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How and why do women and men speak differently?

Task:

How and why do women and men speak differently? What explanations do different approaches in Sociolinguistics provide for the differences in language use by them? Which of these approaches do you agree with and why?

In recent years, the assertion that women and men typically employ different speech style is pursued in a wide range of studies. Also, different sociolinguistics approaches such as variationist sociolinguistic, interactional sociolinguistic and ethnography of communication have put forward different explanations regarding this issue. Following by that, three approaches of language and gender have been also proposed by Jennifer Coates in her book “Women, Men and Language” (1986), which are the deficit approach, the dominance approach and the cultural difference approach to clarify this issue.

Firstly,variationist sociolinguistics explains that different social conditions, for example different ages, genders, social classes and identities of interlocutors may discover different patterns of speech style. In this manner, it is suggested that the deficit approach which is proposed by Coates (1986) has followed the variationist sociolinguistic approach as deficit approach explains that the social status and identities of women have affected their speech style. According to Coates (1986), "deficit" is an approach established by Lakoff (1975). Robin Lakoff's (1975) influential exploratory essay, Language and Woman's Place, about the ways women's speech differs from men's suggests that women are disadvantaged relative to men by a commonly inferior, less forceful “women's language” which they learn through socialisation. Also, she emphasises various female forms and styles conveying weakness, uncertainty, and unimportance. For instance, Lakoff argues that tag questions (1975:16) and hedges (1975:54) are always used by women where they were unwilling to state a proposition directly. Indeed, her claims have been proven through a research carried out by Michael et. al. (2010) which determines the differences in conversational styles of men and women in Malaysia. The research points up that Malaysian women used more questions and hedges in their speech than men in order to keep the conversation going (Fishman, 1980; cited in Michael et. al., 2010). In this way, a psychological explanation given by Lakoff (1975) to women's usage of questions and hedges is due to the nature of women's secondary status, which is their sense of inferiority. She states that women feel unsecure of themselves because they have been taught to express themselves in “women's language”, which abounds in markers of uncertainty.

Correspondingly, in Penelope Brown's study of men's and women's speech patterns in a Mayan community in Mexico (1980), she found that a frequent correlation between higher status and the male sex affects the speech of men from that of women. She established that women in the Mayan community used the extremes of politeness, while men spoke more ‘matter-of-factly' (Brown, 1980). Therefore, Brown (1980) relates these findings to the powerlessness social position of women in Mayan community as well, such as their vulnerability in relation to men and their need to protect their reputations. Hence, it seems reasonable to predict that women in general will speak more formally and more politely, since women are culturally referred to a secondary status relative to men and a higher level of politeness is expected from inferiors to superiors.

Regarding to the same issue, other variationist explanations are given through Trudgill's and Labov's researches. Trudgill claims that women typically hypercorrect where they speak more formally, using a higher proportion of prestige forms than men do in order to strive for social advancements. Likewise, Labov (1966; 312-495) found that at each socioeconomic level, except the very lowest, employ the same pattern. For example, in the description of Labov's investigations in New York City (1966), English speakers in New York sometimes pronounce the /r/ sound in words like ‘car', ‘floor' and ‘fourth', and at other times they omit it. Beyond the finding that all speakers fluctuate between the inclusion and omission of /r/, Labov shows that speakers from a high socioeconomic level tend to pronounce /r/ relatively often. However, /r/ inclusion is more frequent in the speech of lower middle class women where they pay much careful attention in their speech. They use the upper middle class or the upper class as their reference as their accent has higher prestige and their own vernacular forms do not appear as often in casual speech (Labov, 1966). Besides, Labov (1966) suggests that the more formal a context of speech becomes, the more will the lower middle class women adopt the features of the higher class and will even overtake the rate of the upper class in the most formal style. Furthermore, Fischer (1958; cited in Angle & Hesse-Biber, 1981) also found that women were more probable than men to prefer the standard gerundive suffix "-ing" to the more informal "-in". In relation to Labov (1966), hypercorrection of the middle class women is associated with a relatively high level of linguistic insecurity as their extreme attention to external standards can be coupled with the weaker economic base of women, their relative powerlessness, and the oppressive nature of social stratification. In contrast, the tendency of men to actually lower the status level of their speech is seen as evidence that men have a covert norm of prestige that runs contrary to that assigning prestige to the standard forms.

