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  • Skye Shirley

That's What She Said: Gendered Speech, Then and Now

Updated: Mar 29, 2018

On Feminine Discourse in Roman Comedy by Dorota M. Dutsch


Long before I decided to do an independent study and blog on the subject, I had heard of Dutsch's comprehensive analysis of the ways in which women and men spoke differently in Roman Comedy. I'm now about a third of the way through her book, and can already tell it will be worth a re-visit after I finish Hecyra. So far, I am intrigued to notice her list of qualities of female speech. She reminds us that these plays were written by men, so may reflect more how men perceived female speech than its actual practice in daily life; nevertheless, Dutsch provides a valuable glimpse into Roman expectations of female discourse.


Even though words like "amabo" are extinct except within the few Latin circles such as Rusticatio and a handful of university immersion programs, the underlying themes of gender differentiated speech still persist in English today. Examples of this include:


-"sorry" used by women more often than men (I myself have started to say "thank you" when someone does an act like holds the door open for me, rather than "sorry" which is often used. My female students frequently apologize for asking for help with Latin.)

-"just" to downplay their contributions: "I just want to add..." or "I just think..."

-"actually" as if their contribution is against expectations: "I actually want to add..."

-anticipating a negative reaction: "no offense," or "I don't mean to be rude"

-undermining their own ideas: "this might be wrong..." or "this might sound crazy..."

-delaying tactics such as "if you don't mind, I'd love a coffee" versus "bring me coffee"

-blandishments such as "sweetie" or "honey"

-diminutives such as "I have a small favor to ask..." or "can I have a little?"

-upspeak, in which the speaker ends statements using intonation similar to questions, which diminishes the authoritative nature of a statement


Can you think of any others? In English or Latin? (Post in the comments below!)


Frequent responses to this include:

-women should notice their language and decide to be more assertive if possible

-women shouldn't have to change their speech; they shouldn't have to change; this is a policing of women's voices (Check out this fascinating NPR clip)

-men should be gentler and kinder in their speech, not the other way around

-this list is limited to certain cultures; these traits apply more to white middle and upper-class American mother-tongue English speaking women (that's me, by the way) than other groups


Regardless of your response, it's not all talk. I was surprised to notice that there is an app ("Just Not Sorry") that you can install into gmail which underlines in red the speech patterns listed above. For example:


And, unsurprisingly, there is pushback on the app both from non-feminists and even feminists, calling it a way to "keep women trapped in a man's world."


I came to Dutsch's work already aware of these modern discussions about gendered speech, and was stunned to notice the timelessness of the linguistic differentiations.

Below is my list of female speech patterns in Roman Comedy, as compiled by Dutsch:

Many of these overlap with the previous list of modern gendered speech patterns! One surprisingly different one is the high frequency of "mea/mi" adjectives along with the vocative case for nouns. For non-Latinists here on the blog, what that means is that women far more frequently begin statements with "my you," "my light," "my husband," "my Lucius," "my _______." The question remains: do women do this to get what they want, because they simply are used to hearing women talk that way, or because they are authentically feeling more intimate with others than men do?


Another surprise was that the exclamation "Au!" tends to be used by women whereas "Ei!" was used by men. It reminds me of English equivalents like "Eeek," "oops," or "whoopsie" which are seen as feminine exclamations.


Finally, we have the way that women and men ask for something. Men say "quaeso," (I seek), and women say "amabo," (I will love). Are women wheedling to get what they want? Or using their sexual power (à la Lysistrata?) to get what they want? Or is a word just a word, passed down so many times that it ceases to mean what it once did?


Picking apart the ancient history of gendered discourse seems, even to a language enthusiast like me, sometimes fruitless. I'm at a cafe in 2018 now, beside my coffee (a "New World" beverage the Romans never drank) and cranberry muffin, and all around me are fellow Bostonians with headphones in and fingers typing away. I'm just like them. Why do I care to turn the pages of old books over and over in the hope of revealing the gendered roots of a language my parents have never spoken?


Perhaps it is because I convince myself that if I go far enough back in the past, I'll understand the world of the present. Why it is that the Vivarium Novum, an institution offering a superb immersion experience for Latinists, currently excludes women from full-year enrollment. Why my Catholic student who adores spoken Latin asked me tentatively whether there were any spoken Latin positions open to women in Vatican City. Why, in grocery store lines and on subway cars, I get the same response: "You don't look like a Latin teacher!" or "You must be a smart girl!"-- And what might be done about it.


As a female classicist ever striving toward a higher level of Latinitas (which focuses on idiomatic, eloquent, fluent Latin, not just communication of ideas), I wonder: to what degree should I strive toward female speech patterns when speaking Latin? I currently say "mi," "amabo," and use feminine endings to refer to myself. The latter seems natural to me, as I use -a endings in Italian, too. But if I let go of the others, my Latin would become more masculine, not less gendered. I think I'll keep the blandishments, the tardiloquium, and the prayers to Castor, but not without uncertainty. The Skye who says "thank you" for opening the door is not the same Serena who will use "amabo" to ask a student to open the window.


Is it possible that Serena is more different from Skye than I had thought?


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