Date of Degree

9-2019

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Ph.D.

Program

Linguistics

Advisor

Cecelia Cutler

Committee Members

Matthew Garley

Jillian Cavanaugh

Lauren Squires

Subject Categories

Anthropological Linguistics and Sociolinguistics | Discourse and Text Linguistics

Keywords

language and gender, computer-mediated communication, Twitter, feminism, digital activism

Abstract

This dissertation presents results of a study of linguistic practice in the context of feminist activism on Twitter. Twitter has become a primary medium for social and political activism and a rich venue for study of the relationship between digitally mediated language and identity production. The focus of this study is the viral Twitter hashtag #YesAllWomen, a hashtag that rose in popularity following a misogyny-motivated terrorist attack in the spring of 2014. This dissertation treats the #YesAllWomen hashtag as an imagined space and a Discourse (Gee, 2015) where language serves as a site for the production of gender and feminist identity.

This investigation is conducted through three related studies. The first examines intra-speaker variation among a group of self-identified women who actively participated in the #YesAllWomen Discourse. The study tracks these women’s use of features of “women’s language” (Lakoff, 1975) to determine whether they emerge as linguistic resources that women recruit when performing feminist stances. The results of this study indicate that features of an online feminist style include an increase in vulgar language, a decrease in overt markers of politeness, a decrease in hedging strategies, and a decrease in stable nonstandard variants. These findings suggest that when taking feminist stances online, women reject certain features of stereotypically feminine language and enhance others, according to some theoretical paradigms. A second quantitative study examines the use of the same features among a group of male allies who tweeted with the #YesAllWomen hashtag in support of its feminist message. The results suggest that these men exhibit intra-speaker variation that mirrors that of the women in terms of average frequencies of each feature, but is less statistically robust. However, an investigation of linguistic practices not captured by the quantitative corpus study suggests that men deploy these linguistic resources differently when participating in the #YesAllWomen thread than in other Twitter interactions, showing potential influence of audience design (Bell, 1984) or linguistic accommodation strategies (Giles, Coupland, & Coupland, 1991a, 1991b; Giles & Ogay, 2007).

The third study reported in this dissertation concerns speaker attitudes toward language, gender, and feminism. The data source for this component of the research is a survey completed by a group of active contributors to the #YesAllWomen Discourse. The results reveal demographic properties of the population, which were absent from the Twitter corpora, and the participants’ attitudes toward linguistic practice and its relationship to gender and feminism. These attitudes show evidence of language and gender ideology regarding “ideal” (Kiesling, 2007) masculinities and femininities that echoes some of the components of Lakoff’s theory of women’s language. The emergent patterns in the participants’ shared language and gender ideology shed light on the processes by which the observed language variation and resulting style shift become locally meaningful in context. This dissertation contributes to studies of computer-mediated communication and sociolinguistics and demonstrates the value of hybrid quantitative and qualitative research methods.

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