Theses Doctoral

The Articulation of Difference: Imagining "Women's Language" between 1650 and the Present

Salvo, Sophie Alexander

This dissertation is an archaeology of so-called Weibersprache. While the concept of feminine language is typically associated with 1970s feminist theory, this study shows that there was a diverse history of conceptualizing “women’s language” prior to this period. I begin with seventeenth-century ethnographic texts that report on a langage des femmes among Island Caribs (by authors such as Jean Baptiste du Tertre, Charles de Rochefort, and Raymond Breton). Shifting genres, I then trace how the idea of a separate women’s language was appropriated by German philology and philosophies of language in the nineteenth century. I show how authors ranging from Wilhelm von Humboldt to Fritz Mauthner reconceptualize Weibersprache to be a universal female phenomenon and present “primitive” women’s languages as evidence for the general alterity of female speech. The second chapter of the dissertation juxtaposes this genealogy of Weibersprache with the nineteenth-century debate over the origin of grammatical gender, and contends that discourses on gendered language constitute an important part of the broader reconfiguration of the sexes during this period. The third chapter moves to literary discourse to show how the notion of women's language fulfills a different discursive function around 1900. With recourse to texts by Robert Musil (Vereinigungen, Drei Frauen), Hugo von Hofmannsthal (Furcht, Elektra), and Walter Benjamin (“Das Gespräch”), I demonstrate how Modernist writers use the idea of an alternative feminine language as a means to test the boundaries of their own literary genres. Once the concept of Weibersprache is reimagined in Modernist literature, it assumes a utopian dimension, which then becomes a central concern for French feminist theory. The fourth chapter offers new readings of feminist theories of language (Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigaray, Julia Kristeva) by contrasting their focus on textuality with earlier conceptions of Weibersprache that link women’s language to orality. A genealogy of “women’s language” from “primitive” phenomenon to feminist politics in ethnography, philology, literature and theory, this dissertation is an interdisciplinary study of language, sex and gender.


  • thumnail for Salvo_columbia_0054D_14022.pdf Salvo_columbia_0054D_14022.pdf application/pdf 1.57 MB Download File

More About This Work

Academic Units
Germanic Languages
Thesis Advisors
Simons, Oliver
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
August 5, 2017