Unpacking Women’s Language: On Jenni Nuttall’s “Mother Tongue”
By Katherine TurkNovember 15, 2023
Mother Tongue: The Surprising History of Women’s Words by Jenni Nuttall
Mother Tongue is a fascinating primer on the origins of the English language. For a thousand years before modern English took shape in the early 1700s, its earlier forms competed for prominence, mostly with French and Latin. Premodern English was the province of commoners more than learned and powerful men; fluid and improvised, some iterations “ran riot with different dialects, rebellious spellings and experimental, unregulated vocabulary.” Early English speakers held little consensus about what kinds of concepts were permissible to express in public. In all of this premodern uncertainty, Nuttall finds fertile ground—“a glut of lively, unruly and often startlingly vivid women’s words” that were “neither too euphemistic nor too technical” in describing their sex’s lives and bodies with “a just-right quality.”
While women were among the first English speakers and innovators, most premodern women’s words were coined by men—often medical experts whose limited knowledge nonetheless conveyed surprising respect for women’s sexuality. The first medical books in English referred to sex organs in terms whose “vagueness might betray uncertainties” on “the exact configuration of the female anatomy.” Practitioners of ancient medicine had a general sense of the clitoris’s location while analogizing female orgasm, a word that once meant “any kind of violent spasm, emotional excitement or rage,” to male ejaculation. Premodern medical books thus recounted a woman’s orgasm as “melting, the womb enthusiastically contracting and gulping and gushing.” While those experts spilled plenty of ink in describing women’s sexual enjoyment, they could not imagine a body part—the clitoris—whose only role was its provision. Thus, they assigned women’s pleasure a purpose by positing that both sexual partners had to orgasm in order to conceive. “Fingers crossed that plenty of earnest medieval and Renaissance husbands thus took their wives’ sexual pleasure very seriously,” Nuttall quips.
Before English adopted today’s words for women’s anatomy—words that are “dressed in the white coat and stethoscope of scientific Latin”—early women’s words named sex organs through functional metaphors. One encyclopedia from the 620s asserted that vulva drew its name from “valva, a word for doors which fold or doors which open and close in matching pairs.” More recent scholarship claims that vulva began as “a derivation from the verb volvere, ‘to go round, to roll,’ because the womb goes around the foetus.” Other medieval English names for vulva included “womb-gate” and “wicket,” with the latter defined as “a smaller gate, especially one that opens in a larger door or gateway”—all emblems of anticipation for what’s beyond the threshold. By contrast, vagina originated in the 17th century as “the Latin word for a sword’s scabbard”—a word that emphasizes male assertiveness and female reception. Nuttall unpacks this variation, positing that returning to this tradition of assigning “more user-friendly” names to women’s sex organs might help us “feel a little more at home with them and a little less ashamed.”
Nuttall finds no shortage of gender essentialism reflected in premodern women’s words, and we still live with their logic. Over the centuries, nurse has held a range of definitions, but its earliest meanings included both caregiving and breastfeeding. Nuttall points to the determinism of this linkage: the presumption that “because female bodies have the equipment for feeding infants, women are inherently ‘caring’ and so such tasks should inevitably fall to them.” This two-part meaning of nurse invited guilt-tripping. Some premodern experts defined motherhood as a fungible status that could be reassigned to whoever cared for a youngster. By this logic, women who did not breastfeed the babies they bore surrendered their maternal status to the wet-nurses they hired. Nuttall highlights the vestiges of this devalued caring labor in our own time. Nursing has become a respected career, but the high price of infant care, the mismatch between school hours and career demands, and societal norms still feed stereotypes about who should nurse the young and how they should do it.
Similarly, premodern English women’s words also disciplined as they described in their treatments of women’s life stages. In a chapter on the vocabulary of women’s ages, Nuttall explains how early English words like chastity, honor, and modesty confronted girls with “be-good-or-else threats.” Still, many stereotypes of girlhood also allowed for broader norms of femininity: “the doubling-up of a term like girlie girl shows that not every girl is girlish.” Unlike girlhood, premodern English contained few words on menopause, perhaps reflecting medical experts’ disinterest in that life stage. Like today, “English society found much to dislike about older women: their bodies, their talk, any power or influence they might have.” Nuttall uncovered a few respectful words for elderly women, but most were cruel, such as “old trots, veckes, hags or crones.” The latter term described both an older farm woman and an aged female sheep.
