Log in

No account? Create an account
07 September 2008 @ 17:16
Linguistic history is made in Islamabad (and New York)  

The world has come a long way in the past third of a century or so. In 1975, Robin Lakoff's book Language and Women's Place had the following to say about widows and widowers:

Surely a bereaved husband and a bereaved wife are equivalent: they have both undergone the loss of a mate. But in fact, linguistically at any rate, this is not true. It is true that we have two words, widow and widower; but here again, widow is far commoner in use. Widows, not widowers, have their particular roles in folklore and tradition, and mourning behavior of particular sorts seems to be expected more strongly, and for a longer time, of a widow than of a widower. But there is more than this, as evidenced by the following:

    1. Mary is John's widow.
    2. *John is Mary's widower.

Like mistress, widow commonly occurs with a possessive preceding it, the name of the woman's late husband. Though he is dead, she is still defined by her relationship to him. But the bereaved husband is no longer defined in terms of his wife. While she is alive, he is sometimes defined as Mary's husband (though less often, probably, than she is as "John's wife"). But once she is gone, her function for him is over, linguistically speaking anyway.

As of this morning (at the latest), this is no longer true. Here is today's New York Times reporting on yesterday's election in Pakistan:

Bhutto’s Widower, Viewed as Ally by U.S., Wins the Pakistani Presidency Handily

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of the assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto who has little experience in governing, was elected president of Pakistan on Saturday by a wide margin.

We talk about "sexist language," but, as Lakoff's book made clear, it's not really the language that is at fault. The sexist asymmetries in our language merely reflect, and to some extent reinforce, the sexism that is present in our society. (The words governor and governess, for example, were once about as parallel semantically as they are morphologically; that they have drifted apart is merely a reflection of the fact that society generally assigned men to govern states, and women to govern children. This pair, I think, is unlikely to swing back into sync; Sarah Palin is not the governess of Alaska.)

Zardari is described as "Bhutto's widower" for the same reason that so many women over the centuries have been described as somebody's widow: because the deceased spouse is more prominent in the speaker's mind than the surviving one. All it took to make the construction in Lakoff's (24b) grammatical was the remarkable career of Benazir Bhutto. If we want to change the language, all we have to do is change the world.

thniduthnidu on 8. September, 2008 00:33 (UTC)
Yes, I noticed that, and the connection. (Robin was my doctoral committee chair.)
thniduthnidu on 8. September, 2008 00:34 (UTC)
PS: may I post your commentary, or a pointer to it, to the American Dialect Soc'y discussion list?
Q. Pheevrq_pheevr on 8. September, 2008 02:29 (UTC)


Merle: lambdamerle_ on 8. September, 2008 02:22 (UTC)
Odd. I had subconsciously conflated Robin and George Lakoff into the same person. Apologies to both of them, should one see this.

It is interesting, though, that the converse of Sapir-Whorf (our thoughts define the language we speak) seems quite evident and easy to accept for me. I shall have to track down a copy of that book, because it sounds like such a belief was not always commonplace.
Q. Pheevrq_pheevr on 8. September, 2008 02:38 (UTC)

There's a new edition that includes the original text plus commentary about some of the things that have changed since it was first published.

鉄観音isolt on 8. September, 2008 11:37 (UTC)
Yes, the new edition was on my prelims list, and it's utterly fantastic, both in that the original text is fantastic, Robin Lakoff's fascinating commentary is, well, fascinating, and the other contributions from language-and-gender-studies people are totally fantastic.
Lexiepolyhymnia on 8. September, 2008 04:03 (UTC)
The sentence 24b 'becoming grammatical' is also an interesting example of semantics having a lot to do with grammaticality judgements. Syntactically it seems like 24b was probably always grammatical -- there are lots of constructions X is Y's Z. It was the lack of people's conception of someone as someone else's widower that blocked it from sounding grammatical, not the construction itself. Or so I would argue -- maybe I'm wrong, maybe widower changed syntactic status, but it doesn't seem like it.
w1ldc47w1ldc47 on 8. September, 2008 11:01 (UTC)
I think the change may have happened less recently than you think. I know that (to the extent that I have had the opportunity to use the construction) I have used, (and, I believe, seen) "$girlsname's widower" for as long as I can remember. It would certainly have never occurred to me that I *couldn't* use it.
Q. Pheevrq_pheevr on 8. September, 2008 19:38 (UTC)

Well, I did hedge with that parenthetical "at the latest." I expect that ADS-L will probably come up with some earlier examples, too.

What I find remarkable, though, is that I remember agreeing that "John is Mary's widower" sounded weird when I first read Lakoff, but that the headline in the Times (and the similar one in the Toronto Star) seemed perfectly natural.

thniduthnidu on 9. September, 2008 02:38 (UTC)
Posted to ADS-L. Use the [LIGHT-BULB + RIGHT-ARROWHEAD] button to scroll through the thread.
(Anonym) on 9. September, 2008 16:18 (UTC)
Should Lakoff had said "they have EACH undergone the loss of a mate?"
skullturf on 10. September, 2008 18:06 (UTC)

I'm reminded of another instance where facts about the external world (specifically, about the career of a prominent woman in politics) changed the opinion of at least some self-appointed experts about the acceptability of certain features of the language. I'm speaking of the nomination of Geraldine Ferraro as the Democrats' vice-presidential candidate in 1984. She happened to be married but was also known by her birth name, causing William Safire to agree that neither "Miss Ferraro" nor "Mrs. Ferraro" made sense, and to agree that the time for "Ms." had arrived.
(Anonym) on 12. September, 2008 14:28 (UTC)
Perhaps the '#' sign wasn't in use then. I would have thought b. should have (when written) been marked # rather than *: perfectly grammatical but with no reasonable pragmatic context available.