Judith M. Bean

Texas Woman's University


"Strong Language" in the Discourse of Two Texas Women

This paper is part of a discourse analysis project exploring how selected Texas women in professional roles exploit the resources of language for expressing individual identity (Johnstone and Bean 1997). The general project is connected in some respects to perceptual dialectology and language ideology, for each of our subjects demonstrated their own views of markers of Texas and Southern dialect, and each had fairly well formed ideologies about language. Discourse analysis methodology provides opportunities to examine the interplay between demographic variables and allows us to explore language innovations and potential sites of change at the individual speaker's level.

In our interviews, we asked women to talk about their "lingual biographies" (Becker, 1984; Johnstone 1999): the sources of their senses of self and interactional styles. At the same time, we tried to elicit the range of styles that each had available in interview talk, so that the transcripts would be rich both ethnographically and linguistically. Since our overarching research question was what it meant to "talk Texas," we asked questions aimed at exploring regional identity, followed by questions eliciting other sources of identity such as region, gender, ethnicity, age, class, and profession.

In the highly self-conscious, media-rich culture of the 20th and 21st centuries, language choices are increasingly symbolic. Our subjects displayed this heightened awareness of language choices, brought to the foreground by the subject of our interviews. These women's work - journalism, politics, labor union leadership, teaching, performing- involved skilled language use, and, as women, they encountered entrenched language ideologies that might have limited their choices. As we might expect, the older informants recalled stronger cultural resistance to their challenges to gender norms of discourse.

Our informants oriented themselves toward discourses/ cultural models which they found useful for expressing their individuality. Stereotypes of Southern and Western femininity served informants efficiently as common cultural symbols against which speakers could define themselves for their interlocutors (Bean 1993).

This paper examines variations in two women's discourse associated with symbolic regional and social class identity. These two women were quite different in their orientation to gender marked language. Eliza Bishop, who became a journalist in the 1940s, maintains a symbolic identification with an image of the upper class Southern lady, but adapted her discourse to include features she associates with the Southwest. Bishop's choices contrast with those of Linda Chavez-Thompson, now Executive Vice President of the AFL-CIO, who became labor-union worker in the 1960s and maintains a symbolic identification with the working class. One of the most salient features of stereotypical women's language for them was the proscription against use of "strong language" -- profanity or similarly marked language choices (Bean and Johnstone forthcoming). This paper contrasts their views and strategic use of "strong language" and directness in relation to their perceptions of Southern discourse.

This discussion extends scholarship on how women use language forms to strategically fashion new identities in talk, how women use stereotypical "women's language" as a commodity, how women respond in diverse ways to ideologies of 'powerful' language and how women create individual identities through language choices (Johnstone 1996 ; Gal 1995; Hall and Bucholtz 1995; Meyerhoff 1996).

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