Activism, Academic Language(s), and Linguistics: Deconstructing Feminist Dialect

tumblr_lxd1hybuON1qbq8iko1_400by: Tosia Klincewicz

Each of us is constantly negotiating many different contexts of experience. In my experiences as a feminist and a student at a liberal arts University, I’ve noticed a meaningful divide between various registers of feminism, namely, between what I’ve come to call “academic” (think Foucault and Butler) and “vernacular” (“f*ck the patriarchy”) feminism. Since I first noticed and began to articulate this idea I’ve developed this concept of divided registers in concrete terms using a linguistic framework to think about the disconnect between academic and vernacular feminism in terms of dialects.

A dialect is a variety of language that differs from other varieties of the same language by aspects of phonology, grammar, vocabulary, and usage. According to Barber, Beal, and Shaw, authors of The English Language: A Historical Introduction, “there is a speech-hierarchy, corresponding fairly closely to socio-economic class. […] The speech of the top of the hierarchy is closest to Standard English” (268). However, as noted by linguist and author David Crystal, there is a “kaleidoscopic diversity of dialects and styles which make up ‘the English language’. Indeed, for every one person who speaks Standard English, there must be a hundred who do not, and another hundred who speak other varieties as well as the standard” (5). While newsprint is one common form of Standard English, academic language is another register of Standard English, often used in, but not limited to, higher education and scholarly publications. Because of the historically patriarchal emphasis on, and access to, education, academic language is often privileged in discussions in almost any field, and the ability to communicate in academic language gives the speaker and/or writer considerable linguistic privilege. While speechmakers, including public figures and politicians, negotiate between academic and vernacular dialects depending on the context and audience, the negotiation between linguistic registers is especially relevant in feminist discourse. As feminism critiques and ultimately seeks to dismantle systems of oppression, the democratization of linguistic accessibility is inherently part of the feminist project. However there remains a practical disconnect between those with access to academic language and those without.

(Before I move on, I would like to take a moment to briefly address the myth of a monolithic feminism. Because there is no single theoretical feminist framework, many versions of feminism have developed to suit the historically and culturally specific needs of different people across time. While it is more accurate to refer to the multiple and varied “feminisms,” throughout my research I use the singular term “feminism” as an abstract concept to encapsulate a singular, if simplified, linguistic divide as manifested in the equally abstracted “academy,” with the knowledge that “vernacular” feminism varies across space and time as much as any other vernacular dialect.)

Consider, for example, feminist theorist Judith Butler. Butler is famous for not only her foundational feminist theories but also for her notoriously complex and largely inaccessible prose, for which she was humorously awarded first prize in bad writing, for a sentence that appeared in her article “Further Reflections on the Conversations of Our Time” (1997). The inaccessibility of Butler’s writing to those outside of the heights of the academy serves as an example of why some feminists believe that academic feminism is ultimately oppressive. Because, these feminists argue, the historically patriarchal nature of the academy automatically precludes the inclusion of feminism in any meaningful form. However, I argue that there are actually many feminist authors, activists, and theorists who successfully bridge the gap between academic and vernacular feminism, including bell hooks, Gloria Anzaldúa, and Ngugi Wa Thiong’o. By incorporating aspects of vernacular feminism into their otherwise academic writing, these authors defy hegemonic academic discourse, making their work broadly accessible. The accessibility of their work is key, because it means those who stand to benefit most from feminism (those who suffer the greatest oppression), have access to the concepts and tools set forth by these authors.


In “Feminism, Globalization, and the Global Justice and Solidarity Movement,” Virginia Vargas argues that the new and emerging “strategies and discoveries” of the feminist and social justice movements “suggest the urgency of constructing a different future, and they recuperate one of the basic characteristics of the feminist wave of the 20th century – it’s conviction that feminist struggles augure [sic] the possibility of a different world, sustained by the recognition of the other based on their difference” (918). Just as the Ann Arbor decision codified the importance of recognizing the legitimacy of multiple dialects in the American education system, the integration of academic and vernacular feminism in all forums is necessary to unite feminists and foment meaningful feminist discourse and action.

Works Cited

Barber, Charles, Joan C. Beal, and Philip A. Shaw. The English Language: A Historical Introduction. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2009. Print.

Crystal, David. The Stories of English. New York: Overlook Press. 2005. Print.

Vargas, Virginia. “Feminism, Globalization and the Global Justice and Solidarity Movement.” Cultural Studies 17.6 (2003): 905-920.


One Comment Add yours

  1. sam says:

    I think that the rhetoric of the vernacular feminists is nonconstructive because it directs anger against a completely abstract group. The rhetoric reminds me most of the antisemitic writings of many authors during the 19th and 20th century where they imagine a worldwide jewish conspiracy which infects art, literature and traditional culture. I am not trying to equate vernacular feminists with nazism. Instead I want to point out that there are definite similarities between the believes about the oppressive patriarchy and worldwide jewish group keeping the average person down.The oppressing group is so abstract in these cases, that it is possible for one to blame all of their problems on these invisible forces. This paranoid thinking is unhealthy and should be dismissed by the academic community.

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