International Journal of Scottish Theatre

Do women and men talk differently?  Jennifer Coates posed this question in the opening line of her introduction to Women, Men and Language,1 in which she and Deborah Cameron explore gender differences in language practice from the sociolinguistic point of view.  Coates's aim is not merely to establish that women and men do indeed speak differently, but to provide evidence of how and why this happens.  In doing so, she draws on folklinguistic, grammarian, anthropologic, and dialectological material, as well as a number of quantitative studies that concentrate on examples from English speaking communities.

The analysis of female discourse in contemporary drama has shown that conversational patterns are neither clear-cut nor simple.  The same rules will not apply in single gender interactions as in mixed gender ones.  Furthermore, female speakers in a single gender interaction may assume both co-operative and competitive language modes (discussed in detail later) in order to establish their position in the communicational hierarchy.  Both modes, and their diverse traits, will be examined and illustrated by means of examples from three contemporary Scottish plays, all of which were written by women authors in the 1980s when the women's language debate was at its height.2 The plays will be dealt with in reverse chronological order (from the more recent backwards), in order to present the play with the most naturalistic dramatic dialogue first, and the one that focuses on the language issues in both its contents and its structure the last.  Finally, some conclusions will be drawn as to the implications of the findings for the study of men's language.

The issue of female vs. male language has often plagued linguists, sociolinguists, dialectologists, social psychologists and literary theorists; indeed, it is an issue around which theoretical battles have been waged, and often lost, in the course of the past several decades.  Most of the approaches have their starting point in perceiving differences in language use as either biologically or socially based. According to the former perception, as propounded by Otto Jespersen3, women's inferior vocabulary and general linguistic skills are biologically determined rather than based on education.  This concept has been subsequently discarded as too simplistic and misleading.  The perception that language is socially based has been founded on the premise that the socialisation process is largely conducted through language, and has been explored by a number of feminist theorists and sociolinguists, including Sheila Rowbotham, Dale Spender, Jennifer Coates and Deborah Cameron.  For instance, Coates suggests that 'learning to be male or female in our society means amongst other things learning to use gender-appropriate language',4 and that by adopting a certain linguistic behaviour speakers perpetuate the social order which generates gender differences.

According to Coates there are two main approaches to gender differences in language - dominance approach and difference approach.  On the one hand, the dominance approach 'sees women as an oppressed group and interprets linguistic differences in women's and men's speech in terms of men's dominance and women's subordination'.5 This approach is based on the premise that men's use of language places them as central and positive, while women are blamed 'for any linguistic state or development which is regarded […] as negative or reprehensible'.6  In this way, women's tendencies to be indirect, avoid verbal confrontation and not interrupt another speaker, all of which are the traits of co-operative language mode, can be seen as powerless and inferior to men's use of language which is, on the contrary, seen as competitive and self-assertive, all of which enhances their authority and centrality in the interaction process.  In You Just Don't Understand:  Women and Men in Conversation Deborah Tannen suggests that:

  (…) if a linguistic strategy is used by a woman, it is seen as powerless; if it's done by a man, it is seen as powerful.  Often, the labelling of "women's language" as "powerless" reflects the view of women's behaviour through the lens of men's.  Because they are not struggling to be one-up, women often find themselves framed as one-down.7  

In contrast, the difference approach 'emphasises the idea that women and men belong to different subcultures'8 and that linguistic differences between the two genders may serve to maintain their separate identities.  Rather than claim that one is superior to the other, this approach emphasises the equality of gender-based linguistic differences.  This idea will be mentioned in greater detail later, with regard to the more recent work of Coates and Tannen.

A number of feminist critics have argued that the man-made properties of language make it impossible for women to express themselves verbally.  In her book Women's Consciousness: Man's World Sheila Rowbotham proposes that language leaves women silent because 'as soon as [they] learn words, [they] find [themselves] outside them'.9  In an online abstract 'Female Objects of Semantic Dehumanization and Violence', 10 William Brennan suggests several explanations for the oppression of women amongst which are: DOS (Defective Opportunity Structure), the lack of economic, legal, educational, social, and other opportunities which place women in a dependent position; and the ideology of patriarchy, with its belief that men are inherently superior to women, which enables domination over women in all spheres of life. He states that during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, 'scientists moved into the controversy over the "woman's question" by endowing the stereotypes of female inferiority with an aura of empirical authority.  These guardians of male supremacy […] cited a vast array of measurements and observations on the "defects" in female anatomy and physiology.'11  In his opinion, the very language operates in a subtle manner to 'denigrate women and keep them in a subordinate position'.12

Similarly, in The Language of Oppression, Haig Bosmajian concludes:

  While the language of racial and ethnic oppression is often blatant and relatively easy to identify, the language of sexism is more subtle and pervasive.  Our everyday speech reflects the 'superiority' of the male and the 'inferiority' of the female, resulting in a master-subject relationship.  The language of sexism relegates the woman to the status of children, servants, and idiots, to being the 'second sex' and to virtual invisibility.13  

Rowbotham, Brennan and Bosmajian imply that the existing language is man-made and therefore inapt for women to use.  A number of feminist theorists expanded this idea in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and they began to explore the possibilities of women  creating an alternative, woman-made language as a more suitable means of expression.  In 1980, Dale Spender wrote that as long as she means a woman and he mankind, 'women will remain a muted group',14 and that the only way that women can be heard is if they create a language that could '[construct] the reality of women's autonomy, women's strength, women's power'.15  Feminist sociolinguists such as Coates and Tannen later criticised this approach, claiming that instead of creating a different and separate language from men's, women should challenge the existing semantics by inscribing the meanings of their own.  Instead of trying to speak and behave like men, women should allow themselves to be different from men, whilst retaining, at the same time, their linguistic and social equality.  In other words, rather than changing male and female speech habits that are equally valid and part of their identities, one should endeavour to 'change their responses to the habits of the opposite sex'. 16  This also means a greater understanding of the fact that people belonging to a single gender are in no way an amorphous mass, there is no one single definition of a single-gendered language and behaviour.  The fact that women's use of language is found to be more co-operative (indirectness, submissiveness, avoidance of verbal conflict, etc) does not mean that in some instances women speakers do not either use certain traits of competitive mode, or modify traits of co-operative mode, so as to gain the upper hand in the communicational hierarchy. 

