Language and gender

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A striking contrast between ‘the taciturn man' and the ‘cackling hen'

Abstract: Are men really more casual and women more sophisticated while speaking? Despite both genders being part of the same human species, they do have a salient difference in the manner they interact, speak, react and even the topics they choose to talk about. While men are more at ease in their social contexts, women appear to be conscious about their status and thus tend to use higher standard language in terms of talking. In addition, both men and women have different purposes when talking: for men it has more to do about imparting information and demonstrating expertise compared to women who aim to maintain and develop relationships. However, like in a lot of other things, exceptions are a part of this issue too; some men are just ‘too feminine' and some women are just ‘too boyish'.

Ever noticed how differently girls and boys talk? What words they use? What topics do they speak on? If you haven't yet; next time make sure to do so because linguists have “claimed to establish a rather intriguing difference between the language used by women and men” (Talbot, 1998, p. 20). Language and gender is a vast topic that attracts a lot of discussion from linguists around the world who aim to extract the variations and distinctions between a male's language and a female's. Up until today several such distinctions have been discovered, studied and noted. These differences are essential in characterizing the ‘masculine style' of talking and the ‘feminine style'. The paramount objective of this paper will be to look deep into these specific differences and also to find possible reasons as to why they exist.

The ‘he' dominance

Historically, English was considered as a sexist language with gender bias in its use (Yule, 2006; Jule, 2008). An example of this gender bias is the use of “pronouns, particularly the generic use of ‘he' or ‘him' or ‘his' to refer to something relating to both men and women” (Jule, 2008, p. 13). For instance, the tendency to say “each student is required to buy his own dictionary” indicates the sexism in the use of ‘his' (Yule, 2006, p. 225). Nevertheless, now it is becoming much less common and there is now strong use of the forms ‘she/he' and ‘his/her' so that both genders can be included in all contexts where both the genders are being referred to.

Variation and Exception

Language use not only varies between cultures and religions but also “varies according to the social context, in terms of level of formality required by the relationship between speaker and hearer and what they are talking about, as well as other aspects” (Talbot, 1998, p. 19). It also varies based on geographical locations, both within and across national boundaries; there are forms like Nigerian English, South African English, Australian English etc... However, apart from social dialects and contexts, sociolinguists have asserted that there is a striking divergence between the language used between men and women in general.

Several studies have been conducted by sociolinguists to prove that these distinctions in a men's speech and women's speech do exist and are not just for say. In addition, differences not only exist in matters of speech but also in terms of interaction. This gendered language is the reason that not only reflects these social differences between men and women but it also creates and maintains them (Talbot, 1998). However, what is worth remembering is that it is not always the same; not all women have a stereotypical style as outlined by the linguists and not all men have the exact identical way described by linguists. You must have occasionally heard someone say ‘he's too feminine' or ‘she's totally boyish'. This does indicate that exceptions, as in everything else, exist in gendered language too. All women and men cannot be placed in the category set out by linguists. Nonetheless, a general framework that has been created by linguists clearly defines that differences amongst language used by men and women are present. There are vocal differences, differences in forms, in politeness, in compliments and what is interesting is that these differences exist since childhood.

Boy talk vs. girl talk

Even as young girls and boys, there is a great amount of difference in the way each one speaks, interacts and responds. There is a difference in interests as well. While girls are busy dressing up Barbie dolls or playing teacher-teacher, boys are fighting for dominance in wrestling games or killing each other in robotics. Linguists have pointed out that girls, since school age, have a more interactive style with “socializing in small groups, more often in co-operative activities, establishing reciprocal relationships and exchanging roles” (Yule, 2006, p. 224). Boys, on the other hand, tend to exclude girls from their activities and make fun of those who do include them. Comparatively, they tend to “socialize in much larger groups, often in competitive activities, establishing and maintaining hierarchical relationships” (Yule, 2006, p. 224). Also what is noticed is when conflicts arise between girls and boys, both use different strategies for tackling them. Amy Sheldon undertook an interesting set of analysis of ‘conflict talk' and studied the discourse of 3-5 year olds in day care centers. “Boys she observed handled conflict in a more heavy-handed fashion, expressing more self-assertive statements and dominance, whereas the girls used more collaborative discourse mitigate conflict” (Clark, Eschholz, Rosa & Simon, 2008, p. 519). In addition to conflict strategies, there is also a difference in forms and pitch ranges between young boys and girls. Fern L. Johnson goes on to state that “since childhood, girls tend to speak in softer, polite, higher-pitched voices” compared to boys who have more “forceful, straight forward, lower pitched voices” (Clark, Eschholz, Rosa & Simon, 2008, p. 504). However, the differences in pitch and voice range is accounted for by the differences in vocal characteristics of males and females.

