In Mother Tongue: The Surprising History of Women’s Words, Jenni Nuttall draws from decades of knowledge gleaned from studying and teaching medieval literature in order to track the origins and winding evolutions of the language used to discuss the female experience.
Nuttall arranges her history in topical chapters, opening the first chapter about anatomical terms with Chaucer (Who else?) and delving into a discussion about how terms describing genitalia are either euphemistic or coldly clinical. These bleed into the next chapter on menstrual language, a wild journey through a millennium of speculation about period bleeding. This is followed by a chapter on lust and sexuality, which demonstrates the ways that cultural and religious institutions have created a shameful and heteronormative path for women. A chapter covering gendered violence comes with painful but necessary context for our current victim-blaming culture, followed by a final chapter about feminism, misogyny and developing empowering vocabularies around the two.
Each chapter roves through time, picking salient points that result in a narrative, not a glossary. This makes Mother Tongue feel better suited to someone wishing to muse and draw connections than someone concerned with mapping changes over an exact interval. Where the text excels is in providing thought-provoking origins and comparison points for words that English-speaking culture often portrays as immutable. The book also makes the origins of our current cultural norms apparent from the lack of available information around lesbianism in early English and broad definitions and decryings of “sodomy” to the origin of the word “drudgery” as explicitly meaning women’s work.
The book lauds women who emerge from under the thumb of patriarchy, but meets the changes of the future (and present) gender revolution with bland neutrality, and sometimes quiet apprehension. Nuttall’s introduction states that many terms in the book apply also to nonbinary and transgender people, but the book is ultimately cisnormative both in its focus and its afterword, which makes sense for a book tracing the Anglo mainstream but can feel a bit out of step with current conversations around gender. Nuttall applies “both sides” reasoning and hand-wrings over what she calls “circumlocutions,” such as “people who menstruate” that describe traits traditionally seen as female without limiting them to a single gender identity.
Despite such reactionary moments, this easily digestible and scenario-rich depiction of the evolution of language we take for granted is still done with care and compelling detail. Nuttall answers why we have been taught to say what we do, but more importantly, reminds us that the language we are handed is contextual, cultural and ultimately changeable.