Academic journal article Women and Language

Gender and Swearing: A Community Practice *

Academic journal article Women and Language

Gender and Swearing: A Community Practice *

Article excerpt

Abstract: Recent studies have shown that the gender-swearing relationship is more complex and context-specific than has been supposed. We adopted a 'communities of practice' framework to contextualize the linguistic practice of swearing and to explore the meanings of this practice for one particular 'community, ' a group of undergraduate drinking friends. Through members' accounts, we can observe their negotiation of specific linguistic categories, and their ongoing (re)definition of 'bad language' as a resource for identity construction. These findings provide insights into the ways in which gender itself becomes redefined and contextualized within particular frames of reference. Both female and male participants reported habitually deploying strong language in the context of shared group enterprises, although a number of subtle, yet persistent gender differences reflect the respondents' location within the wider sociocultural context(s).

Introduction

Recent feminist approaches to language and gender research (LGR) have consistently challenged folklinguistic perceptions of 'women's language' (see e.g. collections by Hall and Bucholtz, 1995; Bergvall, Bing and Freed, 1996; Bucholtz, Liang and Sutton, 1999). In particular, work undertaken from a social constructionist perspective has consistently demonstrated the complexity of the language-gender relationship, and hence, the futility of searching for specifically gendered styles of speaking (Crawford, 1995). Nonetheless, dichotomized notions of gender remain salient, in both expectations and perceptions of everyday communication (Cameron, 1996, 1997a). A particularly robust example of this can be found in attitudes towards women's use of 'obscenity' or 'bad language'. While researchers have identified an increasing knowledge and use of expletives among female respondents (e.g. de Klerk, 1992, 1997; M. Gordon, 1993; Sutton, 1995), the evaluation of such practices continues to be filtered through sociocultural conceptions of femininity/masculinity (see e.g. Risch, 1987; de Klerk, 1992, 1997; Hughes, 1992).

Gender And Swearing: Social And Cultural Factors

Cultural processes and expectations have traditionally mitigated against women's use of obscenity, on (at least) two counts. Firstly, swearing, or the use of expletives, is perceived as an intrinsically forceful or aggressive activity (Coates, 1993; de Klerk, 1991, 1997). Thus, women who engage in such behavior may be seen as transgressing cultural stereotypes and expectations of femininity, wherein they are positioned variously as deferent, polite, nurturing, and oriented towards the needs/feelings of others. To this extent then, the use of 'swear-words' represents an accepted social means of constructing a masculine identity (cf. de Klerk, 1997). Secondly, expletives constitute a linguistic taboo in Western society, thereby functioning to maintain behavioral compliance within particular communities (cf. Guerin, 1992). Given that taboos play an important role in maintaining the status quo of a society, women have traditionally been more fully subject to their effects than have men (Humphrey, 1993). While breaching a taboo inevitably entails certain consequences for the speaker, such consequences will be intensified by the speakers positioning within the prevailing (gender) hierarchy. This process is clearly exemplified in differential attitudes to female/male swearing (e.g. de Klerk, 1992, 1997), whereby women's use of obscenity is likely to be evaluated more negatively than that of their male counterparts.

Moreover, as part of the vernacular (Cheshire, 1982; Romaine 1999), expletives carry strong connotations of lower socioeconomic groupings and/or working-class' culture (see Hughes, 1992). Sociolinguistic research has traditionally characterized women as more keenly aware of the prestige value of linguistically dissociating from this culture, although a number of subsequent studies have demonstrated the overly simplistic nature of such claims. …

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