Learning How to
Talk Like a Lady
You always try to be the same as everyone else. You don't sort of want to be made fun of . . . sort of posher than everybody else. Then you get sort of picked on. But then if you use a lot of slang and that, people don't think very much of you. (teenage girl in Birmingham, cited by Cullum, 1981, p. 108)
In chapter 5 I showed how girls must tread a fine line in their behavior or they risk being called slags and whores. It is the same with their talk, which serves as an index of their conduct, as can be seen in my epigraph to this chapter taken from Cullum's study of girls' peer groups in England. How do girls learn to talk like ladies? And how do boys learn to talk like men?
Recall from the last chapter Robin Lakoff's ( 1975) speculation that both boys and girls learn "women's language" first because that is the language children are exposed to at home, where mothers are usually the primary caretakers, at least in most Western societies. Both male and female children develop initial close bonds with their mothers. We might expect this pattern of exposure to predominantly female speech to continue into the early school years because elementary schools generally have more female than male teachers. Researchers have commented on the more feminine aspects of the early school years, with their concentration on female values such as quietness, order, neatness, and so on.
Teachers often pay more attention, both positive and negative, to boys. At school, girls have to balance the competing images of females as passive and docile and of successful learners who are active, independent, and