Of course, English vocabulary has continued to shift, but recent updates have not moved us towards more respect for or openness about women’s bodies. Premodern discussions of menstruation, unlike today’s hushed references, were “part of the public world of the inquisitive and interested.” The first written descriptions of menstruation referred to “the discharging of some superfluous fluid or the result of incompletely digested food”—vague and inaccurate, but still framing it as normal. Other references to menstruation described “a process of flowing” or running “just as water or paint runs,” bearing “the irresistible properties of liquid” that “soaks and stains.” These accounts were crafted to spark curiosity rather than shame. But the Victorians, “keen to find new scientific justification for women’s supposedly inferior physiology,” made menstruation “more taboo and discussed more keenly.” Nuttall deems the phrases they handed down to us “limited and unappealing.” She especially disdains period—“an empty, evasive name” that evokes a passive length of time rather than a vital process.
If there is a protagonist in the book, it is Nuttall herself. With a confident voice, she conjures striking imagery—for example, in portraying one Greek physician’s theory of male and female genitals as mirror opposites: as “invertible as a rubber glove.” Throughout Mother Tongue, Nuttall fuses the distant past with the present by including anecdotes from her own life. Mother has long linked identity to action by implying certain norms for female parents, Nuttall notes. But many of the earliest words that depicted caring labor conferred more choice and agency. Nuttall describes how she began leaving her one-year-old with a childminder so she could resume her teaching career. The verb to mind, which dates to the 14th century, means to think and to care about something. Upon retrieving her one-year-old from the childminder’s after her workday ended, Nuttall writes, “I was so grateful, especially on those days when I had relished every last second of being free from thinking about my toddler, that she didn’t mind an unrelated infant calming herself by eavesdropping so very closely on the rhythm of her heart and breath.”
Through this linkage of past and present through language, Mother Tongue illuminates the values embedded in all of the terms we have at hand—even those that seem neutral. But is the book “a historical investigation of feminist language and thought,” as the book’s jacket asserts? Mother Tongue excavates the many origins and purposes of women’s words, most of which were coined by men. Once these words went mainstream, they became common currency—everyone used them in reference to the same things, even when those words’ origins had faded from public understanding. Most feminist language has been invented quite recently. Words like patriarchy, rights, and gender were needed to “describe a society set up to discriminate systematically against women.” Those words helped feminists fight their way outside of the naturalized gender system. But Mother Tongue reveals that the explanatory power of women’s words lies not just in women’s agency but often in their lack thereof. Language disciplines and limits even as it expresses ambiguities and opens possibilities.
Nuttall’s closing call to action is anchored in this ambiguity and elasticity. She urges us to reject the sterile, Latin-derived anatomical words and guilt-laden references to social roles that have infected our vocabulary, and instead to “try to imitate early English’s plainspokenness where we can.” To bolster this call, Nuttall points out that English has always been women’s, and not only because children have tended to learn it from their female caregivers. Since early English was driven by speakers who were excluded from the tight cluster of educated men who read French and Latin, women were among the most eager English learners and innovators. “So in one way it’s our language to do with what we want,” Nuttall concludes.
But who is “we”? These fights over words, which acknowledge the inherent power of language, are not relics of the distant past. Today, the bounds of gendered vocabulary are as contested as ever. Nuttall points to recent debates over the phrases “pregnant people” and “those who menstruate.” Some have insisted that this degendered vocabulary offers welcome inclusion, while their detractors argue that “gender-inclusive wording doesn’t come cost-free,” denying the “social reality” that most who menstruate and become pregnant are women.
As Mother Tongue shows us, English has always both belonged and not belonged to women, and even if the language became wholly theirs, no common vocabulary could ever capture the diverse priorities and perspectives of an entire sex. As one piece of the struggle for power to shape our society, the struggle over women’s words will continue—and those words will remain a fruitful site for careful study.
Katherine Turk, the author of The Women of NOW: How Feminists Built an Organization that Transformed America (2023), is an associate professor of history and adjunct associate professor of women’s and gender studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
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