Gendered speech in Aristophanes

I’m excited to say that my article “The sociolinguistics of gender, social status and masculinity in Aristophanes” has now been published online in the Journal of Historical Sociolinguistics. 

The research in this article ultimately goes all the way back to my undergraduate thesis, though my conclusions have changed many times since then. But I kept coming back to this work over the years, because the subject was one I never quite wanted to put to one side. For me, it all centred around one big question: if modern linguistics shows us that both men and women use certain linguistic features to perform their gender, why is Classical scholarship so often about “female speech”?

There’s a long and complicated history to gender linguistics, and what “male” or “female” speech might include. The similarities are, of course, much bigger than the differences. But I think it’s still fairly uncontroversial to say that the way we use speech is part of our performance of our own gender, just as we are constantly using speech to perform other aspects of our identity and personality. It’s also reasonably uncontroversial to say that many linguists have seen a pattern across many different societies: women’s language tends to be closer to whatever the “standard” language is, with men using more non-standard forms. This is a huge generalisation, and of course doesn’t cover considerable individual variation, but it is something that seems to apply to many communities. That means that if you want to see the “standard” or most socially accepted form of a language, you should interview women.

The problem is that as Classicists we tend to see “male” language as the default, because it’s about 99.5% of what we have. The sources written by women are few and far between. Even when women wrote letters to each other, they were usually dictated to (male) slaves and secretaries – written texts in women’s own handwriting are vanishingly rare, though I’ve written about one example over here. Even drama arguably doesn’t help us get over this lack of female voices because, of course, drama is written and performed entirely by men (and possibly watched mostly by men too). We can’t treat these sources as equivalent to interviewing native speakers.

But, fortunately for us, Aristophanes is a keen observer of linguistic variation. He mocks the learner’s Greek of a Scythian archer (who can’t pronounce aspirated stops, and isn’t at all sure of morphology), and includes some aspects of the funny-sounding Doric accents of the Spartan characters in Lysistrata. If anything, he takes features that the audience might be subliminally aware of and massively plays them up. Read with caution, this is hugely useful for sociolinguistics – because if Aristophanes plays up the differences between his male and female characters, it might be obvious enough for us to notice it.

And in the past, people have indeed found “female” features in Greek comedy. Aristophanes makes them particularly obvious when the women in the Ekklesiazusae are dressing up as men, and when a man dresses up as a woman in the Thesmophoriazusae. In both plays, it’s clear that the characters must disguise themselves linguistically as well as physically. So, the women are told not to swear by Aphrodite but to swear by Apollo or Zeus instead, as men do, otherwise they’ll give themselves away. And the man dressing up in women’s clothing is told to do the opposite, and to make sure to swear by Aphrodite, as well as trying to tone down his tendency towards obscenity. Aristophanes is clearly aware of gendered linguistic differences, and these scenes are all about playing with that idea and making this characters cross gender boundaries.

But it would be a mistake to put all of Aristophanes’ characters in a simple “male” or “female” box as regards their speech. There is huge variation among the male characters in particular, from the jocular, obscene every-man characters who happily use scatological and sexual swear words constantly, to the rather prim young aristocratic men who speak without these markers of “male” speech. The women vary too, with older women often showing fewer of the speech markers that are usually associated with female characters, providing us incidentally with evidence of the de-sexualisation of older women.

It would be even more of a mistake, as I’ve hinted above, to see “male” speech in Aristophanes as neutral, and “female” speech as marked, as people sometimes have been tempted to do in the past. The easiest example to see in the text is obscenity – in general, men use obscenity far more than women. When women use it, men react with shock (the magistrate in Lysistrata tells a woman who swears that he’ll give her a slap if she talks like that again). But equally, when men pointedly avoid swearing, as Agathon does in the Thesmophoriazusae, other men find this lack of masculine banter confusing too, and it seems to form part of why the other characters call him “girly-voiced”.

Men who read as somehow insufficiently masculine in their speech are often called “feminine”, even when they are not using any overt feminine speech markers. So, it seems as though – to Aristophanes, at least – neutral speech that is unmarked for gender sounds “unmanly” or even “effeminate”. Something to remember when we instinctively assume that male speech is the unmarked, neutral norm.

If you’re interested in learning more about this, you can find the full article over here. I’d also really recommend Andreas Willi’s The Languages of Aristophanes if you want to read more about how we can find sociolinguistic variation in ancient drama.

Chorus of Initiates in Aristophanes’ Frogs (Cambridge Greek Play 2013)

2 thoughts on “Gendered speech in Aristophanes

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  1. Aristophanes also mocks the grammatical gender-mistakes of Strepsiades in Clouds, as he doesn’t know how to term a male cock from a female hen.

    Which is the play with the Scythian archer?


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