As a linguistics and rhetoric major, one of the classes I’m required to take is sociolinguistics. A common idea within sociolinguistics is that young women are the leaders in linguistic innovation. It just so happened that at this exact moment, my Archival Traditions in Rhetoric class was reading about Hunter College history as a normal school for young girls around the age of 14. If these girls were alive today, they’d be the first ones that linguists would approach to study. It reminded me of one lady’s paper analyzing commencement speeches, I realized, if the trend of female innovators stretches back to the time Hunter was established, the theory about young women being linguistics innovators would not just be a farce of our time.
I set out to look for commencement speeches of our earliest alumni. I browsed through the list of reference guides to the archives and luckily found commencement addresses very quickly. I put the request in and I met up with the speeches the next day.
I had thought of my method before, and resolved to look at speeches given five years apart, to look for adaptations of language use that expanded or became more widely used. As I mindlessly began taking photos of the many pages in front of me, I realized that this particularly long speech I was taking pictures of was written by a Bernard S. Deutsch. It never occurred to me that a man would be speaking at graduation, since it was an all girls’ school. I looked back at the photos I had already taken and I realized that quite a few of the speeches were given by men. I resolved to stop taking the mens’ speeches since they were not part of my corpus. I doubted that any male speech patterns would be innovative. That was pretty sexist.
I continued to take photos of speeches given by female speakers, every five years until I got to 1939. There were no record of speeches from 1940-1948. This was when I realized my linguistic study would not be so easy, nor clean. I thought to myself, “this giant gap in speeches would inevitably lead to confusion”. I wouldn’t know if any new trend I found after possibly began at Hunter or was externally influenced. I decided to make the best of what I had, which was a ton of commencement speeches, and forage on. I took photos of the 1948 commencement speech as it was the next earliest speech. By the time I finished taking pictures, it had only been about two hours. I was confounded as to what Professor Hayden made it seem like it’d be a wormhole for time. Perhaps making the reservation for the folders was all I needed to do right.
Later in the week, I had to read an extract from “Language and Woman’s Place’ by Robin Lakoff which posited that women are actually bidialectical: they know two languages and switch between them according to context and situation. One of the languages is the prescribed dialect of female speech; the other, a learned form of male speech. While the female speech is looked down upon and not taken seriously, the male form of speech is held in high regard, and is unfairly considered the default in public forums. This is what women have resorted to in order to level the playing field before her.
While once, girls were admonished for speaking roughly, the women they have grown into (have to) unlearns the gendered language policing they had experienced all their lives. They mirror male linguistic patterns as a result of oppressions stemming from childhood.
This made me realize that I possibly had stumbled on something bigger than just young girls as innovators. My having to stop taking pictures of speeches given by men was indicative of something else entirely. With both a record of how men and women speak, I could figure out patterns in their speech and the relationship between them. I began imagining scenarios I would find in the speeches such as the women speaking differently when addressing fellow peers as opposed to speaking in reference to themes outside of the audience. Would she adopt the male dialect for certain messages and not others? Thus, I began looking at the photos I had taken with a new target in mind. I also realized I would have to make another trip to the archives in order to get the rest of the male addresses.
One of the male speakers writes about his devotion to Hunter College because of his wife. He links his loyalty to the school through a “tie of affection” as opposed to something related to education or knowledge or schools. I am no longer sure if I am being sexist by pointing this out, or if the feminist lens magnifies this deep. Another thing I noticed, he repeated many words over and over again, to the point where the sentence was really hard to decipher. For example,
“When you step from school into the wider world, you step from a scene in which you are protected in some degree from the consequences of your own errors into a scene in which you are penalized not only for your own errors, but for the errors, sometimes even for the crimes, of your fellow-citizens.”
There’s so much more to be deciphered and gleamed from these speeches. I’ve since learned from my own experiences that the archives may bring you to difference places, but it is up to the archivist-researcher to figure out the context of these places. Had I never read Lakoff’s piece differentiating between male and female speech, I would have continued on my search for vague innovations made by girls from a society and time I am not familiar with.
Deutsch, Bernard S. Commencement Address, Hunter College in 1934, Hunter College Publications Collection, Box 23, Folder 5, Archives and Special Collections, Hunter College Libraries, Hunter College of the City University of New York, New York City.
Lakoff, Robin Tolmach., and Mary Bucholtz. “Chapter 17.” Language and Woman’s Place: Text and Commentaries. New York: Oxford UP, 2004. 242-52. Print.