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Introduction to Anthropology

6.5 Language and Power

Introduction to Anthropology6.5 Language and Power

Learning Outcomes

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Explain how language can operate as a gendered form of power.
  • Identify how racial categories and bias are expressed through linguistic practices.
  • Describe strategies used by communities to revive their dormant languages.

Gender and Language

In 2018, the word “mansplaining” was added to the Merriam-Webster dictionary. The word is defined as “what occurs when a man talks condescendingly to someone (especially a woman) about something he has incomplete knowledge of, with the mistaken assumption that he knows more about it than the person he's talking to does” (“Words We’re Watching” 2018).

The word was inspired by an article written in 2008 by the feminist blogger Rebecca Solnit. In the article “Men Explain Things to Me,” Solnit described an incident at a party in which she mentioned to a man that she had recently written a book about a particular photographer. Immediately, the man interrupted to inform her about a very important book that just came out about that same photographer, a book he had read about in The New York Times. After the man had described the book in great detail, Solnit’s friend finally intervened to say that the book he was talking about was, in fact, written by Solnit. In the wake of Solnit’s article, other women writers described similar experiences in their workplaces, schools, and relationships, and the whole phenomenon came to be called “mansplaining.”

Head shot of Rebecca Solnit
Figure 6.13 Rebecca Solnit, the author of the article “Men Explain Things to Me”. The term “mansplaining” has become a well discussed topic in the years since she introduced the term. (credit: “Rebecca Solnit” by Charles Kremenak/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.5)

Have you ever witnessed mansplaining? Have you ever mansplained to someone? Embedded in the very term is a notion about gender and language. The idea is that men and women have different styles of speech, styles that reflect and reinforce inequality between genders.

In recent years, many writers have pushed back against the term “mansplaining,” arguing that all men do not always speak this way to all women. Some argue that many men are much more respectful and sensitive to the dynamics of power in their conversations with women. Some argue that privileged White women tend to speak in a mansplaining way to male waiters and salespersons or to people of color more generally. Others suggest that older people speak in a condescending way to younger people, or vice versa.

Have you ever become annoyed with a friend or relative who repeatedly interrupts you? Have you ever noticed how some people tend to end their sentences with rising intonation, making everything they say sound like a question? How about a person who ignores what you say but then rephrases your idea and takes credit for it? Many people associate these ways of speaking with gender, the way men speak or the way women speak. As noted in the discussion of language acquisition, every culture has ideas about how language operates, called language ideologies. The idea that American men and American women have distinctive styles of speech is a language ideology. Whether it is true or not is a question for linguistic research, but this idea has become a widespread way of thinking about gender, power, and language in American culture.

In the 1970s, linguists inspired by the women’s movement turned their attention to the way gender shapes different patterns of speech. In her influential book Language and Woman’s Place (1975), Robin Lakoff argues that women and men are socialized to speak in distinctive ways that empower men and subordinate women. Lakoff describes women’s speech as uncertain, excessively polite, and full of hedges, emotional language, euphemism, and tag questions (“Don’t you think?”). Other linguistic researchers have found that men tend to interrupt women far more than vice versa, even when the women speaking are doctors and the men are their patients (Zimmerman and West 1975, West 1998).

Building on this research, Deborah Tannen generalized beyond speech patterns to describe two entirely different communicative subcultures for American men and American women (1990). When men and women speak to one another, Tannen argues, they are speaking cross-culturally, deploying different motivations and expectations for talk. Men engage in conversation to assert their status in a social hierarchy, while women are more interested in building solidarity through social connection. Men authoritatively report information to their interlocutors, while women engage in conversational rapport with their interlocutors. In popular media, differences in the speech styles of men and women are frequently linked to purported differences in specific parts of male and female brains, such the corpus callosum, the amygdala, and the hippocampus. In this way, gendered patterns of speaking are naturalized as biological.

Like the pushback against the term “mansplaining,” researchers have begun to challenge the view that women and men are embedded in different linguistic subcultures with different patterns of speech, motivation, and interpretation. Psychologist Janet Hyde conducted a meta-analysis of hundreds of quantitative studies to see if widespread notions about gender and language were actually borne out by linguistic data (2005). Along with notions of power, Hyde was interested in testing the idea that women are chattier and more deferential than men. Focusing on studies of children, Hyde found that boys and girls exhibited no differences at all in reading comprehension, verbal reasoning, and vocabulary. The tendency for boys to interrupt or speak assertively was only very slightly higher than for girls. The girls’ tendency toward self-disclosure and cooperation with their conversation partners was only slightly higher than for boys. The only significant differences Hyde found were in smiling and correct spelling (girls did more of both).

