Language of the Powerful

One of the most fascinating concepts learned in Linguistic Anthropology Fall 2017 is that of the language of the powerful and the powerless. Powerful language is characterized by being more active, assertive, and commanding while powerless language is more hesitating, unsure, and can be characterized by self-doubting. To give an example, a powerful statement would be “Let’s go to Chili’s this Tuesday” while a statement marked by powerlessness can be characterized as “Uh I guess I’m in the mood for Chili’s but I wouldn’t mind going somewhere else, what do you think?”. Notice the difference? The first sentence is more of a “I will” while the second is more doubtful but it also relates to the way it’s uttered. Tone is all too important, while going over the question part of the statement, did you imagine it being spoken in a higher tone with an unsure inflection? Those are points to be mindful of when detecting whether a person is speaking with a powerful or powerless speech.

To provide some more context into this subject, one of our readings was about a study where researchers’ examined language in the courtroom, from lawyers to witnesses. They weren’t primarily looking for what everyone was saying but how they were saying it.

You see, before this research was conducted, powerless language was called women’s language as reported by Georgetown faculty. This is because women were seen in a more subversive role, therefore, powerless language was associated with how women speak.

From the courtroom research however, the hallmarks of powerless language wasn’t spoken from only women, but was shared by others. So, what give?

Well, powerless language isn’t determined based on a person’s identified gender but rather their perceived power in a social situation. A person who’s experiencing their first time on the witness stand may be nervous at the prospect of public speaking, especially in front of a judge. It was therefore observed that powerless language didn’t just come from women but men as well.

The implications of this are fascinating. For one, it shows how theories evolve with new information and evidence that gives researchers’ a more accurate picture of what really happens. Secondly, powerless language shows how its not determined by gender but rather a person’s given interpretation of their own power within a social environment.

Observations like this gives us the reader something to look out for in our daily interactions and perhaps be more mindful of the way we speak too.

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