Language and Gender: Do women and men talk differently?
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The research on language and gender has been essential in providing answers regarding the sociolinguistic variation associated with speaker’s gender. One of the main topics widely discussed in gender and language research is concerning the difference in language between men and women. This assignment is an attempt to answer the question: Do women and men talk differently? I will thoroughly investigate the question looking at the evidence which suggests women and men differ in language as well as examine how it differs. I will also search to discover the motivating factors which make women and men speak differently. I will include some personal observations in relation to language use and gender, based on conversations I have participated in or overheardI will examine gender as a sociolinguistic variable in speech behaviour.
Britain (2005) explains ‘sociolinguistic variation’ as “the study of the way language varies and changes in communities of speakers and concentrates in particular on the interaction of social factors and linguistic structures.” Language and gender research can be divided into two main categories. The first category is concerning the relationship between language and sexism, wherein the general attitudes towards both sexes seems to reflect in language too. For example, some language forms indicate towards the superiority of men and position women negatively. However, in this assignment I will be concentrating on the second category which focuses on the difference in language between men and women. In this kind of research, two main areas of language behaviour have been examined. Wodak (1997:1) points these out as “speech behaviour of men and women on the phonological level and interactions (conversational styles) between women and men in discourse.”As far as terminology is concerned, the category under discussion will be ‘gender’ as opposed to ‘sex’.
It is important to make the distinction between the two terms so that, as Wodak (1997:2) points out, ‘naturalization of characteristics and attributes’ can be avoided. Chambers et al (2002) describing the difference between the terms says “The term “sex” has often been used to refer to the physiological distinction between females and males, with “gender” referring to the social and cultural elaboration of the sex difference”Quantitative studies of variation in sociolinguistic research were first initiated by William Labov, ‘The Social Stratification of English in New York City’ (1966) and Peter Trudgill, ‘The Social differentiation of English in Norwich’ (1974). Coates (1993:61) says these studies aimed to “examine the correlation between linguistic variation and other variables, in particular social class.” Bayley (2002:177) explains that the basic belief behind the studies in this tradition is that “an understanding of language requires an understanding of variable as well as categorical processes and that the variation that we witness at all levels of language is not random.”
Labov looked at the pronunciation of the postvocalic ‘r’ in New York and found that, the higher the social class, the more often they pronounced the ‘r’ in casual speech. Trudgill’s research in Norwich looked at the effects of social class on language use examining a range of variables. One of the variables was the pronunciation of ‘ing’ where it was observed whether the speaker dropped the final ‘g’ and pronounced it as ‘in’. Trudgill discovered some interesting differences between men and women. Nichols (1998:56) says that Trudgill found “women to use the standard-prestige – ing ending more frequently than men.” Overall, both studies had a common result. Patrick (2005) says “holding constant other variables such as age and social class, women generally appeared to use forms which closely resemble those of a standard or prestigious speech variety more frequently than men, or in preference to the vernacular, non-standard or stigmatized forms which men appeared to favour.”
In an attempt to explain the tendency of women speakers using standard prestige as opposed to men, Nichols (1998:56) says “Labov and Trudgill have suggested that women are ‘linguistically insecure’.” Furthermore, Nichols (1998:56) says “Trudgill elaborates on this point by observing that women achieve status in western societies more on the basis of how they look than on what they do. Use of prestigious language might be seen as one of women’s limited means of achieving and signalling status, particularly in more formal situations.”Although Labov and Trudgill’s approach was helpful in many ways, it had limitations. For example, the people were grouped into rigid categories without the consideration of intra-group variation and the focus was only on particular variables and not on language ‘in use’. Also, it failed to into account important variables such as context. (Class notes, week 4) Development took place within the variationist paradigm with James and Lesley Milroy introducing ‘The Social Network Theory’ which accounted for many things that were not recognised by Labov. Milroy (2002:550) giving a broad explanation of the concept says “
A social network may be seen as a boundless web of ties which reaches out through a whole society, linking people to one another, however remotely.”Investigating linguistic variation via the concept of social network, Lesley Milroy carried out a study in Belfast of three working class communities. Coates (1993:89) says this research showed that network strength was “a significant factor in predicting male/female differences”. Regarding the findings, Milroy (2002:554) says “Men in the Belfast neighbourhoods generally contracted denser and more multiplex localized network ties than women, and network structure correlated with language use patterns differently for men and women.”