A good example of a play which deals with the plurality of female discourse and its position in the communicational hierarchy in a predominately patriarchal society is Sue Glover's play The Straw Chair (1988).  Glover re-creates the historic character of Rachel, Lady Grange, in order to examine woman's position as marginalised and the Other in eighteenth-century Scottish society.  The physical removal of Rachel from Edinburgh to a remote Scottish island, preventing any written correspondence between her and her family and friends represents both physical and intellectual silencing, the forcible removal of the feminine from the public sphere.  In Women, Men and Language, Deborah Cameron refers to the gender inequality at the base of patriarchal ideology when she suggests that in different historical periods women achieved social respectability through male approval.  Given that social norms, gender divisions and particular language use are defined by a dominant group in a society, it is this group that has a potential to create a system of cultural, social and political beliefs and rituals which will perpetuate that group's dominant position in their community.  In both traditional and revisionist histories a dominant group has always been defined in terms of a class, and different aspects such as ethnicity and gender have often been disregarded.  The early feminist theories recognised this oversight and proposed another classification between the patriarchal (male/white/middle-class) and the Other (female/non-white/working-class).  This classification is deceptively simple, and can only be taken as a starting point for the exploration of different sub-groups.  For example, a non-white male is rendered as powerless as a white working-class female, whilst a middle-class white female is given a higher position than a non-white and/or working class female.  There are many such combinations that reveal different gender, social and ethnic relationships.  However, by looking at this classification in its broadest sense, it is evident that the male occupies a dominant, authoritative and powerful position, as opposed to the female whose position is seen as marginal, subordinate and powerless (e.g. female - non-white - working class).  If this argument is extended to language, what ensues from it is that since language has been shaped by a dominant group (male), it therefore serves, in accordance with the separate spheres model, to marginalise and oppress the subordinate group (female).    In The Straw Chair, Glover creates three very different female protagonists, Rachel, Isabel and Oona, who at first sight can be taken as three types of the feminine in the eyes of the traditional separate spheres model - the virgin, the strumpet and the old hag.  However, during the play, she gives quite different meanings to their gender and linguistic attributes, and turns these three characters into representations of three different social classes - aristocracy, bourgeois and peasantry.  Upon this the author creates three differing interaction models that account for linguistic and dramatic conflicts in the play.

Behind the virgin-strumpet-hag imagery is the model of a silent or silenced woman.  Opposed to Rachel's coarse behaviour is Isabel, a young bride of a middle-aged Edinburgh minister who was sent to Hirta to bring the good word to the islanders.  Isabel's chastity and sense of duty are established early in the play as the perception of femininity that the bourgeoisie has adopted as an ideal from the early romances (e.g. in Women, Men and Language Jennifer Coates gives examples of Arthurian romances and stories such as 'Eree and Enyd').  She speaks only when she is spoken to, and even when she partakes in an interaction she speaks only in brief sentences, or half-sentences, and is often interrupted by her husband.  Her silence is interpreted as virtue; for example, when Aneas talks about what attracted him to her he describes the picture of a silent Madonna:

Aneas. I could not find words for you, when I first
met you.  Each time I called at the house - you had a child on your knee and another at your feet (…).17

This indicates that in his choice of a bride Aneas was guided by her upbringing,18 as well as by her appearance.19  

Isabel is placed low on the ladder of the communicational hierarchy.  She mostly voices her husband's opinions rather than her own and, in cases of disagreement, she is silent.  The depiction of Isabel early in the play is that of an immature, childish being.  Brennan stipulates that the depiction of women as children is another semantic device used to propound the concept of female inferiority.  He gives as an example the Earl of Chesterfield's letter in 1748 in which he advises his son how to deal with women:

  Women, then, are only children of a larger growth; they have an entertaining tattle, and sometimes wit…  A man of sense only trifles with them, plays with them, humor [sic] and flatters them, as he does with a sprightly forward child; but he neither consults them about, nor trusts them with serious matters; though he often makes them believe that he does both.20  

Aneas addresses Isabel as a child, and when threatened by her emotional growth, closely followed by her expanding linguistic proclivity, he warns her that she will end up as Rachel, 'an uncomfortable wife'. 

Early on in the play, in a conversation between Isabel and Rachel, Rachel assumes male discourse to win the upper hand in the communicational hierarchy.

Rachel. Do you like him? Don't you want him? Do you? (She grows ever louder, ISABEL fears ANEAS will waken.) Don't you? Do you?
Isabel. Ssssh.
Rachel. Well? (Louder again.) Well?
Isabel. Yes. Yes. Times I think - yes.
Rachel. Then hoist up your semmit and get on with it! Get on with it! Isabel turns away. So rigidly pious!
Isabel. No! No. But how can I - hoist my semmit - when HE is talking all the while about the sanctification of the spirit? He is disappointed in me.
Rachel. He hasn't tried you yet!
Isabel. I don't think he likes me. I don't think he wants me.
Rachel. (Without too much concern.) Ask him! Men lie with less conviction when they have no clothes on. (She looks at ISABEL for a long moment.) You have not seen him naked?
ISABEL makes no reply.
Nor any man?
No reply necessary.
Isabella whats-your-face, you have led a sheltered life! 21

Rachel's statements are provocative and aggressive, as is her choice of the topic of conversation, which makes Isabel increasingly unsettled and awkward (she tries to hide this behind her silence22).  Rachel's aggressive interaction finally prompts a reaction from Isabel who abandons for a moment her hesitant defensive position and shouts at her.  There is in Isabel's discourse an indication of a definite departure from the set formulae of her husband's pious speeches.  She has already begun to question his myopic inability to accept Rachel on the one hand, and to understand the pagan beliefs of Hirta's locals on the other.  As Isabel's understanding of the Gaelic universe on Hirta grows, she moves up the ladder of the communicational hierarchy by adopting a more assertive and inquisitive language mode.  She is more talkative and considerably more self-opinionated and she speaks in finished and assertive sentences.  She also begins to use animal imagery when expressing her sensuality.  She says that she 'could do with some scales.  Soft ones, like a snake's'.23  Glover uses animal imagery in a positive sense, to indicate Isabel's erotic awakening.  A body dressed in scales is a body aware of its sexuality: it is a liberated body reconnected with nature, and as such it becomes a representation of the feminine.  Isabel's daydream about being 'created new and innocent with scales'24 is an invitation to Aneas to enter the feminine and immerse in it, become part of it.

