Perlocution and Women’s Language

For decades sociolinguists like Austin (1962) have explored human intentions in discourse, or locution. Locution is what is actually being said; it is what is coming from a person’s mouth, hand, facial expression, or written word; it is every syllable, utterance, hand gesture, or body movement. Even the driver in the previous cartoon is performing locutionary acts by looking confused, or by smiling.

The chosen combination of utterances and signs in a locution conveys a multitude of meanings and intentions, all while conveying information and sometimes social status. It conveys the speaker’s desire to relay knowledge, considerations for whom they are speaking, as well as how language and signs are interpreted. Austin breaks down a person’s locution into two components:  their illocution and their perlocution.

An illocution is the direct purpose of the locution, that is, it is the purpose of the thing that was said. It is the declarative information being passed from one person to another. In the example of our male and female students giving directions, they both are speaking the same illocution:  Turn around, and go left at the light. Then, take a right at the fork.

There is an obvious difference in their chosen languages in making this illocution however, because what takes sixty-four words for the female is said in only fifteen words by the male. The female student asks questions, attempts to collaborate, hedges, and attenuates her response. Her language conveys much more than driving directions; it is about relationships, emotions, self-identity and hierarchy. This meta-communicatory act is what Austin refers to as a perlocutionary act. When phrased with questions and peppered with hedges, her illocutionary statement is attenuated, or softened. When couching her response in this way, she is considering a level of deference to the receiver of the directions while she attempts to also collaborate and get corroboration; she is showing respect, while also communicating a lack of self-assurance. Psychological consequences of an illocution such as these are called perlocutions (Austin, 1962). Perlocutions are the effects of what has been said; whether it is to alarm, encourage, frighten, persuade, or to show respect; perlocutions concern the relationship between the speakers. When regarding gender positionality in academia, female student voice, or women’s scholarly progression, it is necessary to consider how Women’s Language (Lakoff, 1975) in higher education contributes to women’s oppression (Ellsworth, 1989, hooks, 1994, Glazer-Raymo, 1999; Terosky, Phiffer & Neumann, 2008; Aleman, 2008) in Screen Shot 2012-12-14 at 12.31.00 PMhigher education.

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