Coates (1993:89) also mentions Jenny Cheshire’s study of adolescents in Reading as another example where network strength was found to be an important feature in finding out male/female differences. Cheshire showed how certain variants function differently for male and female peer groups. (Class notes) Commenting on the findings Coates (1993:89) says “Cheshire found that the girls did not form structured peer groups like the boys.”As well as quantitative studies, on the relationship between gender and variable language use, interactional studies are also available which analyse conversational speech styles and provide evidence for the fundamental difference between men’s and women’s linguistic behaviour. In the discussion regarding the difference between men’s and women’s linguistic behaviour in interactional studies Talbot (1998:130) identifies three main frameworks: ‘deficit’, ‘dominance’ and ‘difference’. Furthermore, describing the deficit framework Talbot (1998:130) explains “women are disadvantaged as language users and they present themselves as uncertain and lacking in authority.”
Bervall (1999:277) claims that the dominance approach which arose in 1970’s linked those “negative evaluations of women’s language to their social domination by men.” Bervall (1999:277) further elaborates “It wasn’t that women were incapable of vital language; rather, men took the upper hand in conversation, enacting social dimorphism in echo of physical dimorphism.” Researchers in this approach show how male dominance is performed via linguistic practice. In regards to my experience (being a man) in conversation with women, I have noticed myself dominating when speaking to females of my age range .However, when conversing with women older than myself, such as my mother, I seem to get dominated.
One of the most influential supporters of the ‘dominance’ approach has been the linguist, Robin Lakoff. Crawford (1995:23) says it was Lakoff’s work which “began the search for the definitive features of women’s speech.” Robin Lakoff in 1975 published a book entitled ‘Language and Woman’s Place’ which gave an influential account of women’s language. Crawford (1995:24) says “Lakoff (1975) suggested that a distinct group of features- lexical, syntactic, and pragmatic- distinguishes the speech of women.” Some of the features that women are more likely to use, she claimed, are: hedging devices, tag questions, intensifiers and qualifiers, ‘hypercorrect’ grammar, “empty” adjectives, ‘superpolite’ forms and rising intonation on declaratives.
According to Lakoff all these features had a common purpose in communication which Baalen (2001) points out “they weaken or mitigate the force of an utterance.” These features also allegedly convey lack of confidence and assertiveness as well as a lack of authority.(class notes) Other researchers such as Don Zimmerman and Candace West, who have focused on male dominance in interaction, have added features such as ‘interruption’ and ‘overlap’ saying that men interrupt women more than women interrupt men. Coates (1993:139) reports they also found that men dominate by “controlling topics of the conversation and also by becoming silent”. These results were found following a study at the Santa Barbara campus of the University of California in 1975 in which they recorded samples of mixed-sex conversations.
However, more recently, researchers have discovered contradictory findings for most of the features mentioned by Lakoff and they believe that women’s language is not as weak and tentative as Lakoff suggested. Moore (2006) says “researchers such as O’Barr and Atkins (1980) have shown in their study of language used in American courts that the mainly female characteristics of language as described by Lakoff were in fact not characteristic of female language.” Furthermore, Moore (2006) says they have suggested that “this use of language should not be called “female language” but “powerless language” as it is characteristic of people in powerless position.”One feature that has been hugely criticised from Lakoff’s list of features that are more likely to be heard from women is ‘tag questions’.
In regards to ‘tag questions’ researchers subsequent to Lakoff found it hard to prove her observations and some studies even found that men actually used more tag questions than women. Coates (1993:119) reports of a study by Dubois and Crouch (1975) which showed that men produced more tag-questions than women. Similarly, Horesh (2001) reports Cameron et al. (1988) who looked at tag questions in a 45,000 word sample from a British corpus of transcribed conversations, called the “Survey of English Usage” (SEU). Horesh (2001) says they found that 60 tag questions were used by men compared to 36 by women.
Moreover, further examination discovered additional properties of tag-questions and proved they were not always powerless. Kunsmann (2000) says “In addition to expressing uncertainty and insecurity tag-questions also function as expressions of politeness, as hedging and boosting devices.” Moreover, Kunsmann (2000) says that Holmes (1984) proposed “a different division of the function of tag-questions” Holmes (1984) proposed that tag questions served an ‘affective’ and ‘modal’ function. Coates and Cameron (1989:82) define ‘affective’ as the function which are directed toward the addressee and signal solidarity whereas the ‘modal’ function is speaker oriented and indicates a request for information or a confirmation of the information.
I have participated and heard many conversations in which tag questions have been used for purposes other than showing uncertainty. For example, after watching a dreadful football match together with a friend, he said to me ‘That was an appalling match wasn’t it?’ This question was performing the ‘modal’ function looking for confirmation of the information. Similarly, I have heard teachers use tag questions such as ‘Two plus two equals four, doesn’t it?’ in their interaction with pupils. This type of question performs the ‘affective’ function where the addressee is supported.
