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Stop telling us how to speak! 5 ‘feminine’ phrases we’re reclaiming

Fillers words are a staple of my vocabulary. Officially, they are supposed to indicate a pause in speech for thought or hesitation, but they can also serve as a cheeky preface to something outrageous I’m about to say to a friend. I use them constantly, as do most of my girlfriends and some of the most intelligent women I know. Whether it’s my mum, grandma, best friend, sisters or female colleagues, they are lovely little additions to an angry rant, juicy gossip or casual yap. 

But, growing up, I was constantly told by teachers, family members, and even male friends that I should “talk properly”, “think before you speak” or silenced with a simple “be quiet”. I learnt that these filler words were a sign of immaturity, stupidity, or uncertainty. 

Photography by Priscilla Du Preez via Unsplash

The truth is, telling women to stop saying ‘like’ is really thinly veiled misogyny. In the same way that women are more likely to be interrupted than men (even on the US Supreme Court) and have been socialised into asking fewer questions in professional settings, the policing of women’s language is a subtle but deeply embedded patriarchal phenomenon. Historically, women’s voices have not been welcomed in the public sphere. For the Greeks and Romans, public speaking was a masculine trait and, as Classicist Mary Beard notes, a woman trying to speak up was, by definition, not a woman. Women’s presence in political and professional arenas has been gradually increasing since then, but the subtle patriarchal attitudes towards ‘feminine’ speech are surprisingly tenacious. 

The idea that ‘feminine’ filler words are frivolous and unprofessional couldn’t be further from the truth. Sociolinguist Valerie Fridland found that these filler phrases serve a critical linguistic and social function. They can communicate emotional nuance, show cognitive processing when presented with new information, and it has been shown that groups who employ these words the most also score the highest on psychological tests for conscientiousness. It’s unsurprising that women use them the most, as we are usually the ones who are socialised into being emotionally receptive and sensitive to others in social settings. 

So, to anyone who has been told that how they speak is wrong, at The New Feminist, we say keep talking! So, the next time a little “like” or “I mean” slips into your conversation, know that one word at a time, you are resisting centuries of patriarchal control over women’s speech. And, if you need any ideas, here are some of our favourites! 

1. “Like”

A classic. This one has been in the English language since the 12th Century but took on its modern connotations in the 20th century, with the 1980s ‘Valley Girls’ popularising it as a filler word (think Cher Horowitz in Clueless!). Interestingly, it’s been found that in certain settings men actually use this more than women, but as usual it’s the association in popular culture with the superficial and materialistic American teen girl that has made us believe it to be a ‘feminine’ trait.

2. “You know…?”

Useful for when you are trying to remember something, or when you just need a pause in a sentence to formulate your next phrase. If you use this, you are in good company; Chaucer used this in the 14th century in The Canterbury Tales, except instead of “you know”, it was “thou woost”, which is much more fun to say. Time to bring back Old English slang!

3. “Um…”

Short and sweet; an invaluable weapon in your linguistic arsenal. Great for stopping men interrupting you, and showing that you are not finished talking, you are just formulating your next nugget of wisdom. 

@madelineaford

recently everyone’s been making fun of girls for adding an extra syllable to words (stoppp-ah) but I love it. I love when women take up more space. #onthisday

♬ original sound – madeline ford

4. “I’m not being funny but…”

One of my personal favourites. Excellent to preface gossip. Language is constantly evolving, and this one is a fairly recent addition to British slang. We’ll never know exactly who started this one, but my guess would probably be a girl. Time and time again, linguists and psychologists have found that women, especially teenage girls, are our principal linguistic innovators.

5. “Basically…”

Whether you know it or not, this modest adverb is actually a sign of politeness and respect. It shows that what will follow is a simplification or a generalisation, or that you are adding emphasis. Although, if you want to switch it up, “literally” and “essentially” are also fabulous for adding stress to the sentence that will follow, especially if it is something funny!

Language is an expression of identity and can be a great tool for humour. We all have our linguistic quirks and favourite phrases, and that’s what makes language and conversation so fascinating. If you use any of these words, you’re not less intelligent, and certainly not lazy. If anything, you are demonstrating conscientiousness and emotional attentiveness. So, to anyone who’s been told to ‘stop speaking like that’, basically, keep talking you know?! 

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    Love

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