How do we reconcile research demonstrating differences in the way men and women talk with data that suggests very little difference in the speech patterns of girls and boys? One could argue that children have not been entirely socialized into their assigned gender category. Perhaps the discrepancy suggests that gendered ways of speaking are cultural, not biological, and that, for children, the most intense period of socialization is yet to come in adolescence.

Moreover, ethnographic research by linguistic anthropologists shows that patterns of speech associated with men and women are culturally relative. Reversing the American stereotypes, anthropologists working in Madagascar and New Guinea have found that women are expected to speak in a more confrontational and argumentative style, while men are associated with more cooperative, euphemistic, and ceremonial speech (Keenan [Ochs] 1974, Kulick 1992, both cited in Ahearn 2017).

So both quantitative and ethnographic research overturn the notion that women and men are biologically engineered to use language in different ways. That leaves us with the conclusion that any differences in the ways men and women talk are entirely cultural. Literary scholar Judith Butler argues that gender identities are not biological but are performed through language and other cultural practices, particularly those centered on the body (1988). So when men and women speak in certain ways, they are socially performing their gender identities, whether consciously or unconsciously. Moreover, through their linguistic performances, people enact their own versions of gender in complicated ways that transcend the neat dichotomy of male and female. You probably have a language ideology that tells you how men and women speak in your culture, but do you always speak in the style associated with your assigned gender category? Nobody does. And some people rarely do. As these contradictory performances build up over time, the very notion of gender can change.

Profiles in Anthropology

Kira Hall


Area of Anthropology: Kira Hall’s work is situated at the intersection of sociolinguistics and linguistic anthropology. In graduate school, she studied with Robin Lakoff in the linguistics department at the University of California–Berkeley, earning her PhD there in 1995. For her dissertation, she examined the linguistic strategies of Hindi-speaking hijras in Banaras, India. Hijras are members of a third-gender group in many Indian communities. Most hijras were raised as boys and later adopted the intersex behaviors and language of the hijra identity. Hall analyzed how hijras navigated aspects of gender embedded in Hindi, such as certain verbs and adjectives that are marked as feminine or masculine. She showed how hijras alternate between these gendered forms, code-switching as a reflection of their own ambiguous identities. She explored how hijras use obscene forms of language to shame people into giving them money. She showed how they had developed their own secret language as a way of communicating with one another, signaling their identity to others, and excluding non-hijras from understanding their conversations.

Accomplishments in the Field: Reflecting her work at the boundaries of linguistics and anthropology, Hall has held academic positions in the anthropology department at Yale University and the linguistics department of Stanford University. Currently, she is professor of linguistics at the University of Colorado at Boulder, with a joint appointment in the anthropology department. She is also director of the Program in Culture, Language, and Social Practice at UC-Boulder. Since 2019, she has served as the president of the Society for Linguistic Anthropology of the American Anthropological Association.

Importance of Their Work: Hall’s work highlights how language operates within hierarchies of gender, sexuality, and socioeconomic class. In addition to her work on hijras, she has published articles on language and sociality in autism, female mass hysteria in upstate New York, and Donald Trump’s use of gesture and derisive humor in the 2016 Republican Party primaries.

Race and Ethnicity

On many government forms, people are asked to identify their “race.” Forms in the United States often include five categories: Black, White, Asian, American Indian/Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander. The category “Hispanic or Latino” is often listed as an ethnicity rather than a race. On the 2020 U.S. Census, people were presented with 14 racial categories to choose from: White, Black or African American, American Indian or Alaska Native, Chinese, Filipino, Asian Indian, Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese, Other Asian, Native Hawai’ian, Samoan, Chamorro, and Other Pacific Islander. Again, “Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish” was listed as a question of “origin.” Even with so many options, many Americans still could not find a category that represented their racial or ethnic identity.

As you’ll remember from earlier chapters in this text, race is not biological. There is no accurate way to divide up the gradual spectrum of human biological variation, meaning that biological categories of race are entirely imaginary. However, we also know that social categories of race are very powerful tools of discrimination, subordination, solidarity, and affirmative action. Earlier in this chapter, we studied how sets of categories, “folk taxonomies,” are embedded in language. We saw how different cultures divide up the natural world differently. Likewise, race and ethnicity are folk taxonomies, embedded in language and organizing the social world into a neat set of groups. These categories are real insofar as they have shaped the structure of our society, advantaging some groups and disadvantaging others. And they are real insofar as they shape our thoughts and actions and even our subconscious habits and tendencies.