Secondly, ethnography of communication approach which is used as a mean to study the interactions among members of a particular speech community which has a specific culture could be used to explain the differences in speech style of men and women as well. This is because speech communities create and establish their own speaking codes or norms (Philipsen, 1975). Essentially, the dominance approach with is suggested by Coates (1986) could be associated with ethnography of communication as well, as male dominance is always one of the factors or cultures of some speech communities that affects men's and women's speech style. One of the examples from which dominance approach is applied is in Korea, which the country social structure consists of a royal monarch, a patriarchically dominated family system that emphasises the maintenance of family lines (Cho, 2006). Also, this structure has tended to separate roles of women from those of men. Therefore, Cho claims that Korean women are seen as the powerless and subordinate group whose difference speech style is resulted from male supremacy. An example of male dominance in Korean society illustrated by Cho (2006) is, a married Korean woman will rarely introduce herself to others with her own name, but habitually calls herself someone's mother or wife, even though she has a profession. One might also explain this in terms of the dominance model, where female uses a term that identifies her relationship to husband, either as a mother or a wife, to show her subordination to her husband. Conversely, male uses his own name to offer himself with an individual identity.

Next, interactionist sociolinguistics approach is mainly interested in what language use can tell about social processes. Besides, it asserts that environmental factors are more dominant in language acquisition. In other words, interactionist approach places the importance on home and cultural environment in language learning. Thus, this approach is followed by Deborah Tannen's (1990, 1992) cultural differences approach when she describes communication between men and women as “cross-cultural communication”. She (1992:109) asserts that cultural differences between men and women including diverse expectations about the gender role of talk in relationships and how they have to achieve that role. Tannen (1990) outlines, speech styles begin to established in childhood and continue through adulthood. She believes that women and men have dissimilar pass experiences. Boys and girls grow up in different cultural environment. They travel in different worlds and adapt to different cultures, reinforcing patterns established in childhood. In order to elaborate on speech styles, Tannen (1990:77) depicts that most men are very quiet at home, but will freely talk up in public and participate in discussion groups. Basically, they use a reporting communication style, to preserve independence as well as negotiate and maintain status in a hierarchical social order. Also, men avoid small talk. Conversely, women have a rapport communications establishing connections, negotiating relationships and enjoying private conversations (Tannen, 1990). They do most of the talking in private conversations such as when they are at home. However, when in a public occasions, women are not as comfortable in voicing their views. In this manner, Tannen (1990) asserts that men are more concerned with status and independence whereas women prefer connection and intimacy. She considers that these cultural differences can give women and men a different perception at the same situation and therefore they employ different speech styles.

In my viewpoint, I believe that there is a truth in the claim of interactionist approach, and I think that this approach has best described the language and gender issues. As what has been claimed by Tannen (1990), I agree that men and women come from different sociolinguistic subcultures would have different conceptions of friendly conversation, different rules for engaging in it, and different rules for interpreting it. Hence, cultural differences approach which follows interactionist approach has evidently described that cultural differences will truly impose a number of differences in speech style between men and women. Nevertheless, my point here is that cultural differences alone cannot sufficiently clarify the whole pattern of language difference. In fact, deficit approach and dominance approach may make some contribution even though there would be some biasness or stereotypes included in these approaches. This is because there is a clear pattern for language style shown by different linguists over the years, which correlated with men to be that of power and dominance, and that associated with women to be that of powerlessness and submissiveness (e.g. Lakoff, 1975). To summarise, gender different in patterns and styles of communication should be viewed as a complex issue where there are many approaches and factors involved in it. Individuals would not use one form of speech style in all occasions and with all people. They would consider various factors and decide on different communicative strategies to transmit meaning correctly and effectively.


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