The Language War

Since 1975 with the publication of Language and Woman’s Place, a study of gender differences in language, Robin Tolmach Lakoff has been examining how language is used to solidify the existing power structure or, conversely, in the late-twentieth century to change it. As a professor of linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, she is well suited for the task.

Lakoff at the outset of The Language War identifies her liberal bias, arguing that political objectivity (for anyone) is impossible. If a political stance is invisible to the reader, the conclusion one should draw is that the reader and the author share the same agenda.

By examining the debate over “political correctness,” the hearings concerning Clarence Thomas's nomination including Anita Hill's testimony, the emotion triggered by Hillary Rodham Clinton, the diverse response to O.J. Simpson's trial and verdict, and finally the furor caused by Ebonics, Lakoff argues that each polarizing event has been “about language [and] who has the ability and the right to make meaning for everyone.” Thus the jury in the O.J. Simpson trial was responding not just to the case at hand but to the frustration caused by knowing that blacks do not receive equal treatment in the legal system. In other words, these conflicts suggest that the power relationships within the culture are changing: marginal groups (including African Americans and women) are gaining influence and acquiring the right to define meaning, to construct themselves as individuals, and ultimately to contribute to what constitutes the reality of our culture.

Lakoff writes clear, lucid prose aimed at the general audience; however, a more scholarly audience would not be disappointed.