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The Perils of Propitiation in Female Speech

Amid the recurrent media chatter concerning the obstacles encountered by women attempting to make their way in what remains a man’s world, it is remarkable how little mention is ever made of the paramount role of language. Importantly, whatever else is true of one’s persona, nothing has both the immediate and the lasting impact of one’s speech on one’s interlocutors.

In this respect, girls whose native language is American English, from early childhood through adolescence and into adulthood, now acquire two speech habits that can only have the goal of propitiating their (specifically male) interlocutors but do so at the expense of having their utterances taken as less than serious or negligible: (1) paralinguistic laughter (often to the point of cachinnation); and (2) uptalk (uttering clauses and even whole sentences with interrogative rather than declarative intonation). As noted in earlier posts, these typical features of female speech are both apotropaic (meant to forestall danger or censure), but they are an atavism that should have no place in twenty-first century America.

Girls and women need explicitly to be made aware of the perils of propitiation and trained to avoid it in speech, by parents in the first instance and by teachers thereafter. Eliminating uptalk is now perhaps nigh on impossible, but the habitual laughter accompanying speech is assuredly a trait that can be extirpated from the utterances of women who wish to be taken seriously.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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