In her book Wordslut, Amanda Montell argues that patriarchal assumptions deny women an active role in society, claiming that, “In our culture, men run the show”. Her book calls itself a Feminist Guide to taking back the English language. Roslyn Petelin from The University of Queensland in The Conversation reflects on how and if Montell will be able to smash patriarchy.
With a degree in creative writing and linguistics, having studied “how language works in the real world”, Montell has set out to “verbally smash the patriarchy”. Her aim is to educate a readership of women who need “the knowledge to reclaim the language that for so long has been used against us”.
She promises that:
By the end of this book you’ll have all the nerdy know-how you need to sound like the sharpest word ninja in the room.
The wording of her promise sums up both the strengths and weaknesses of this book. Montell tries too hard to popularise her agenda by adopting up-to-date slang and jargon, although she must be fully aware of how transient and imprecise this strategy makes her argument.
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Occasionally, she is also seduced into making irrelevant asides that contribute nothing to her argument. For example, she mentions a seminal feminist paper that was published in 1997, “the same year as Princess Diana’s death and Mike Tyson’s bite fight”.
Despite all this, it is a book that explores the fascinating etymology of words such as “bitch” and “slut” that we were taught never to use in polite company, and which have nonetheless underpinned gendered attitudes.
Gender and sexuality
Since the second wave of feminism in the 1970s, sociolinguists have been studying language and gender: how people use language to express gender, how gender impacts how a person talks, and how their speech is perceived.
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Montell comprehensively discusses the way in which second-wave feminist activists put the distinction between sex and gender on the “mainstream cultural radar in the mid 20th century”. She notes that “no one ever posed a semantic distinction between sex and gender until the 1960s” and that the word gender didn’t enter the mainstream English lexicon until the 1980s.
As she also notes, the rise of the #MeToo movement with fifth-wave feminism has accelerated discussions around gender and sexuality in the press, with even the Summer 2019 issue of Playboy magazine dedicated to the topic.
Montell’s book ranges across issues relating to sex, gender and language with many provocative pronouncements.
The most astounding, to my mind, is her claim about “valley-girl ‘vocal fry’,” also known by linguists as “creaky voice”, “a raspy, low-pitched noise that we often hear as people trail off at the end of their sentences”. Particularly teenage girls.
Montell says that:
Today’s sharpest linguists … have data suggesting that “teenage girl speak”, one of the most loathed and mocked language styles, is actually what Standard English is going to sound like in the near future. In a lot of ways, it’s already happening. And that’s making a lot of middle-age men very, very cranky.
Her credibility would have been enhanced if she had provided data for this bold claim, as it would seem to me that this is a style of language mostly confined to certain parts of California.
Montell rails against sexism in relation to women, but exhibits it herself in relation to men, particularly older men. Through most of the book she uses the term “dude” to replace the word “man”, oddly claiming that “today dude is one of the most beloved terms in the English language”.
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Her ageism is evident when she discusses how labels such as cisgender, transgender, graygender, and pansexual “aren’t surfacing just because it’s suddenly trendy to have an identity that will perplex and/or pissoff all our great-aunts and-uncles at Thanksgiving”. She quotes many male and female linguists throughout the book, but mentions the age of only two, a woman who is “now in her 70s” and a man who is 58 years old.
He or they?
In his preface to Gwynne’s Latin (2014), the conservative British grammarian Neville Gwynne mentions what he calls the “now-contentious problem of how to express what for the entire history of English literature until the last few decades was the all-embracing ‘he’.”
Surprisingly, he suggests that before then it was never considered “remotely inappropriate or uncomfortable” and goes on to comfort the readers of his book by stating that “on the few occasions [in his book] that you see the all-embracing “he” or equivalent, that it is occurring without any offence being intended”.
Publications such as the Australian government’s Style Manual for Authors, Editors and Printers have accepted the singular “they” for decades, way ahead of those in the UK and the USA. Montell advocates the singular “they”, along with North American linguistics societies and dictionaries, although The Times style guide does not enthusiastically endorse it:
He and his can no longer refer to both sexes equally; he or she will sometimes do. It is often easier to use the plural they for he or she, and sometimes even the ugly their for his or her. Do this only when necessary.
Montell predicts, however, that “20 years from now, introducing yourself with your name and your pronouns could become the norm”.
In a book that aims for an educated readership, we would expect to see an index and a list of references. This book has neither. Montell’s failure to consistently and meticulously cite her sources somewhat diminishes the value of the book.
Much of the research that she mentions, such as a 2003 study of 30 Irish men and 30 Irish women on their swearing habits, features very small populations.
She also makes sweeping generalisations with no evidence: “people above the age of forty have always loathed teen slang”. The smattering of underwhelming cartoons contributes nothing to the text.
The book could also have done with a closer edit. On page four, Montell makes a grammatical and a factual error when she states that “Homo sapiens have been around for 200,000 years”. (Homo sapiens is thought to have originated in Africa more than 315,000 years ago.) Many readers will be put off by the book’s annoyingly gauche and patronising style: “You may or may not have heard of a little thing called patriarchy?”
But is the book worth reading? Yes. Despite my reservations, I enjoyed reading it. Montell puts her linguistics degree to good use in a thorough coverage of historical sociolinguistics that forms the precursor to the contemporary feminist stance practised in many arenas today.