Males have longer vocal tracts, larger larynxes and thicker vocal chords compared to females and this is the reason why there is a difference in pitch ranges. The result is that men typically speak in a lower pitch range- typically between 80 - 200 Hertz whereas women speak in a much higher version- between 120 - 400 Hertz. The term pitch refers to the vibration in the vocal chords, “with slower vibration making voices sound lower and rapid vibration making voices sound higher” (Yule, 2006, p. 224).

What you might also notice is that at an early age parents are often heard telling their kids different things to sons and to their daughters. Sons are always told to ‘toughen- up' and ‘stand-up for themselves' and if they don't act like it, they are advised ‘don't be a sissy'. In contrast, girls are always commanded to ‘act ladylike', ‘sit and speak properly' and to ‘dress decently'. These reasons are also responsible for the differences in a woman's speaking style and a man's.

‘Chatty women' and ‘Men of few words'

Women have always been addressed with typical phrases like ‘cackling hens', ‘chatty women' and ‘the gossip' whereas men have been tagged with ‘the taciturn man' and ‘man of few words' (Clark, Eschholz, Rosa & Simon, 2008, p. 523-524). Women, undoubtedly, have been believed to talk more than men. Jule mentions a study statistic done by Mark Peters (2007) on the number of words used by women and those used by men in a single day. “Peter indicates that women use about 7000 words a day compared to only 2000 for men” (Jule, 2008, p. 27). Apart from the fact that females talk more, what is interesting is that the ‘speech' they use varies considerably than that used by men. Women's speech has been associated with the use of tag questions, super polite forms, affective adjectives, hedges, rising intonations and hypercorrect grammar. Tag questions are questions at the end of a sentence, like an utterance, often asking for an opinion, approval or confirmation, like ‘this dress is pretty, isn't it?' or similarly ‘don't you?' ‘haven't we?' are all questions tagged at the end of a sentence. Super polite forms refer to the “avoidance of swear-words and extensive use of euphemism. Euphemism is the use of veiled, indirect expression (for instance, saying passed away instead of died)” (Talbot, 1998, p. 39). These tend to make women's language more standard and often higher in prestige compared to men. Hedges are filler items or an utterance like ‘you know', ‘well', ‘kind of' or sounds like ‘hmm' and ‘yeah'. These hedges are often a reason of misinterpretation amongst men and women. Since hedges are in a women's use, men consider it to be a sign of agreement whereas when women do not see men using such hedges, they take it as if the men are not paying attention to what the speaker is saying (Yule, 2006). Affective adjectives are used in expressing approval, or admiration, many of which are used by women, words such as ‘divine', ‘adorable' and ‘charming'. Hypercorrect grammar, as stated by Lackoff, is simply to state that women tend to use more standardized forms, which implies that “they are more correct than they ought to be” (Talbot, 1998, p. 40). All these above mentioned characteristics are rarely heard from a man and are usually not a part of their speech. These characteristics also point to something else: interaction between and amongst the two genders.

The casual man and the sophisticated woman

     Women have a completely differing style of interaction than men. Also, topic choices vary between men and women. Each gender speaks more about the topic that they are comfortable with. The general view of linguists is that men speak more casually than women. This is perhaps because women are more conscious about their social status and how others around them perceive them to be. In a study mentioned by Jule, the conclusion drawn was that “men are more at ease in their social settings...and that women are more social situations because of their need to achieve or maintain social status” (Jule, 2008, p. 20). Deborah Tannen also asserts that men and women “have different goals in conversation and that the conversational strategies men use, such as interruptions, help to establish their own status and authority” (Clark, Eschholz, Rosa & Simon, 2008, p. 506). Jennifer Coates mentions a study conducted by Zimmerman and West (1975) which clearly suggests that the number of interruptions is very high in mixed- sex conversations, with men interrupting more than women. Also, there is a fact that men rarely interrupt each other while speaking amongst themselves, “it is when they are talking to women that they use interruptions” (Coates, 1993, p. 109). Conversely, women do not use overlaps in conversation with men (while they do use amongst themselves) suggesting that they are “concerned not to violate the man's turn but wait until he's finished” (Coates, 1993, p. 110).