Moving on to the ‘difference approach’, where the linguistic differences in language between men and women are believed to be as a consequence of them belonging to different subcultures. Kunsman (2000) explains “The difference approach attempts to explain the differential communicative behaviour of men and women by assuming two subcultures in the speech community: men and women. In these different subcultures separate linguistic strategies for interactional behaviour are acquired.” One of the supporters of the “difference approach” is Deborah Tannen. Baalen (2001) says Tannen “argues that communication between men and women is cross-cultural communication”. Furthermore, he says Tannen (1990:8-9) believes the fundamental difference between the two sexes is that men see themselves as “an individual in a hierarchical social order” whereas women consider themselves “individuals in a network of social connections.”
The ‘difference approach’ believes miscommunication occurs between women and men because they both interact differently as Talbot (1998:140) points out “Men and women happen to have different interactional styles and misunderstandings occur because they are not aware of them.” Coates (1993:187) reports that Maltz and Borker (1982) argue “women and men develop different rules for engaging in, and interpreting, friendly conversation, and that these rule are learned in same-sex peer groups during childhood and adolescence.” Coates (1993:194) explains that their different overall style is the essential cause of miscommunication. Furthermore, he concludes “women tend to organise their talk co-operatively, while men tend to organise their talk competitively.” (Coates 1993:194) Moreover, Bergvall (1999:277) says “Under the difference approach, women were cited as better conversationalists, for using elicitory strategies that operated to raise the level of conversation for all participants as well as for seeking rapport, nurturing, or collaborating in language, in contrast to men’s one-upmanship.”
The problems with the ‘difference approach’ is that it doesn’t take into account individual differences and intra-individual differences.(Class notes). It overlooks the fact that people speak differently to different people as Talbot (1998:140) points out “We are all used to dealing with differing interactional norms.” Similarly, it ignores the reality that people differ their speech in accordance to the context as Talbot (1998:140 highlights “We can vary our language according to the needs of the social context, in terms of how formal we need to be, or how technical and suchlike.” Moreover, Talbot (1998:141) concludes that “men and women are not stuck with a single interactional style either” but in fact use the style of the opposite sex at times.
Crawford (1995:8) sees the ‘difference approach’ as an ‘essentialist’ approach in which gender is viewed as a “fundamental, essential part of the individual” and as “something women and men have or are”. In contrast to the ‘difference approach’ Crawford (1995) proposes another approach which he calls “The Social Constructionist approach”. Crawford (1995:12) defining this approach says it views gender as a “social construct: a system of meaning that organises interactions and governs access to power and resources”. In this approach, differences between men and women are viewed as transactional as Crawford (1995:94) explains “women behave in particular ways not because they are women, but because they are members of a distinct, culturally salient group who are placed in particular situations and interactions that enable certain behaviours and suppress others.”
A similar approach to this is ‘The Discourse approach’ which supports the idea that gender can be constructed within language and that certain forms of speech are chosen to construct identities, rather than identities determining the use of speech. (Class notes) Using this approach Freed & Greenwood (1996) carried out a study in New Jersey University involving four male and four female pairs of friends. They investigated the uses of particular linguistic devices such as ‘you know’ in dyadic conversation and found that the use of ‘you know’ varied according to task and not according to sex of speaker. Freed & Greenwood (1996:21) concluding their findings say “our findings on the distribution of ‘you know’ and the use of questions in same-sex friendly dyadic conversation show that it is the specific requirements associated with the talk situation that are responsible for eliciting or suppressing specific discourse forms, not the sex or gender of the speakers.”
In conclusion, I have discovered through evidence that there are clear language differences in the way men and women talk. I first looked at the treatment of ‘gender’ in variationist studies and then in interactional studies. The dominance and the difference approaches were employed to explain the variation in speech situations followed by the Social Constructionist approach which suggested the notion of ‘doing gender’ rather than ‘being gender’. However, Baalen (2001) says “data suggest that male and female language is becoming more similar and that perceptions of language are changing.”
Talbot (1998:145) advocates the current view that “women and men discursively constituted as feminine and masculine subjects in their actions” and concludes “the challenge now is how to conceptualise gender without polarization.” Finally, it seems to me that further research is essential in this area for providing clearer answers as Coates (1993:204) says “There is a need for more detailed sociolinguistic studies at both individual and group levels.” I will finish with a quote by Coates (1993:204) who significantly points out “we must remember that gender differentiation in language does not exist in a vacuum: it interacts in a complex way with other kinds of social differentiation.”
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