Rachel is labelled by Aneas as 'ungodly' and a 'strumpet' because of her loudness, the use of vernacular and cursing.  Rachel breaks taboos by talking about sex and women's desires.  It is not a coincidence that she is called an Ochan, a great Skua, a bird of omen; in the past animal imagery was often used to identify female sexuality with bestiality.  Brennan mentions Captain Thomas Otter's statement in Ben Jonson's Epicoene (1609), that '[w]ives are nasty, sluttish animals.'25  This underscores the double standard of the patriarchal society where sexually active males are commended as being virile, whilst equally sexually active females are repudiated as nymphomaniacs, 'inebriate, violent, dangerous',26 uncomfortable wives.  Rachel exemplifies the way in which women's need to acknowledge and accept their sexuality, as an expression of their identities, has been blanketed by the needs of men, and how women's very existence has been silenced and made invisible.  Her attempts to communicate her existence to the outside world has been hindered by the Steward and his men, and the final image of the play finds her distraught and disorientated, writing/reciting/rehearsing an imaginary letter that will never leave the invisible walls of her prison.

Rachel's and Aneas's conflict can be seen as a power-struggle for dominance in the communicational hierarchy.  Each of them believes that they have the upper hand, Aneas through being a man and a minister, and Rachel through her belonging to a higher social class.  It can further be seen as their misconstruing of social codes.  Since societies are based on different values, accordingly, social codes that represent those values also differ.  Rachel believes that the only way to keep both her identity and her sanity is to hold on to her class identity which is symbolised in a few tattered memorabilia of her former status, such as her old clothes and the straw chair, 'the only chair on the island'.  For example, she refuses to dress like local women and prefers wearing old formal clothes suitable for Edinburgh society.  She introduces herself to Aneas in her old clothes, now worn to shreds, believing that in such a way she will establish a class hierarchy between them.  However, her ragged appearance only causes Aneas's outrage. 

Deborah Cameron proposed that ' prescriptions about women's behaviour, including their verbal behaviour, played a crucial part in the ideological struggle that took place in early modern Europe between the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie'.27  The conventional picture of the feminine as silent and submissive, which is bourgeois in origin, is contrasted by the verbosity of a court lady who was expected to entertain both female and male courtiers.  This verbosity, which Cameron refers to as 'free speech', had its strict rules, and a court lady like Rachel would be balancing on a thin line between being entertaining and outrageous.  In these terms, Isabel and Rachel represent two different models of the feminine - the bourgeois and the aristocratic - both constructed and made normative by men.  These models are based on the codes that define what is acceptable.  Individuals are punished for transgressing them in order to construct, in Cameron's words, 'an identity in defiance of cultural prescriptions, or for failing to construct a proper identity at all'.28  Penalties for such transgression range, says Cameron, from being labelled as eccentric to being ostracized, persecuted or locked up and stripped of one's rights.  Aneas's rejection of Rachel's behaviour may therefore be seen as the result of her failure to comply with the bourgeois model of the feminine as a silent group.  He fails to understand that Rachel cannot accept her present situation because such acceptance would mean losing her identity, and her sanity.

The third female character in The Straw Chair, Oona, belongs to a separate social class, that of the Gaelic rural community.  Her attitude towards the other characters is that of detached placidity.  They are foreigners to her world, they speak differently, smell differently, and they have different eating habits.  She speaks their language, but she does not pretend that she understands them.  Furthermore, she uses the English language only when she communicates with them.  When she wishes to express her emotions, she speaks Gaelic.  Her position towards Rachel is twofold; she is her servant, but at the same time she is also her keeper, appointed by the Steward.  The relationship between the two women has for this reason become a mixture of power-struggle and solidarity.  Her attitude towards Aneas is that of detachment, he represents the order that has colonised her world and imposed upon it its language and religion.  Oona is portrayed at the same time with a childlike innocence and ageless wisdom - she is a voice of folk tradition, the voice of the land, and in this sense she is classless.

The only male character in the play, Aneas, wishes to change Hirta.  He has come to the island on a mission to lead the local community out of the ancient darkness, only to find out that he has brought the darkness with him.  He serves as an oppressing agent of a dominant class, rather than serving the needs of the people.  At the beginning of the play, Aneas is shown as a powerful, self-righteous, 'stickit' minister with undisputed authority over everyone and everything.  As the play progresses, his authority diminishes; the locals do not have any real need of him, and Isabel also slips out of his control.  The only person who truly needs his help is Rachel, who is denied it.  In this sense, he is  representative of the dominant male principle of the patriarchal society that strives to oppress the otherness of the feminine principle.  Aneas readily agrees with the image of Rachel as a strumpet, and an uncomfortable wife, because the acknowledgement of her truth would undermine the social reality upon which he bases his beliefs.  The moment that he enters the feminine by acknowledging Rachel's point of view is the moment of realisation that he too has been a pawn in the hands of the powerful.

Aneas. I believed it was the Highlands that were sunk in darkness. But there is evil everywhere. Lord, who is blind but thy servant? And I closed my eyes. Kept them shut fast. Only what could I have done? Father in heaven, what would you have me do?
Rachel. (Not speaking or looking at ANEAS now.)
Destroy the letters. But Bridget knew. Destroy Bridget. Send Rachel out of town. Tell the world she is half-crazed. But I would not stay away. I haunted Niddrie Wynd. Every night I screamed: Murder! Roll up, see the pious Lord of Murder! Oh, I repent! I repent my mouth, my screaming. I should have kept it shut - sought revenge like you seek pleasure - in the dark, in the slime.
Aneas. (His mind is reeling from all this - and its implications on his own behaviour.)
The plan to spread the gospel in the North. I am part of the plan; I was to bring Christ's sweet mercy from the Lowlands. From Edinburgh… where the powerful and the glorious are capable of anything! And rid themselves of anyone.29

This shift in Aneas' position is followed by a shift in his use of language.  Initially he speaks in the set formulae of church parlance, which further complicates his communication with the other characters, and particularly his relationship with Isabel.  In the course of the play his language becomes simpler, everyday, until at the end of the play he abandons the church parlance altogether for a more informal mode.