Like gender, race and ethnicity are performed in language. We use language in conscious and unconscious ways to express racial and ethnic belonging as well as exclusion. Take the use of Spanish catchphrases by Americans who do not speak Spanish. Many Americans intend to be jokey and fun by using Spanish phrases such as “hasta la vista!” and “no problemo” as well as deliberately incorrect ones such as “buenos nachos” and “hasta la bye bye!” Anthropologist Jane Hill found that middle-class, college-educated White Americans were most likely (among other Americans) to use this “mock Spanish” (2008). People who use these phrases consider them harmless and even respectful, while Spanish speakers are often insulted by the association of Spanish with silliness. Hill argues that such phrases are only funny because they covertly draw from stereotypes of Spanish speakers as foolish, lazy, and inept.

Similar arguments about cultural appropriation and stereotyping can be made about the use of Black vernacular speech by White Americans. In the United States, a variety of English called African American English (AAE), or African American Vernacular English, is spoken by many people in predominantly Black communities. With the widespread popularity of Black culture, many White Americans have picked up phrases and grammatical features of AAE while knowing very little about the vernacular and the people who speak it as their primary language. To many Americans, AAE is just imperfect English (it is not, as we’ll see in a moment). So what are White people signaling when they say things like “chillin’,” “lit,” “on fleek,” “aa’ight” (for “alright”), “ima” (for “I’m going to”) and “Yasss, Queen!” Does the use of this language convey respect for the communities associated with Black vernacular English? Or does it demean and subordinate Black Americans who speak AAE?

People who use mock Spanish and mock AAE typically do not mean to insult anyone. The problem is not one of intent, but of context. In American culture, most middle-class White people speak forms of English considered standard or mainstream (Lippi-Green 2012). In fact, Standard American English (SAE) is historically based on the language of Anglo American immigrants. The adoption of White Anglo-English has always been considered critical to successful assimilation by minority and immigrant groups. Success at complete assimilation is often measured by the ability to speak SAE without an accent. But SAE is not speaking “without an accent.” SAE is an accent—the accent of White people whose ancestors emigrated from the British Isles.

SAE is the dominant language of American public spaces, including schools, workplaces, government, and media. People who speak SAE without effort or accent can speak freely in these spaces, knowing that their language will be understood and respected. Americans whose primary language is Spanish or AAE often struggle to be understood and taken seriously in American public life. Given this context, it can seem disrespectful for White Americans to appropriate Spanish and AAE as tools of humor while denigrating and marginalizing the actual speakers of these languages.

The issue is further complicated by the widespread and persistent notion among White Americans (and many Black Americans too) that AAE is not a language at all, but merely a hodgepodge of slang and bad grammar. This view is simply wrong, another language ideology that has no basis in fact. AAE is a rule-governed form of English with its own regular system of sounds, grammar, and vocabulary (Labov 1972b). For historical reasons, AAE shares many features with the English spoken by White southerners in the United States as well as working-class Cockney English from London (Ahearn 2017). Rooted in historical experiences of slavery and segregation, Black Americans have developed their own distinctive set of innovative linguistic features to supplement the more basic structure of American English. Consider the following three sentences:

He is angry.
He angry.
He be angry.

The first sentence is SAE, and the second and third are AAE alternatives. In SAE, this conjugation of the verb “to be” describes a situation happening in the present. But the SAE present tense of “to be” is a bit vague, as it can mean “right now, this very minute” or a more ongoing situation, perhaps describing a person who is frequently or enduringly angry. AAE helpfully distinguishes between these two possibilities. “He angry” means angry “right now,” whereas “He be angry” indicates a more ongoing situation. In linguistic terminology, the second example is called “copula deletion” and the third is called “the habitual be.” Both are used in regular ways to indicate the difference between momentary and enduring conditions.

AAE is governed by many more rules and features that provide its speakers with expressive possibilities not available to speakers of SAE. In other words, AAE is not only a rule-bound vernacular; it’s a more developed and complex form of English. Linguists have been trying to convey this message to the American public since the 1970s (Labov 1972a). Read more about AAE at the Anti-Racism Daily website.

