Resisting the pull of cynicism since 1969.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Lazy language

A link to a February 2004 piece about Belinda Stronach by Adbusters editor Deborah Campbell appeared in my inbox this morning. Published prior to Stronach's leap to the Liberals (i.e., back when she was battling Stephen Harper for control of the Conservatives), the column is a critique of the media's characterization of Stronach as 'blonde' and 'attractive' and their constant references to her wardrobe, marital status, and sex appeal. While I largely agree with Campbell that this sort of sexist commentary was and has continued to be rampant in media characterizations of Stronach, it is when she brings language into the equation that we begin to part ways:

The focus on her use of "uh," "um," and "you know" is hard to fathom when you consider that such lazy language is typically edited out of quotes from male politicians, even on radio clips. Watching a series of guests on the national news revealed that every single one of them--including the anchor when diverging from the teleprompter--used these fillers.
It's correct for Campbell to point out that these markers exist in the talk of powerful men just as they do in Stronach's own talk, but her characterization of their functions is inaccurate. In fact, each of the markers she mentions serves a useful purpose: 'uh' and 'um' as devices that let your fellow conversation participants know that you're not finished speaking yet (for example, when you need to pause to formulate an upcoming thought), and 'you know' to structure units of spoken language and to communicate your orientation toward what you're saying. We all use these as a normal and appropriate part of spoken conversation; there is nothing inherently "lazy" about any of them.

Perhaps more importantly, though, it is also incorrect to dismiss all three of these markers as mere "fillers." While it is true that 'uh' and 'um' are a sort of filler as I described above, the function of 'you know' is far more complex. What has been written about this one little marker could fill many volumes, but a 1986 Language in Society paper by Janet Holmes seems particularly relevant here. Holmes examined the distribution and functions of 'you know' in a corpus of spontaneous conversation, and contrary to what many linguists of that time expected, it was found to be equally common in both women and men. More interestingly, though, she also found that men use it in a rather different way than women do. Specifically, men use it more often to elicit reassurance or to express linguistic imprecision, while women use it more often to address their conversation partners' background knowledge or knowledge of the information being conveyed.

Ironically, the common interpretation of 'you know' is often diametrically opposite to Holmes' findings. When men use it, it tends to be described with positive language, while when women use it, it is most often described with negative language. Even trained linguists have fallen prey to this sort of bias, as Holmes points out:

There is the possibility of bias or distortion deriving from unexamined assumptions concerning what constitutes "rational" and clear communication. Despite the fact that 'you know' quite clearly serves a range of invaluable and positive functions in an interaction, it is often described in essentially negative terms. [...] Moreover, when differences in usage between women and men are isolated, they are frequently interpreted to the prejudice of women and regarded as evidence of women's linguistic deficiency. [...] Quite clearly the eye of the beholder can make a dramatic difference to what is perceived and presented to the reader. As I have suggested elsewhere, one (female) person's feeble hedging may well be perceived as another (male) person's perspicacious qualification.
If you ask me, that puts parodies such as this one, in which Stronach is portrayed both as using 'you know' abnormally frequently and as making vapid and clueless statements, into a rather sharp context.

I have no particular political stake in putting a stop to media criticism of Stronach--despite her apparent penchant for party-hopping, she's pretty unlikely to ever make the leap to the NDP. But when even a column stridently defending her such as Campbell's inaccurately describes her language as "lazy" and full of "fillers," it seems fair to step in. Especially when a more careful look at that "lazy language" may well serve to underscore Campbell's quite valid point.

1 comment:

LeoPetr said...

An interesting observation. Thank you, Pragmatist.