In her 1985 play Dracula, Liz Lochhead deals with similar issues of mixed gender communication and the difficulty of women expressing themselves in man-made language.  Lochhead remodels the original story by turning the two friends, Mina Murray and Lucy Westenra, into sisters, emphasising in this manner the concept of sisterhood.  Mina and Lucy are represented as opposites, hence Jonathan, Mina's fiancé, describes them to Count Dracula as 'chalk and cheese'.30  The associations of the clichéd image that Jonathan chooses in his description of the two sisters is particularly interesting and can be used as a distinguishing device.  Chalk is used to communicate with or relate knowledge to somebody.  In this way the functional, cerebral element is emphasised.   Cheese has strong olfactory association in terms of smell and taste, hence it is used here to emphasise sensuality.  Similarly, Lochhead depicts Mina as well-mannered, conventional and scrupulous.  When she enters the stage, in the opening scene, she is described in the stage directions as 'big sister.  Proper English rose'.31 However, Lochhead also refers to her sexuality by using an olfactory image of 'a peach'.32  Lucy also describes her as 'good enough to eat'.33  The allusion of eating a woman's flesh, which is presented here, has intensely sensual connotations.  Later in the play when Arthur Seward teases Jonathan that he is marrying trade, Jonathan defends his choice by describing his fiancé as 'the loveliest girl who ever lived', 'beautiful. And brave.  And clever.'34  When pushed by Seward, he admits unwillingly that Mina is also 'sweet',35 the attribute that he has been trying to avoid in his description of her.  Given olfactory associations of the word 'sweet' (like a sweet, or a peach), to Jonathan it seems improper to use for his fiancé an adjective that has potential sensual connotations.  This is because in the eyes of a Victorian man the traditional model of a young lady is associated with purity and asexuality.  Granted, 'sweet' is an ambiguous word because, if its olfactory meaning is ignored, it can also mean 'pretty' without being 'alluring'.  Mina is shown as a representation of the Victorian ideal of a proper English rose, a wealthy, well-mannered, conventional young virgin.  The social function of matrimony is emphasised, and both men's and women's sexualities are shaped and controlled to suit the cultural imperatives of the dominant ideology.  Lochhead shows the difference between male and female perspectives of women by distinguishing between Jonathan's and Lucy's description of Mina's character.  While Jonathan is careful not to use any sexually charged words when he refers to his fiancé, both the stage directions and Lucy describe her as 'a peach'.  Jonathan's attitude towards Mina is indicative of the Romantic idea, perpetuated in Victorian literature, that women are inferior to men and that any expression of female desire is transgressive, i.e. 'beastly'.  For instance, when Mina grasps at Dracula's cloak in an ambiguous gesture - which may mean both her desire for him and her wish to detain him - Jonathan accuses her of lusting after Dracula and turns away from her.  Although he himself does not feel any guilt for giving in to his sexual fantasies about her sister during his detainment in Dracula's castle, he resents the fact that Mina can feel desire for another man, or perhaps that she can feel desire at all.

Lochhead uses words charged with rich olfactory and visual attributes, such as 'peach', 'sweet', 'beautiful', 'charming' etc. to show how women are shaped by men's perceptions of them.  When talking about language, Dracula mentions its masculine quality, when he suggests that once he masters the English language he will emerge as 'a real English man'.36 In this sense, Dracula's complaint in Act I, Scene vii that he does not possess a full mastery of the English language can be interpreted in the light of Nina Auerbach's theory.37 When discussing the metamorphic prowess of the vampiric myth, Auerbach offers a reading that is the binary opposite of the Romantic and Victorian models.  Amongst other things, she suggests that 'as a vampire a woman is no longer prim and fearful'.38  Based on her reading, it is possible to see how Dracula can transform, from the victimiser of innocent young virgins, into a force of liberation from psychological, emotional, sexual and linguistic repression by the dominant (man-made) cultural imperatives.  Lochhead's Dracula is not a Byronic figure; indeed, it is not a figure at all.   Instead, it has become a representation of the female protagonists' growing consciousness of their intellectual, emotional, sexual and linguistic power, a willing guest who can only enter their lives and imagination if invited.  In this sense, Dracula's complaint in Act 1, Scene vii can be seen as a sense of failure of the feminine principle to express itself by the man-made language.  The masculine principle of language is further implied through Dracula's indication that the sole master of the living tongue is 'a splendid specimen of the upright young man',39 that is, Jonathan himself.  Dracula wishes Jonathan to teach him.  In other words, he wishes to become Jonathan's reflection by learning a foreign tongue: 

Dracula. (…) The lifeblood of the language… So, when I drink in your every word, digest it, then I shall put on my straw hat and come out from the garden of my Carfax, a real English man.40

In the light of Auerbach's theory, this can be viewed as an attempt on the part of the feminine principle to adopt male properties and express itself through the medium that is alien to it.  This is reflected in an initial willingness of the female characters in the play to comply and be shaped by male cultural imperatives.  For example, in the beginning of the play Lucy admits her willingness to endure any discomfort so as to have 'the thinniest thinniest waist',41 and when she is ill she tries to prevent Florrie from cutting her hair because 'Daddy always loved it long.'.42 Similarly, Mina, when served in the lunch scene in Act I, Scene v, takes only a small portion of food, representing in such a way the image of a thin, androgynous, asexual woman.  This initial willingness of female characters to be shaped by male imperatives will be cast aside at the end of the play, when Mina opens the gates to Dracula's castle:

  (Everything is cleared away and, in the mist and darkness, appear the heavy gates of Dracula's castle. Three great thumps at them from behind and they bulge and strain, but hold. Silence after the third battery, and MINA's voice is heard ringing out clearly, from behind these gates at the back of the stage.)
Mina. Stand aside, you men!
(The gates fly open (or fall down). The mist clears and we see MINA, wrapped in furs and deathly pale, blindfolded, reaching out straight ahead of her. Quite far aback, held behind VAN HELSING's outstretched arm, are the amazed-looking JONATHAN and SEWARD. There are flurries of snow outside and on all their clothes.)
Seward. She only had to touch!
Mina. We are home now at the black heart of him. I knew it. (…) All these weeks in the dark with those I loved, travelling blind. My other senses told me I was on a railway train - the smell of smoke, the sound and vibration of the iron wheels - but behind my eyes I was on the open seas. You fed me oranges; I smelt the peel, spat out the pips, but all the time I tasted blood. (…) When you crowded me round, protecting me from the gasps and fear and hatred of the inn girls who saw my mark, and you spoon-fed me with stew and rye bread among the babble of foreign tongues, I was already here alone on the high crag of my castle and when you, my husband, held me tight and tethered to the earth in strange bed after strange bed, while you slept I flew wild and free in the night.43

The men's physical force could not open the gates of Dracula's castle, but they swung open upon Mina's voice and touch.  Lochhead describes Mina as 'deathly pale' (an attribute that physiognomists such as Johann Caspar Lavater44 associated with sexual prowess).  She is also 'blindfolded', and her inability to see makes her use her other senses.  This can be interpreted as Mina's use of other forms of consciousness than the rational mind, which is often equated with the male principle.  Once her blindfold is removed, her ability to use both frightens them.  Mina's awakening is to her intellectual and emotional maturity.  It is also an empowerment through language.  The act of flinging the gates open by word and touch represents Mina's mastering of the verbal (rational, male) and body (irrational, female) languages. She exchanges a denotative use of language in favour of the connotative use represented by rich sensual and olfactory imagery such as the smell of smoke and orange peel, and the taste of pips and blood.  In this sense, Mina's transformation is a linguistic transformation from a silenced woman into an equal participant in mixed gender communication.

The third play that is discussed here in the light of interaction analysis is Marcella Evaristi's Mouthpieces (1980).  Mouthpieces was devised as a revue, in collaboration with actors.  In this play Evaristi sets out to explore the ways in which language is used in mixed gender interaction. The piece concentrates on language as an end rather than the means of telling a story, and it reaches its inner cohesion not through logically linked action but through the audience's recognition of multiple experiences which comprise individual and communal identities. 

The title reflects the main concern of the play: it derives from Evaristi's view that language is a mouthpiece of identity, or as Deborah Cameron puts it in Verbal Hygiene, 'language is inextricably connected with identity, both individual and social - it is something that contributes to people's sense of who they are, and conveys messages about who they are to others.45 There is another possible interpretation of the title (not necessarily recognised by the author when she first decided upon it).  A mouthpiece was also the name given to a sixteenth-century torture device used to punish women accused of gossiping, quarrelling and flyting.  In The Scottish Women's Suffrage Movement,46 Elspeth King writes that such women were chained in public with metal branks on their heads.  Each brank had a mouthpiece which was fitted in the woman's mouth, keeping it open and preventing speech.  A mouthpiece was thus a device for silencing women's voices, in the same way that language in the play has become a hindrance to the expression of characters' individual identities.  So far in this essay, language has been described as a device of man-dominated society's oppression of women.  Far from refuting this, Evaristi expands it to show how the cultural imperatives of the patriarchal ideology pressurize not only women, but men as well.  For instance, Adam and Douglas refer to the double nature of language as an obstacle to expressing one's thoughts and emotions. 

Adam & Douglas. (…) So open your mouth and see
All the creatures words can be
Magical beasts with sharp stings
They will bite or caress
With each no and yes
You'll be cursed you'll be blessed
In the test of words.
Words… they've cheated me.
They've cunningly defeated me.
They quarrelled with my quietness
But words can speak so sweetly
I surrender to them meekly
Remembering silence
Brought not much fun.47

Amy Sheldon proposes that language, being a major tool of human communication, serves as 'a part of culture and an instrument for transmitting and perpetuating implicit, historically situated and culture-bound principles of social order and systems of belief that define and assign unequal social value to femininity and masculinity'.48 She suggests that one of language's functions is to 'perpetuate and enforce assymetrical gendered behaviour by means of reconstructing social relations between and among females and males in countless ordinary daily conversations (…)'.49  If it is true that gendered behaviour establishes and perpetuates itself by means of daily reconstruction of set social relations between men and women, then it is evident that language and gender differences are social constructs that place men in the central position and women on the margin. However, Evaristi places her male characters in a position as powerless as the females.  Adam and Douglas are at the mercy of the language that they use; they describe words as 'magical beasts with sharp stings' which can 'cheat' and 'defeat' those who use them.  In showing language from men's perspective, Evaristi sets out to readdress the gender roles that are at play in communicational interaction.

As a feminist with an acute interest in language, Evaristi is primarily interested to explore if it is possible for men and women to establish relationships through their use of language, as well as through their respective positions in those relationships.  For her, language is a tool in the constant power struggle for position in the communicational hierarchy between individuals of both genders, and she explores this by placing them in various recognisable everyday situations, carefully balanced between the serious and the humorous.  Evaristi plays with the notion that gender roles have been imposed upon individuals from an early age.  She twists the words in order to show how women's language is rendered powerless through male interpretation.  For example, in a sketch featuring Higgles and Betty, a send-up of Shaw's Pygmalion, she indicates how the latter, who is female, working-class and Scottish, is mocked and marginalised by the former, who is male, middle-class and English.