Rather than recognizing the innovative contributions of vernaculars like AAE, language policy in the United States stigmatizes non-SAE vernaculars as “bad English” spoken by uneducated and unintelligent people. Linguist John Baugh calls this “linguistic profiling” (2003). With colleagues Thomas Purnell and William Idsardi, Baugh (1999) compared the response of California landlords to apartment inquiries spoken in SAE, AAE, and Chicano-American English (CAE). In Woodside, California, landlords responded to SAE inquiries 70.1 percent of the time. Inquiries in AAE received responses only 21.8 percent of the time and CAE inquiries only 28.7 percent of the time. Research in American schools and courtrooms corroborates the discriminatory effects of linguistic profiling on access to housing, education, and justice.

The use of language to discriminate and marginalize is certainly not limited to American English. Elites in many cultures define their own way of speaking as “correct” and “official,” using linguistic practices in public spaces to disempower other groups based on class, race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality. How can people respond to these forms of linguistic marginalization? For many upwardly mobile speakers of “nonstandard” vernaculars and languages, the process of becoming successful has involved the abandonment of their primary way of speaking in favor of standard, elite forms of language privileged in public discourses. But there is another alternative. As speakers of nonstandard vernaculars and languages move into public discourses, they can hold on to their primary languages, code-switching from context to context. Some language activists celebrate the genius of their “home” languages and work to nurture and revive them, as we will see in the next section.

Can speakers of dominant languages contribute to the process of celebrating and revitalizing marginalized languages? Is it always insulting or racist for speakers of a dominant language to use phrases from another vernacular or language? Some people think so. Certainly it is harmful to use phrases that reference negative stereotypes (even indirectly). But what if your limited use of a few phrases can help you communicate with someone from a different background? What if SAE speakers started quoting Spanish or AAE in ways that highlight positive aspects of those speech communities? What if White people started learning AAE in order to publicize the genius and complexity of this American vernacular? What if you learn another language or vernacular in order to subvert the forces of cultural segregation in your own society? There are no easy answers to such questions.

Endangered Languages: Repression and Revival

In 1993, a Wampanoag woman living on a reservation in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, had a mysterious dream, recurring on three consecutive nights (Feldman 2001). In the dream, a circle of Wampanoag were singing in a language she did not understand. When she woke, words of the language stuck with her, and she longed to find out what they meant. Were these words of Wôpanâak, the language of her ancestors? Wôpanâak had died out in the mid-1800s.

The woman was Jessie Little Doe Baird, a social worker and mother of five. Haunted by those words, she began reading through documents from the 1600s written in Wôpanâak, including letters, deeds to property, and the earliest translation of the Bible printed in the Western hemisphere (Sukiennik 2001). Though frustrated in her efforts to find the meaning of her dream words, she developed a passion for the language of her ancestors and began working with local Wampanoag communities to reclaim their common language of Wôpanâak. Community response was enthusiastic. Committed to the project, Baird went to MIT to study linguistics, earning a master’s degree. Based on her survey of Wôpanâak documents, she wrote a dictionary and began teaching Wampanoag students to speak the language.

By learning their ancestral language, Baird and her students found themselves reconnecting with Wampanoag culture in unexpected ways. The grammar of Wôpanâak, for instance, puts the speaker at the end of the sentence rather than the beginning. Whereas English speakers would say “I see you,” Wôpanâak speakers would say something like “You are seen by me.” Baird suggests that this word order highlights the value of the community over the individual, putting awareness of the other ahead of the self. Wôpanâak displays alternative logic in the formulation of nouns as well. For instance, in English, animal names reveal little or nothing at all about the animal. The words “cat,” “mouse,” and “ant” are based on arbitrary sounds that convey no information about their referents. In Wôpanâak, however, animal names frequently contain syllables that refer to the animal’s size, movement, and behavior. The word for “ant,” for instance, incorporates syllables communicating that the animal moves about, does not walk on two legs, and puts things away.

By now, you know that forms of cognition and culture are embedded in language. The languages of the world encode diverse experiences of time, space, life, death, color, emotions, and more. A language serves as a form of oral documentation of the surrounding environment, a survey of the flora, fauna, topography, and climate of an area. Forms of cultural wisdom are preserved in the stories and proverbs of a language. History is recorded in epic tales and legends. Language can be essential to maintaining cultural identity, affirming the common history and values of a people while providing them with a distinctive way of communicating with one another.

