If you read my 2020 goals post, you’ll know that one of my goals for 2019 was to read more. One of the amazing books I read was Wordslut: A Feminist Guide to Taking Back the English Language by Amanda Montell. I found this book while having a browse through a book shop on my lunch break at work and, let me tell you, I’d never picked up a book and taken it to the checkout faster. With such a striking title, I knew I had to read it.
In this book, Amanda Montell, writer and Linguist, explores the use of language throughout history and pop culture and women’s role within it. She “explains why words matter and why it’s imperative that women embrace their unique relationship with language.” Amanda covers everything from insults and cursing to grammar and even tone of voices women and men use. Most importantly, she explains how women can use language to their advantage and to empower them.
I actually DM’ed Amanda, asking her if she would like to contribute to this and she was kind enough to say yes, which I was very excited about! Amanda studied Linguists and Creative Writing at the New York University. She said she was fascinated by learning about how gender is infused in our languages. “I was enchanted to find a whole field dedicated to empirically analysing the nuts and bolts of language in this context. After college, I started writing and making little videos for the Internet about language and gender in my free time, which I thought was just a fun side project, until I signed with a literary agent who thought the topic would make for a great book. Lucky for me, all I wanted in life was to publish a book, and now I had the chance to combine my obsession with feminist sociolinguistics (niche, nerdy obsession, I know) with my dream to be an author.”
Wordslut is her debut novel that came out in June 2019 but she has also written for Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan, Glamour and Who Wore What. Amanda said she found going from short articles to novel writing a challenge. “The process of writing a book is so incredibly challenging and full of anxiety and self-questioning (a first book especially; now that I’m writing my second book I’m having a slightly easier go of it). But I think just honing the craft of book writing, which is so different from writing shorter pieces for the web, and getting to say exactly what I wanted to say on my terms were the most fulfilling aspects.”
“All I wanted in life was to publish a book, and now I had the chance to combine my obsession with feminist sociolinguistics with my dream to be an author.”
Amanda brings a very light and humorous spin on such a serious topic. If you’re a little word and history nerd like myself, you will love this book! She combines factual history with her own opinions, linguists’ perspectives and relevant pop culture references to create a really engaging book. I like to read before I go to bed and I have a bit of a habit of sometimes falling asleep while reading. I liked this book so much I made the effort to read it during the day when I was able to take in all the information and facts. You know a book is good when you don’t just want to casually read it, you want to REALLY read it. She presents the history of language and feminism in such a way that is interesting and captivating but doesn’t make you feel like you’re reading a history textbook from high school.
This book does truely arm you with knowledge about the English language for you to use to your advantage. One of my favourite parts about this book is that I feel like I’m actually learning with every turn of the page. This is one of my favourite parts about non-fiction in general. I would read a new chapter then see it happening in my everyday life. Just to give you a sneak peek inside the book, some of the most interesting topics that I took away from this book were:
How some languages have gender ingrained into their nouns – I remember when I was in Grade eight to ten, I thought learning German was a good idea. Little did I know, I was awful at learning languages and just scraped through with a solid C- the whole time. One of the main reasons why I think I was so bad at it was I didn’t understand that in German language every noun has a gender and they have three genders (masculine, feminine and neutral). I couldn’t wrap my head around why ‘spoon’ is a masculine word, ‘fork’ is feminine, and ‘knife’ is neutral. Turns out, I’m not the only one who was confused by this as Amanda described a similar situation when she did Italian in high school.
The ins and outs of catcalling (how it affects women, why men do it, etc.) – this was one of my favourite chapters (if I had to pick one) because catcalling is always something I’ve never understood. Amanda goes into detail about how catcalling is about asserting power rather than anything else and it was so interesting!
The idea of gossip, girl talk, how women use conversations to “establish and create relationships” and the way we talk to one another in a collaborative style – for example, women say yeah or mhmm while speaking to each other to “affirm what they’re saying and push the discussion forward.” Amanda goes on to say, “I think it’s safe to say any woman who’s ever experienced the genuine empathy and solidarity of another woman knows it’s a pretty satisfying feeling.” And I couldn’t agree more!
How English isn’t the best language for gender-neutral identifying people – this book was created for women and, as Amanda puts it in the introduction, “other marginalised genders.” The English language has had a long history of gender-discrimination and if you don’t align with the societal norm of “male” or “female”, it can be hard for people to understand/accept that. In the last few years, the pronoun of “they” as started to come out and be used more regularly. In the last chapter, Amanda posed the question to linguist Deborah Cameron, realistically, what is next for the English language and she said while it’ll be a bumpy road and misogyny will still be intrinsic in the system, gender-neutral pronouns will spread.
I could keep going but you should read the book for yourself to find out all the amazing lessons to take away from this book.
The main message Amanda wants readers to take away from this book is to be able to feel empowered and represented by language instead of silenced by it. “I’ve had readers tell me the book helped them articulate ideas and exasperations they’ve always had but could never put into words much less back up with a study. I want readers to learn, laugh, and have something to talk about confidently with their friends and peers, but also (especially) people who may not subscribe to the same political or social ideologies, with whom they wouldn’t otherwise be able to engage in a conversation about language and gender.”
A huge, huge thank you to Amanda for taking the time to contribute to this article and for creating such a wonderful book. I can not wait to see what other amazing books you bring out! Head over to Amanda’s website to read more about her novel and the other articles she’s written, plus follow her Instagram here.