Betty's Song. I know that people inside are just/folk/And ways of speaking have always/been jokes/But was it conspiracy hoax or bad/luck/That when they're merely/crestfallen/I'm really fucked. /It's strange wherever I put my/stress/Can say much more than just my/address/I've checked my equipment/And my lungs are fit/But when they're being sibilant/I get the spit. (…)50

The idea of Pygmalion fascinates Evaristi for obvious reasons.  In Shaw's play, an upper class language expert changes his subject's social position through improving her language use.  In this scene, language becomes the means of separation between the different social classes, for how one speaks determines who one is.  In his introductory speech, Higgles brags that he can establish exactly where people come from on the basis of how they speak, and that he can help them climb up the social ladder by teaching them how to speak 'properly'.  It is obvious that when he refers to 'a proper language', he speaks about an upper-class male English speech.  Evaristi shows language as a mask behind which characters hide their true nature.  It is an artificially created voice whose function is to hide 'the voice of [the character's] youth'.51  Thus Higgles claims that the voice of his youth is 'a thing of the past'.52  The voice that Higgles refers to might be a socially inferior accent that he endeavours to hide in order to maintain the image of himself as a socially superior being.  The statement's deeper meaning is uncovered if one focuses on Higgles' further rejection of certain kinds of vocabulary.  He threatens to bash 'the dollies and the serviettes and the settees and the cardies and the pinkies and the Babychams'53 out of his listeners/spectators/potential students. The rejection of this vocabulary represents the rejecting of 'mother's' language in favour of 'father's' language, which Higgles holds superior.  This language can be learnt, and it is not a coincidence that Higgles, who offers to teach it, is a man.  Jennifer Coates argues in Women, Men and Language that if a woman wishes to '[operate] successfully in the men's world [she must become], to all intents and purposes, a man'.54  Higgles promises that he will refund the money if he fails to teach the potential students, and particularly emphasises that there are 'reduced rates for women'.55  Women are expected to fail to master this 'advanced' vocabulary because for them it is an alien language whose meanings they have to decode.

Betty is female, Scottish and working-class, and for this reason she is marginalised in a society where a male, English, middle-to-upper-class-aspirant is the norm.  Her ability to learn the male language is mocked both in Higgles's speech 'the Queen's English coming out of [her] blousy mouth would be like leeches making silk',56 and in her own voice.  Words and accents go hand in hand in the process of marginalisation of the feminine principle from the public sphere, which is a man's sphere, and placing it low in the communicational hierarchy where a woman speaks in language which is different and 'other' than the norm.  Language is seen as the means of silencing a woman's voice, and because in this example Evaristi closely relates gender and national identity, it has also become the means of silencing a Scottish voice.  To further highlight this point, Evaristi introduces different accents in scenes throughout the play, from camped-up middle-class Oxford English to working-class West Coast Scottish.  These different express Evaristi's views on habitual misconceptions about gender and national identity.  They also show that one's identity cannot be determined by one's accent, because the accent and vocabulary that one uses will depend on the dominant cultural imperatives of the community in which one has been brought up, and a gender role that one has been given within that community.

Evaristi further plays with 'masculinisation' of the feminine principle with regard to the 'genderisation' of the characters' names.  The name-game is another sketch in which she draws her audiences' attention to the concept of the double standard by showing the different ways in which men and women perceive themselves.  The character called Martha complains that all of her problems come from her being given such a plain old-fashioned name, and wishes she was called otherwise:

Martha. Seems to me some names are fucking wall
From the fucking start.
Which does seem unfair since we all start
With our own personal anonymous hearts.
I mean they're not stamped at birth.
Are they?
Was the bleedin priest wasn't it?
He could've said 'I now baptize thee Alexis'.
Now there's a name.
So bleeding cool that name
It's hardly bleedin female.57

Language has been constructed for the purpose of the self-perpetuation of a dominant society.  This purpose is embedded in the words' meanings.  According to Dale Spender, since female experience has largely been named by men, '[t]he female version has been blanketed and made invisible or negative.  This is one of the sources, and one of the manifestations of woman's identity as 'other'.'58

There is a sense of self-demeaning passivity in Martha's perception of herself, and in her wish to defeminise her name.  Her imaginary mirror-image, Alexis, can do everything that Martha cannot, because she owns the non-feminine qualities.  As discussed before, women's language is deemed powerless and since it is an expression of women's identity, then this identity will be seen as powerless as well, unless women learn how to use language as men do - assertively and competitively.  Evaristi gives her audience an example of the male self-perception of aggressive domination:

Johnny. Boy, oh boy, I enjoy being Johnny!
Johnny's fancy free sounding, kiss stealing
Free wheeling from the hot seat of my


Johnny and the Spitfire are here synonyms for the phallus; Johnny is portrayed as 'hot', 'kiss stealing', 'free wheeling' and charmingly lewd, which corresponds with aggressive male self-perception.  Evaristi uses language to deconstruct gradually the concept of male domination, and with it a misconception that women are by nature passive and tend to suppress conflict in communication, as opposed to men who express themselves through conflict, that is through the contest of a verbal or physical kind.  She does so by stripping words of the meanings that they have been given, subverting them or superimposing other meanings on to them.  For example, she gives us a male perspective to the name-game sketch. 

Steven. Cecil. Cecil. Cecil./Even de Mille couldn't kill off the Cecil Effect./Cecil haunts me./Cecil's a loser with bad breath - he steals my/cachais/Cecil hates me. He's crouched in that capital/letter./And he's dying to get the better of me./Cecil's four inches smaller than me/When I don't wear Johnny's heels.60

Evaristi believes that one's name, like one's gender, is a social construct.  Naming has become the means of a culture to reflect and determine its reality.  Elaine Showwalter gives an example of the Book of Genesis, where Adam names God's creation.  This implies that men have a monopoly of naming, of 'the ideological and cultural determinants of expression.'61

Evaristi is interested in exploring different ways in which women perceive their identities as opposed to men and particularly the ways in which language can be used to reinterpret gender identity and gender roles.  She points to the inequality in language through the use of words whose literal meanings denote parts of the human body.

Siobhan. I was really flattered/When he said I had balls/So I called him a tit/And got hit./Oh boy it's hard to compliment/When girls the words were never meant for you/Doo beee do!/I was really flattered/When he said I has sass/Then he gave me a slap/On the ass!/Oh ladies what bewilderment/Whichever do you think he meant/Ass or sass?62

The words 'balls', 'tit' and 'ass' contain sexual connotations, however, in gender interaction we can see how their meaning changes when seen from a male or female perspective.  All of the words which signify maleness in this play, and therefore have male properties, are seen as central, positive and superior, while those words which signify femaleness are seen as marginal, negative and inferior.  This is in accordance with Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf's theory that 'many languages have an underlying pattern whereby "male" is positive and "female" is negative.'63  For instance, the semantic properties of the word 'balls' can shift to mean 'brave' and 'forward', while the semantic properties of the word 'tit' will signify 'cowardly' and 'effeminate'. From this it may be concluded that those words in the play which are charged with male properties have positive connotations, whilst those words which are charged with female properties may have either negative or neutral connotations.  In Mouthpieces, Evaristi tries to reconstruct the meaning of the words she uses in order to engender them; namely, she tries to shift those words which carry female properties from a marginal (negative) to a centralised (positive) position.

