The Way We Speak

A friend of mine shared this article on Facebook recently. It lamented women’s patterns of speech being constantly policed and pathologized (as she put it). It mostly focused on a recent researcher’s assertion that women use ‘just’ too much and sound like they are apologizing. It mentioned other (stereotypical) women’s habits too, like our voices rising at the ends of statements, sounding hesitant, and “vocal fry” (creaky voice).

I thought about how I’ve dismissed women speakers for sounding too young or hesitant for some of the reasons stated. And I’ve acknowledged that perhaps it isn’t fair. But I couldn’t help but feel there’s a balance to be struck here. Are those (negative) judgments about women based on their speech unfair? Yes! Are they because our male-dominated culture makes male speech patterns ‘the’ way? Yes!

Is it going to change overnight? No!

So what is an individual woman supposed to do about it? Is it easier to stop uptalk (voice rising at the end of a phrase) or is it easier to change the entire culture? Does an individual woman make the deliberate decision to possibly negatively impact her career in order to “fight the good fight” and hope to change society? I don’t know. I suppose each woman has to decide for herself.

The other thing that struck me about the article was that women aren’t the only people with this problem. People with stereotypical ‘black’ patterns of speech have it too. And people with strong Southern accents (‘rednecks’). It’s not just men that define “proper speech”. It’s also white people and Northerners.

Don’t believe me? How many versions of this have you seen?


Funny thing about these things is that it’s always a white person ‘asking’ for the clarification. Now, don’t get me wrong. There aren’t too many people that are more committed grammar freaks than me, but this isn’t so much about grammar as it is dialect.

When I speak, you can’t tell the difference between when I say ‘pen’ and when I say ‘pin’ unless I’m concentrating very hard to make the ‘e’ sound in pen. If I drop into my usual patterns of speech, they will both sound like ‘pin’. I also had a British person tell me that ‘Jenny’ and ‘Ginny’ are pronounced differently – I didn’t believe her. I seriously did not know until I was in my thirties that those sounds were supposed to be pronounced differently.

Back to ‘axe’. I once had a black co-worker who said ‘axe’ instead of ‘ask’. It drove me crazy. But he was a bright, masters-level educated engineer who did his job extremely well. So why knock that verbal tic of his? More importantly, as this article asks, why expect him to identify with the dominant white “proper English” culture? Axe was, once upon a time, as proper as ask – even Chaucer used it. But now we associate it with the uneducated.

Shame on us. Associate it with the speaker being black if you want to, but don’t assume that it means they are uneducated. (Take the time to read the article too – it’s worth it and not particularly long).

Same goes for Southern accents. My daughter picked up one in preschool from her wonderfully sweet two-year-old class teacher. I fretted about it because I knew people would assume she was uneducated if she kept it through adulthood – which she hasn’t.

Don’t believe me? Just watch the news channels when they interview some small town denizen of Oklahoma after a tornado rips through. “We was just sitting there on the porch when – BAM! it just tore right through my neighbor’s barn!” You are probably already laughing at what an idiot they are.

Now, granted, certain phrases like “we was” typically show a lack of education or at least a lack of dedication to said education. But take away the grammar mistakes, and the accent alone probably makes you mark them lower down the IQ scale. But grammar (and pronunciation) are not the only marks of intelligence. Just take a look at my engineer co-workers.

I’ve got one brilliant former co-worker who writes ‘should of’ when he means ‘should have’.  Several can’t keep track of when to use (or not use) apostrophes or commas. Most use ‘I’ when they should use ‘me’ as part of a compound object of a sentence (an ironic over-correction to the use of ‘me’ for ‘I’ in the subject). Another one pronounces ‘similar’ as sim-YOU-ler. All could likely out-think me on a number of topics in a heartbeat. Their grammar is not a reflection of their education or intelligence.

Most of us wouldn’t judge their intelligence based on those habits though. Because, for whatever reason, those technically inaccurate speech patterns haven’t been tagged as flawed by the mainstream.

So here’s the point I want to get to. Stop judging people by their verbal habits. Those habits are ingrained in them from childhood. It won’t be easy to stop. Because your reactions are also ingrained. But try.

