2.1 Meaning

Second Wave feminist linguistics was concerned with analysing the inherent meanings of words and often made statements about the abstract meanings of words, constructing dictionaries of sexist language and advising on the avoidance of certain words (Kramarae & Treichler, 1985; Miller and Swift,1981). There was also a tendency to assume that certain words or ways of speaking were simply more powerful than others; thus, interrupting was seen as a powerful strategy, and hesitating was seen to be a powerless strategy.  After Cameron et.al's work on the multifunctionality of tag-questions and Michael Toolan's work on the difficulty of assigning clear functions to specific formal features, the notion that there was a clear link to be made between power and, for example, talking time was made more problematic (Cameron et.al.1988; Toolan, 1996; see for a discussion Thornborrow, 2002) Third Wave feminist linguistics focuses on the way that words are made to mean in specific ways and function to achieve certain purposes in particular contexts (Christie, 2001).  Thus, rather than discussing oppressive global social structures  such as patriarchy, Third Wave feminists analyse the way that gender and conflict are managed by women at a local level  (Cameron, 1998) . It is still possible to refer to structural inequality and to highlight instances of discrimination, but Third Wave feminist linguistics is more concerned with variability and resistance than on making global statements about the condition of women in relation to language use. Thus, whilst a Second Wave analysis might focus on the use of the generic pronoun `he' to refer to both men and women, or the derogatory terms used to describe women such as `bitch' or `slag', a Third Wave feminist analysis might focus on the way that within a particular context, a certain hesitation and ironic intonation might be considered to be  sexist when articulating the word `chairperson' to describe a female chair.  However, whilst this local focus helps women to describe practices which discriminate against them, Third Wave feminists find it difficult to refer to global, structural and systematic forms of discrimination.

Rather than meanings being imposed on women, Third Wave feminists consider meanings to be  co-constructed.  Thus within particular contexts, women and men engage in the contestation and affirmation of particular types of practices and interpretations.  What something means in a particular context is the result of  the actions of all of the individuals concerned,  negotiating with the institutional constraints of status and institutionalised linguistic  routines. For example, Joanna Thornborrow, in her analysis of an interview between a woman and two police officers, where the woman claims that she has been raped and the police try to throw doubt on the veracity of her claim, by suggesting that she is mentally ill, the woman plays an active role in contesting their assertions (Thornborrow, 2002).  A Second Wave  feminist analysis would analyse this interaction as the police oppressing and silencing the woman; however, this woman seems to have accrued to herself a certain amount of what I have called interactive power, that is, she has drawn on  linguistic resources which were available  within that particular context, using questions and rebuttals to challenge her characterisation by the police as an untrustworthy person (Mills, forthcoming). Ultimately, however, the police officers' version of events seems to be the one which holds sway, even though the woman's interventions are important in defining the way that the interview takes shape -  the institutional status of the police officers plays an crucial role in their version being seen as the `truth'. (see also, Potter, 1996)  We cannot see this woman as simply powerless as a Second Wave feminist analysis might have done. However a Third Wave feminist analysis does not seem to be able to argue for a change in the way that police interviews are carried out, or call for training for police officers in the type of language which it is appropriate to use with rape victims.

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