In conclusion, some of the ways in which gender differences and expectations can be expressed in theatrical language have been discussed in this article through the analysis of three contemporary Scottish plays.  In those plays, single and mixed gender interactions have been explored in regard to establishing speakers' positions in communicational hierarchy, silencing, the use of aggressive vs. submissive modes, the use of the olfactory aspects of language to describe sexuality, sexist language, and the genderisation of words.  In all three cases, it has been shown how language is seen as perpetuating the existing social and gender patterns: Aneas's inability to accept Rachel's truth in The Straw Chair; Jonathan's attempt to nullify any expression of desire on Mina's part in Dracula; and the ways in which gender identity is shaped by language in Mouthpieces.  However, all three authors have shown that language can also become a potent mechanism for decoding of the existing meanings and re-defining of the structures that are in place.  In The Straw Chair, Isabel successfully rises above the cultural and semantic limitations of language, and through this achieves intellectual and sexual liberation.  Similarly, the character of Dracula in Lochhead's Dracula becomes the representation of an empowered female force.  In Mouthpieces, Evaristi plays with the notion of sexism in language, and explores how language use can affect one's gender and national identity.

The traits of the difference vs. dominance approach to interaction can be found in all the examples that have been used in this article.  Their use is never simple: for example, one cannot easily draw a boundary between Aneas using silence as a strategy to win an upper hand in communication, and Isabel's silence as a sign of her powerlessness.  As can be seen from the dialogue between Isabel and Rachel, the former's use of silence becomes a strategy in itself - in this case, to avoid an overt verbal conflict.  Whilst it may be true that language functions to maintain society's cultural and political parameters (which are patriarchal in nature), it is also clear from all three examples that men, like women, are the objects and not the masters of language.  Society uses linguistic and cultural tools to condition the specific gender behaviour of both sexes.  For example, in The Straw Chair, Aneas is as much of a victim of the 'powerful and the glorious' of Edinburgh as is Rachel.  Language is shown as a potential device for the empowerment of women, rather than as a silencing tool, in both Isabel (The Straw Chair) and Mina (Dracula).   There is also a need expressed in these plays to re-define the concept of gendered talk, and, indeed, the ways in which both women and men use language.  Similarly, in Mouthpieces, Higgles's linguistic superiority is questioned in view of 'the voice of his youth'; whilst the other male characters struggle with the image of masculinity that society has bestowed upon them. This raises a need to re-define masculine identities from a feminist viewpoint, a question that has been briefly mentioned, but not discussed in detail, in this discussion. Adrienne Scullion has touched upon this topic in her essay 'Feminine Pleasures and Masculine Indignities: Gender and Community in Scottish Drama',64 offering a useful starting point to any future analysis of the 'unmanly men' in Scottish contemporary drama and fiction.

Queen Margaret University College, Edinburgh
Accepted for publication November 2000



Marcella Evaristi, Mouthpieces (manuscript, 1980).

Sue Glover, The Straw Chair (manuscript, 1988).

Liz Lochhead, Dracula in Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off and Dracula (Harmondworth: Penguin Books, 1989).

Background Reading.

Haig Bosmajian, The Language of Oppression (Lanham, NY; London: University Press of America, 1983).

William Brennan, 'Female Objects of Semantic Dehumanization and Violence', online edition,

Deborah Cameron, Verbal Hygiene (London and New York: Routledge, 1995).

Deborah Cameron and Jennifer Coates, Women, Men and Language, a Sociolinguistic Account of Sex Difference in Language (New York: Longman, 1986).

Deborah Cameron (ed) The Feminist Critique of Language: A Reader (London, New York: Routledge, 1998).

Jens Otto Harry Jespersen, Selected Writings (London; Tokyo: George Allen and Unwin Ltd; Senjo Publishing Co. Ltd, 1965)

Elspeth King, The Scottish Women's Suffrage Movement (Glasgow: People's Palace, 1978).

Sheila Rowbotham, Women's Consciousness: Man's World (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973).

Amy Sheldon, 'Pickle Fights: Gendered Talk in Preschool Disputes' in Deborah Tannen (ed) Gender and Conversational Interaction (New York, Oxford: OUP, 1993).

Dale Spender, Man-Made Language (London: RKP, 1980).

Deborah Tannen, You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation (London: Virago, 1991).


1 Deborah Cameron and Jennifer Coates, Women, Men and Language, a Sociolinguistic Account of Sex Differences in Language (New York: Longman, 1986), p. 198.

2 Please note that this article concentrates on the discussion of gender differences in dramatic dialogue, where the authors deliberately create differences between male and female speech, and not everyday language.  Dramatic dialogue can, one may argue, be seen as a reflection of gender differences in everyday language which are, though they may be generated unconsciously, a product of socialisation.

3  Jens Otto Harry Jespersen, Selected Writings (London; Tokyo: George Allen and Unwin Ltd; Senjo Publishing Co. Ltd, 1965)

4 Deborah Cameron and Jennifer Coates, Women, Men and Language, a Sociolinguistic Account of Sex Differences in Language (New York: Longman, 1986).

5 Deborah Cameron and Jennifer Coates, Women, Men and Language, a Sociolinguistic Account of Sex Differences in Language (New York: Longman, 1986), p. 13.

6 Deborah Cameron and Jennifer Coates, Women, Men and Language, a Sociolinguistic Account of Sex Differences in Language (New York: Longman, 1986), p. 13.

7 Deborah Tannen, You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation (London: Virago, 1991), p. 224.

8 Deborah Cameron and Jennifer Coates, Women, Men and Language, a Sociolinguistic Account of Sex Differences in Language (New York: Longman, 1986), p. 13.