And if you’ve got a unique or stereotyped verbal habit, like pen/pin, axe, sim-you-ler, or saying ‘just’ too much, don’t worry about it. Unless you think it’s affecting what you want to accomplish in life. Then try to change it. And don’t worry about people who tell you you shouldn’t have to change. We’ve all got to make our own way.

6 thoughts on “The Way We Speak

  1. Yes, there are definitely certain ways of speaking that people might latch on to that makes them seem unintelligent when they may just simply be a bad habit or something ingrained that is difficult to change. My mother is always correcting my grammar and I know I am much better than most, so to me this is a bit nitpicky but don’t tell her that!! Anyway, I really did identify with the beginning of the article, about how women are always ‘apologetic’ in the way they speak. I have been trying to correct this in myself for quite some time now but am not always successful. I try, but sometimes just think I sound rude so I err on the side of caution.

    • There’s so many dynamics that go into it. Women have to (or feel we have to) be careful not to come on too strong or we look bitchy. Blacks have to worry about coming across as the “angry black man” (or woman). People get stereotyped so quickly… ironically, if they conform to the “proper” way for them to speak (weak, apologetic woman) AND when they don’t (bossy, bitchy woman).

      Maybe we just can’t win! lol

  2. I really like this entry and you make wonderful points. The only point of disagreement I have with it is the issue of uptalking–that seems a very recent phenomena and men as well as women do it.

    No matter who uptalks, it always sounds underconfident and rather silly or immature to me, since it is a pattern I associate with very small children when they are first speaking in full sentences. Most of my friends and colleagues of the same approximate age as, or older than, myself don’t ever do it. Yet many, many people ten or 20 years younger do. Of course this is absurdly anecdotal evidence, but I wonder about what it may represent. People who are professional public speakers tend not to do it, but even that seems to be changing and I view it as a negative in the same way the proliferation of poor punctuation (to the point where billboards have misplaced apostrophes!) and butchered grammar in news articles make me shudder.

    Much of the journalistic punctuation and grammar problem is that publications have actively eliminated copy editing positions on their staffs. Poor spelling and punctuation in online forums and social media are self-perpetuating, I think, because:
    A/ Mobile devices often autocorrect INCORRECTLY (I am looking at YOU, iphone! My Blackberry and Android devices never did that!)


    B/ Frequent reinforcement of incorrect spelling, punctuation and useage undermines our skillset when we see the mistakes of others and start to doubt our own spelling and grammar.

    Anyway, I agree that the standard shouldn’t be so white-male-centric. But I also believe there is far too little diversity in our spoken vocabulary. Speakers and writers who extend their vocabulary are more able to overcome the predispostion of others to judge them less intelligent (for any other reason) if their vocabulary demonstrates their intelligence for them. And that requires practice. A person with the thickest backcountry accent will shown themselves intelligent if they expand their spoken and written vocabulary.

    I notice in recent years my own active vocabulary has shrunk (perhaps due to less classroom time on a consistent basis, as I took my undergrad of American Lit and History on a very part-time schedule for almost 2 decades). To remedy that, I read more news, more publications such as Brian Garner’s newsletters for Oxford (he takes on a different useage or grammar point daily), as well as articulate bloggers like you!

    • Ah! Thanks for the compliment. 🙂

      Yes, uptalking bothers me too. For the same reasons. But perhaps it shouldn’t? I don’t know.

      I think you are right that seeing grammar wrong in so many places just re-enforces it in people’s minds.

  3. Good article, good blog post, and thoughtful comments. NPR recently did an interview with the maker of a documentary titled Do I sound Gay? One of the on-air contributors is a speech therapist. She said she has many clients trying to change what she called “up-speak” as well as change their speech patterns away from sounding “gay.”
    Language, whether spoken or written, affects our relationships and lives perhaps more than any of our other characteristics including race and gender because our language is often experienced without us being visible — by phone, text, blog posts. Whereas our race and gender when visible may automatically pigeon-hole us until we speak or write. At which point we may not “sound” like what someone expects after knowing what we “look” like.

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