Friday, April 29, 2011

Language and Life

Note: This essay/review, with some slight changes, was written in 1995 for the Psycholinguistics class I was taking at Boise State University, taught by Mary Ellen Ryder.
Ryder, one of the two or three best professors I had in college, died in a wildfire that consumed her home and several others in east Boise on Aug, 25, 2008.

For over twenty-five years I've worked in hospitals and medical centers mostly as a respiratory therapist, but also as a nurse aide and orderly. I've been intrigued by the kind of communication which takes place between patients and health care workers. Frequently I've heard nurses and others involved in health care refer to patients with words like "honey," "luv," "darling," and "dear." Usually the people they're addressing are older, smaller in stature, and in a weaker physical condition. They may be male or female. They are also strangers, people they've had no contact with outside of their place of employment. Often they are new admissions who have just arrived at the hospital. It's always bothered me to hear others use those terms in addressing strangers. I have to wonder what terms they use to address those they are intimate with, spouses, children, and other family members, and loved ones. If words normally used for that purpose are used on strangers, what kind of language remains for their loved ones?

Robin Lakoff toward the end of her book Language and Woman's Place addresses the same concern. Lakoff claims that women who are socially subordinate, especially saleswomen and waitresses, are inclined to talk like this. Probably that would also include most health care workers, since they, like waitresses and saleswomen have never been included in the upper echelons of society. I've heard women speak like that to male and female patients and I've heard some men use these terms when speaking to a female patient, but I've never heard a heterosexual man speak that way to a male patient. Lakoff reports the same observation.

Lakoff claims that speaking in condescending terms of endearment (as to a child) toward another adult, who does not respond in a similar manner, is evidence that a nonparallel relationship exists. In other words it's a relationship in which one person is seen as being subordinate to another. Lakoff is accurate in her assessment of the situation. In the hospital a patient is "under" the care and to some extent, also under the power and control of the physicians, nurses, aides, therapists, and technicians caring for him or her. Today patients have more rights and more control over the care they receive so the discrepancy is not as great as it was a couple decades ago, but it's still significant. This nonparallel relationship impacts the language people use. However not every health care worker speaks to patients in such a manner. Are those who refrain from addressing patients with intimate terms, when no intimacy exists between them, showing more respect and granting more control to the patient?

Lakoff starts her book with the following sentence, "Language uses us as much as we use language." Language and Woman's Place is a short, but powerful treatise proving that point. Unfortunately a large segment of our society is misused by the language they've been taught, and have to hear. Recently I saw the movie Dangerous Minds, and in one scene the teacher, played by Michele Peiffer, tells her class that they have to have a vocabulary in order to think. Lakoff maintains that the vocabularies taught to boys and girls differ, and they differ in ways which oppress women and make it more difficult for them to succeed, and to be taken seriously by others when they are adults. The way we use words directs our thinking, and it sends our thoughts down paths that support mistreating others with language, and ultimately also with action or inaction. We are told and taught to think before we speak in order to avoid saying something foolish. The reverse is also true. The words we select and the way we arrange them in sentences can also mislead our thinking.

The language people speak reflect social inequalities which make succeeding in life more difficult for women. Language also helps perpetuate those same inequalities which it reflects. Some language considered appropriate for men to use is seen as being too strong for female usage which, according to Lakoff, reinforces male positions of strength in society while denying women equal access to those same positions.

Of course language isn't the only part of our society which oppresses women, but it's the only topic of this book. Lakoff comments on the traditional conclusion of the marriage ceremony, "I now pronounce you man and wife," a conclusion which probably isn't used much any more. She doesn't mention the equally discriminatory and much more alive tradition of a woman having to wait until a man asks her for a date, and also the tradition of using the bride's father to "give her away" to the groom at the wedding. If when they started dating, a woman was given the power of making the initial choice by asking a man for a date, a big step would be taken toward equality of the sexes. I have four daughters and I have, at times, encouraged them to ask a boy for a date, but tradition and peer pressure have always been much stronger than a father's suggestion, a suggestion that's trying to change a deeply ingrained cultural habit. None of my daughters are married but I've informed them that I wouldn't give them away when they got married unless the groom's mother does the same to the groom. That tradition, which I find revolting, implies that the bride is the property of her father until she becomes the property of her husband. If Lakoff had tied more of her observations about language to examples of customs like this, she might have been more convincing to doubting readers. Of course then she would have a much longer book. I found her arguments and observations very insightful and convincing, but I was a believer before I read it.

The words we use oppress or liberate, not just others, but us also. It's impossible to legislate a different way of talking. The status of women in society will only improve when the accomplishments of women are given equal recognition. According to Lakoff unequal language and communication reflects inequalities in society. Only by being aware of society's inequalities and the ways in which they are supported linguistically will someone gain the power to change and gradually help attain a better, more equitable society. Lakoff's book is a gift which raises awareness of these inequalities in speech. That can make a positive difference.

from Oct. 9, 1995

Leonard Nolt

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