9 Sheila Rowbotham, Women's Consciousness: Man's World (London: Penguin, 1973), p. 190.

10 William Brennan, 'Female Objects of Semantic Dehumanization and Violence' , online edition, p. 7.

11 William Brennan, 'Female Objects of Semantic Dehumanization and Violence' , online edition, p. 7.

12 William Brennan, 'Female Objects of Semantic Dehumanization and Violence' , online edition, p. 4.

13 Haig Bosmajian, The Language of Oppression (Lanham, NY; London: University Press of America, 1983), p. 90.

14 Dale Spender, Man-Made Language (London: RKP, 1980), p. 190.

15 Dale Spender, Man-Made Language (London: RKP, 1980), p. 190.

16 Deborah Cameron, Verbal Hygiene (London and New York: Routledge, 1995), p. 194.

17  Sue Glover, The Straw Chair (manuscript, 1988), p. 26.

18 I am referring here to social and religious values of the newly risen bourgeois, which place women in the position of 'silent Madonnas'.  In the play, Aneas is very surprised that his new bride can dance.  He says, 'No, [your uncle] never mentioned you could dance.  He told me you had learnt to make pastry, and to spin flax into yarn that was fine enough for cambric.  And that you were a sweet mother to your younger cousins'.  See Sue Glover, The Straw Chair (manuscript, 1988), p. 26.

19 A respectable wife is seen as prudish and silent, not alluring and vocal.  For example, an early conversation with Rachel, Isabel is referred to as 'not very pretty'.  See Sue Glover, The Straw Chair (manuscript, 1988), p. 18.

20 William Brennan, 'Female Objects of Semantic Dehumanization and Violence' , online edition, p. 6.

21 Sue Glover, The Straw Chair (a manuscript, 1988), pp. 51-2.

22 Although Isabel's use of silence can be easily taken as a sign of powerlessness and submission, for example, Deborah Cameron suggests that 'silence is a symbol of oppression, while liberation is speaking out, making contact', 22 and she also argues that silence can not only mean powerlessness 'but also a strategy of resistance to oppressive power'. See Deborah Cameron, 'Preface' in The Feminist Critique of Language A Reader (2nd ed.) (London, New York: Routledge, 1998), p. 4.

23  Sue Glover, The Straw Chair (manuscript, 1988), p. 48.

24 Sue Glover, The Straw Chair (manuscript, 1988), p. 48.

25 William Brennan, 'Female Objects of Semantic Dehumanization and Violence' , online edition, p. 10.

26  Sue Glover, The Straw Chair (manuscript, 1988), p. 100.

27 Deborah Cameron, Verbal Hygiene (London, New York: Routledge, 1995), p. 173.

28 Deborah Cameron, Verbal Hygiene (London, New York: Routledge, 1995), p. 16.

29 Sue Glover, The Straw Chair (manuscript, 1988), pp. 102-3.

30  Liz Lochhead, Dracula in Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off and Dracula (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1989), p. 91.

31 Liz Lochhead, Dracula in Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off and Dracula (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1989), p. 78.

32 Liz Lochhead, Dracula in Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off and Dracula (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1989), p. 78.

33 Liz Lochhead, Dracula in Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off and Dracula (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1989), p. 78.

34 Liz Lochhead, Dracula in Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off and Dracula (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1989), p. 79.

35 Liz Lochhead, Dracula in Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off and Dracula (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1989), p. 79.

36 Liz Lochhead, Dracula in Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off and Dracula (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1989), p. 94.

37  Nina Auerbach, Our vampires, ourselves (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995).

38 Nina Auerbach, Our vampires, ourselves (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), p. 127.

39 Liz Lochhead, Dracula in Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off and Dracula (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1989), p. 94.

40 Liz Lochhead, Dracula in Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off and Dracula (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1989), p. 94.

41 Liz Lochhead, Dracula in Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off and Dracula (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1989), p. 91.

42 Liz Lochhead, Dracula in Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off and Dracula (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1989), p. 114.

43 Liz Lochhead, Dracula in Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off and Dracula (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1989), p. 144.

44 Johann Caspar Lavater in Christopher Frayling, Vampyres:  Lord Byron to Count Dracula (London: Faber and Faber, 1991), p. 387.

45 Deborah Cameron, Verbal Hygiene (London, New York: Routledge, 1995), p. 205.

46 Elspeth King, The Scottish Women's Suffrage Movement (Glasgow:  People's Palace Museum, 1978).

47  Marcella Evaristi, Mouthpieces (manuscript, 1980), p. 25.

48  Amy Sheldon, 'Pickle Fights:  Gendered Talk in Preschool Disputes' in Deborah Tannen (ed) Gender and Conversational Interaction (New York, Oxford: OUP, 1993), p. 84.

49 Amy Sheldon, 'Pickle Fights:  Gendered Talk in Preschool Disputes' in Deborah Tannen (ed) Gender and Conversational Interaction (New York, Oxford: OUP, 1993), p. 84.

50 Marcella Evaristi, Mouthpieces (manuscript, 1980), p. 19.

51 Marcella Evaristi, Mouthpieces (manuscript, 1980), p. 16.

52 Marcella Evaristi, Mouthpieces (manuscript, 1980), p. 16.

53 Marcella Evaristi, Mouthpieces (manuscript, 1980), p. 16.

54  Jennifer Coates, Women, Men and Language (London, New York: Longman, 1993), p. 9.

55 Marcella Evaristi, Mouthpieces (manuscript, 1980), p. 4.

56 Marcella Evaristi, Mouthpieces (manuscript, 1980), p.16.

57 Marcella Evaristi, Mouthpieces (manuscript, 1980), pp. 9-10.

58  Dale Spender, Man-Made Language (London, Boston, Henley: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1985), p. 58.

59  Marcella Evaristi, Mouthpieces (manuscript, 1980), p. 11.

60  Marcella Evaristi, Mouthpieces (manuscript, 1980), p. 11.

61  Quoted from Deborah Cameron, 'Preface' in The Feminist Critique of Language A Reader (2nd ed.) (London, New York: Routledge, 1998), p. 8.

62 Marcella Evaristi, Mouthpieces (manuscript, 1980), p. 11.

63  Deborah Cameron, 'Preface' in The Feminist Critique of Language A Reader (2nd ed.) (London, New York: Routledge, 1998), p. 10.

64 Adrienne Scullion, 'Feminine Pleasures and Masculine Indignities: Gender and Community in Scottish Drama' in Christopher Whyte (ed), Gendering the Nation: Studies in Modern Scottish Literature (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1995).