Among the seven thousand languages spoken in the world today, roughly 40 percent of them are in danger of dying out in the next hundred years. A language is considered dead when it is no longer spoken by any living person. Wôpanâak was once considered a dead language. Some linguists argue that no language should ever really be considered “dead,” however, and prefer the terms “dormant” or “sleeping.” So long as there are written or audio records of a language, it can come to life again, a process called language revitalization. Returning to a language that has become dormant or endangered, community members can develop strategic programs to spread, nurture, and modernize the language, ensuring it has a future for generations to come.

Languages generally become endangered or dormant through processes of colonialism and imperialism. In North America, as Native Americans were forcibly removed from their lands and confined to reservations in the 1800s, they were compelled to send their children to boarding schools where they were forbidden to speak their Native languages or practice their Native cultures. As foreign settlers seized lands in Australia, New Zealand, and Hawaii, they established similar schools, aimed at assimilating Indigenous children by stamping out their language and culture. Elsewhere, more gradual processes of endangerment can occur when a new language offers opportunities for employment and trade only available to speakers of that language. Parents may encourage their children to learn the new language in order to take advantage of these opportunities, and children may come to reject their own language as a backward language of old people.

Many, many languages have risen from dead or comatose states, among them Cornish, Hawaiian, Hebrew, Scots-Gaelic, the Ainu language of Japan, the Indigenous Australian language of Barngarla, the Indigenous New Zealand language of the Māori people, and the Native American languages of the Navaho and Blackfoot peoples. Often, as with Wôpanâak, the impetus for language revival comes from energetic community members who feel the loss of their language as a threat to their cultural survival. These concerned people create programs to document the language and teach it to children and adults. They establish contexts where the language is spoken routinely and exclusively. Sometimes they work with linguists to develop these programs.

The most successful of these revitalization strategies are immersion schools and master-apprentice programs. In the early 1980s, Māori language activists developed full-immersion preschools, called Te Kōhanga Reo, or “language nests” (King 2018). In these nests, very young children are taught language and culture by Māori elders—grandmothers and grandfathers in the community. Native Hawaiians have developed a similar program of language nests, called Pūnana Leo. Early on, some parents worried that children in immersion schools would not learn the dominant national language well enough to be successful in later life, but research has shown that such children do just as well or better in later classroom performance and standardized testing. Many language revitalization projects combine early immersion with later bilingual education (Hinton 2011, 2018). The Navaho Immersion School in Arizona provides immersion education for the first three years of schooling and then introduces English as the medium of instruction through grade seven. From grades eight to twelve, children are taught in Navaho half the time and English the other half.

A wooden sign with the words “TE KURA KAUPAPA MAORI O NGA MOKOPUNA”. There is also a carving of a cloud inside a circle, surrounded by leaves and seed pods.
Figure 6.14 Sign in front of a full-immersion school in Seatoun, New Zealand. All classes are held in the Māori language. (credit: “Te Kura Kaupapa Maori O Nga Mokopuna” by Tom Law/flickr, CC BY 2.0)

One of the challenges of school-based revitalization programs is finding enough adults sufficiently proficient in the language to teach it to children. Among the strategies of language revitalization that target adult learners is the master-apprentice approach. The original Master-Apprentice Language Learning Program was founded in California by the Advocates for Indigenous California Language Survival (Hinton 2018). The strategy has since spread all over the world. In these programs, a proficient speaker and a motivated learner spend 20 hours a week together, using the target language plus gestures and other nonverbal communication to engage in various activities.

When successful, language revitalization can empower individuals and energize communities. Learning their heritage language, people come to understand the distinctive genius and complexity of their culture while preserving a crucial means of transmitting that culture across generations.

Mini-Fieldwork Activity

Dispute Analysis


Choose a friend, relative, or acquaintance with whom you might disagree on a particular issue. Suggested issues might include musical taste, what makes a good restaurant, how to behave on a date, the best form of physical exercise, or anything else you feel comfortable talking about but might disagree on. Ask the person if they would consent to being recorded for an anonymous fieldwork exercise. If so, record a 5-to-10-minute conversation with that person in which you discuss the issue. Then, review the conversation. What seem to be the goals of the two interlocutors? What is the pattern of turn taking? What truth or knowledge claims are made by each speaker, and what are the bases of those claims? How is authority constructed and challenged? How does each one respond to the assertions of the other? How does the conversation turn out in the end?

Suggested Readings

Ahearn, Laura. 2017. Living Language: An Introduction to Linguistic Anthropology. 2nd ed. Chichester, West Sussex, UK; Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

Duranti, Alessandro. 1997. Linguistic Anthropology. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

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