talking like a woman’.

Leisure and Entertainment during the First World War. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

This debate on the ‘policing’ of women’s use of language is hardly new: in 1777, Lord Chesterfield upheld the common stereotype of women’s talkativeness, describing their use of language as ‘promiscuous’ and without regard for grammatical propriety. Women were over-experimental, blithely inventing new meanings for words. In contrast, the linguist Otto Jespersen in 1922 claimed that women’s vocabulary was poorer than men’s, and that female speakers were much more careful and polite. Both deviated from a male ‘norm ’.

In 1975 Robin Lakoff presented her theory on ‘Women’s Language’: it included politeness, hesitation and hedging, and a richer vocabulary for typically ‘female’ fields (e.g. colours). The idea of distinct ‘men’s’ and ‘women’s languages’ continues to flourish in popular media, in spite of having been debunked by research.

Researching women’s slang encounters problems that have accompany any slang research, but even more so. If slang in general is marooned beyond mainstream speech and thus hard to track down, then the female version has proved even more elusive. Yet there are a wide range of possible sources, among them: dictionaries, literary sources, research in anthropology and sociolinguistics, historical corpora, scripts of TV and movies and the output of social media.

Once one starts looking, historical representations of female slang users are not hard to find. Moll Frith, as depicted in Middleton’s Roaring Girl in 1611, is a devotee of cant or criminal slang. The 18th century slang subset ‘flash’ was acknowledged as finding its home at Moll King’s celebrated coffee house in Covent Garden. In late 19th century New York the show people of Helen Green’s fictional ‘Maison de Shine’ were all vociferously slangy, irrespective of their gender. It has been noted that while military slang in World War I basically consisted of the word ‘fuck’, such terminology palled in comparison with the language of the average textile factory of the era. The factory girls neither blocked their ears, nor shut their mouths. Some of the most slang-laden (not to mention sizzlingly obscene) blues lyrics came from women such as Louise Bogan and Bessie Smith. Examples are legion and only increase with the passage of time.

Whether women coined slang terms is harder to discern. Slang research rarely notes the speakers’ gender. The assumption, as with Standard English, is of a male norm, but assumption is not proof and we should not fall into the fantasy that slang is not ‘ladylike’. Or perhaps it is, if one looks at slang’s definitions of ‘lady’.

Finally, as elsewhere, technological developments have opened new possibilities. The world of social media, unfettered by traditional gatekeepers, has seemingly become a playground for female language users. Female-dominated web sites such as Mumsnet, for instance, have evolved their own non-standard vocabulary. The potential is unrevealed, but the traditionally male-orientated balance of power as regards to slang may be changing.

Featured image credit: ‘Photobooth strip of a woman and friend’, by simpleinsomnia. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.

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