Grammar Is Sex; Language Is a Woman

By Penelope, Julia | Women and Language, Fall 1993 | Go to article overview

Grammar Is Sex; Language Is a Woman


Penelope, Julia, Women and Language


English teachers spend some portion of their careers trying to "explain" the vagaries of language and the contradictions and inadequacies of the grammars that purport to describe it. Their students sit bemused, benumbed, and confused, wondering what, if anything, the "rules" presented to them have to do, not only with the language they speak, but with their lives. Analyses of the conceptual metaphors that structure patriarchal descriptions of English suggest that many of our problems with grammatical dicta originate in the thinking about language coded in the resulting metaphorical expressions. Here, I will discuss three of the four related complex metaphors that reflect patriarchal thinking about language and communication: the CONDUIT METAPHOR, first described by Michael Reddy, GRAMMAR IS SEX, and LANGUAGE IS A WOMAN. The fourth, LANGUAGE IS A TOOL, may need no further explanation.

Michael Reddy argues that the Conduit Metaphor is the prevalent metaphor in western descriptions of language, including attempts to improve and understand communication. Drawing on Reddy's analysis, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson redescribed the Conduit Metaphor as a complex metaphor, the CONTAINER metaphor, which they represented as a three-part sequence:

IDEAS (OR MEANINGS) ARE OBJECTS.

LINGUISTIC EXPRESSIONS ARE CONTAINERS.

COMMUNICATION IS SENDING.

The framework of the Conduit Metaphor forces us to conceive of language structures as containers, and thoughts and feelings as objects we insert into them, successfully or unsuccessfully. When we use the Conduit Metaphor to describe communication, we think of words and sentences as having "insides" and "outsides," as containers into which we insert ideas and feelings.

As Reddy points out, the inherent danger of the Conduit Metaphor is that it makes us think of communication as a simple process, like a drive-in bank's pneumatic tube, one that "guarantees success without effort" (p.295). We are taught to think that, in order to communicate, all we have to do is pluck ideas and feelings out of our minds, place them in language containers, send them off through the air, and they will always land, perfectly reproduced, perfectly intelligible, and impervious to misinterpretation, in the receptive mind(s) of our listener(s). Should we fail at such an easy task, we can be assured that someone will tell us it's our own fault. Because the Conduit Metaphor structures the way we think of communication, we are surprised, too, when our attempts at communication fail, as they often do, and we think of our failed attempts as "stupid" or "bad."

While Reddy's analysis of the Conduit Metaphor suggests its importance in our thinking about English, Reddy, Lakoff and Johnson missed what seems to me an obvious anatomical source for the prevalence of that metaphor. According to those scholars, speakers conceptualize language as a container because that metaphor is readily available to them, not because they like it, or because it makes sense, or because it's accurate. What they do not ask is why some metaphorical concepts are more popular than others in patriarchal culture. What does "readily available" explain, after all? Although Lakoff and Johnson were quite explicit about the fact that metaphorical concepts "structure (at least in part) what we do and how we understand what we are doing" (p.5), they didn't explore why certain metaphors proliferate while equally useful possibilities are never explored. Why, in patriarchal society, are so many ideas, like language, understood in terms of the CONTAINER metaphorical concept?

Because men are obsessed with their penises, in particular, the act of inserting their penises into and penetrating spaces they perceive as objects whose sole reason for existing is to serve as containers, receptacles for the occupation. Like women. Men perceive women to be the primary objects for insertion of, penetration by their penises. …

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