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A challenge we face when learning a new language is having to navigate confusing expectations. We say something to convey a certain meaning, but are told it meant something else. We attempt to replicate a seemingly common inflection, but are ridiculed in the process. Although we try our best, anything can elicit criticism: our accents, the expressions we use, or even the ways we sound (i.e. using uptalk or vocal fry, etc). Have you ever wondered why this happens?

One explanation is that this form of discrimination happens when a set of speakers believe there is one way to speak, and that speakers who do speak in this one way (however defined), hold sway over those who don’t. Acts of discrimination can range from casual policing (telling someone not to speak a certain way), to not hiring or promoting someone because of how they sound.

In the video above and in this month’s reading, we learn about how some features of young women’s language are marked (unnecessarily noticed). Rather than focusing on the content of what they are communicating, listeners often focus on the delivery, making negative assumptions related to intelligence, leadership abilities, and so forth. In professional settings for example, young women are often, like, one ‘like’ away from being judged as ditzy or ignorant.

How did you feel when you read that last sentence…? Did it make us sound silly? dumb? …less knowledgeable? In the reading, which is part of WORDSLUT, a lengthier manuscript on gender and language, Amanda Montell proposes a different line of interpretation. Rather than buying into stereotypes, we should be learning about the strategic ways in which words like like are used and learn about the ways that the same language (e.g. using like) can be perceived differently depending on who is speaking it.  Hint : like sometimes connotes assertiveness.


Discussion Questions

  • Do you think the repetitive use of ‘like’ sounds ditzy or ignorant?
  • Many courses warn against using filler words like “um” or “like.” What are some benefits of using filler words when speaking?
  • The article says that men are just as likely to use ‘like’ as a discourse marker, but are rarely ridiculed for it. Why might that be?

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