Sunday, September 23, 2012

Cameron, McAlinden, and O'Leary: "Lakoff in Context" (1988)

In Language and Woman's Place, Robin Lakoff hypothesized that a number of linguistic forms – in particular, hyper-politeness – are markers of "women's language." She speculated that women were encouraged to talk this way from an early age, and that the engine underlying this recommendation was the power difference between men and women.

The short paper "Lakoff in context," first published in Women in Their Speech Communities (1988) and available at this university website, argues that the issue is a little more complicated than that.

First of all, it is not generally true without qualification that women use tag questions like
  • It's a nice day, isn't it?
more often than men. In fact, Cameron et al.'s material suggest that men use tag questions more than women (cf. their table — it's on page 53 of Cameron's anthology On Language and Sexuals Politics).

Secondly, the straightforward relationship between form and function that Lakoff took for granted (tag question = politeness) does not hold up: Tag questions can be used for a number of purposes, including fairly direct attacks.

To get the full range of the uses that are suggested in the paper, I've scanned it for all the corpus examples that it cites. Here's the list:
  • You were missing last week, weren't you?
  • Thorpe's away, is she?
  • But you've been in Reading longer than that, haven't you?
  • His portraits are quite static by comparison, aren't they. (no question intonation)
  • Quite a nice room to sit in actually, isn't it. (no question intonation)
  • One wouldn't have the nerve to take that one, would one? (about a nude picture)
  • It's compulsive, isn't it? (tv host to guest)
  • That's a lot of weight to put on in a year, isn't it (radio show doctor to caller)
  • It's become notorious, has it (doctor to caller, about the caller's crush on a teacher)
  • It is this one, isn't it (teacher to pupil)
  • You are going to cheat really, aren't you (teacher to pupil)
About the last two sentences, I'm not quite sure whether they come from Cameron et al.'s material or whether they're constructed.

In addition to these examples, there is one more which is explicitly attributed to Sandra Harris:
  • You're not making much effort to pay off these arrears, are you (judge to defendant)
It should be pretty clear from this example that tag questions like aren't you? by no means universally signal insecurity or absensce of imposition.

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