There is also a difference in communication and interaction of men and women within social contexts and private contexts. According to a study mentioned by Janet Holmes “males tend to talk more than women in public contexts where talk is highly valued and attracts positive attention” (Holmes, 1995, p. 37). Therefore, each gender provides more contribution in the situation they are most contented in. In private contexts “women tend to regard talk as means of maintaining and developing relationships” (Holmes, 1993, p. 38). Mary M. Talbot also puts forward that “men tend to use conversation as arenas for negotiating and maintaining status....Conversations are about imparting information, talking for a purpose, demonstrating expertise” (1998, p. 99). This then explains why men are more aware about their status in public perspectives than in casual conditions. Tannen mentions a personal experience where at a party she noticed that when men don't know much about a particular topic, they tend to “change the subject to something they know more about” (Clark, Eschholz, Rosa & Simon, 2008, p. 533).

Who's more polite?

With regards to politeness, there are two things that are of great significance in indicating the level of politeness: compliments and apologies. In both the aspects of compliments and apologies, women definitely hold their flag much high than men. In a study conducted by Janet Holmes (1995) on the levels of politeness amongst men and women, what was found was that “women give 70% of compliments and receive about 75% of them; compliments between men are rare- less than 10%” (Jule, 2008, p. 83). She further presents a study conducted between New Zealand men and women in regards to who apologizes most and what Holmes's data relates is that “apologies were more frequent between and amongst women” typically around 58% compared to only 8% amongst men (1995, p. 157). However, “the number of apologies between women and men is remarkably evenly distributed” close to the 20% mark (1995, p. 159). As an explanation to this, Holmes offers that women might consider explicit apologies for offences as more important in maintaining relationships than men do which may also be why women tend to be more polite, aware of their surroundings and status than men.

In conclusion, as Holmes points out; it is not always this way, not all women speak in the way describes above i.e. using hedges, super polite forms, tag questions, standard language, hypercorrect grammar etc.... This is the general view of linguists that has been established after a wide range of studies and this is what outlines such patterns in the styles of gendered language. However, this does not mean that women do not have an abrasive, challenging and antagonistic speech style, some of them do but then they are considered to have adopted a ‘masculine' style of talking and thus, they are placed under the category of exceptions. Nonetheless, these exceptions exist as a minority and the general pattern in women's and men's speech is the one described above and the one that is observed and accepted by several linguists of this field.

A brief word about the cited authors:

Janet Holmes is a professor of linguists at the Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. She is a teacher of sociolinguistic courses, New Zealand English, and language and gender issues. Her publications consist of ‘An introduction to sociolinguistics,' ‘New Zealand ways of speaking English', ‘Gendered talk at work', ‘Women, men and politeness' and several others.

Jennifer Coates is a professor of English language and linguistics at Roehampton University, UK. Her works comprise of ‘Women, men and language', ‘Women in their speech communities', ‘Women talk', ‘Conversations between women friends' along with many others. Recently, she has completed a book on men, masculinity and narrative entitled ‘Men talk'. Most of her research interests address the issue of language and sexuality and the conversational patterns in gendered talk. She is also the editor of the Blackwell sociolinguistic series ‘Language and Social change' and the senior editor of the Longman ‘Real Language' series.

Allyson Jule, a PhD from Roehampton University, London, has particular research interests in the field of gender and language. She is an associate professor of education at the Trinity Western University along with being on the Advisory committee of the International Gender and Language Association (IGALA). Her famous works are composed of ‘Sh-shushing the Girls', ‘A beginner's guide to language and gender', along with several other journal articles and co-edited books on the same issue. She is also part of the British Association of Applied linguists (BAAL) and is the reviewer of the Gender and Education journal.


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Coates, J. (1993). Women, men, and language: A sociolinguistic account of gender differences in language (2nd ed.). New York: Longman.

Holmes, J. (1995). Women, men, and politeness. New York: Longman.

Jule, A. (2008). A beginners guide to language and gender. Toronto: Cromwell Press.

Talbot, M. M. (1998). Language and gender: An introduction. Malden: Blackwell Publishers.

Yule, G. (2006). The study of language (3rd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.