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Language and Gender

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Language and Gender

Could someone’s gender really affect the way they perceive the world and communicate with others? This is what some linguists think! In this article, we will begin by exploring 'gendered' language, which is language that is biased towards a certain sex or gender. We will explain how it can affect larger societal issues like gender inequality. We will also explore the differences between the ways men and women use language, by looking at some gender and language theories that study.

Gendered language

In the case of the English language, the term ‘gendered language’ does not refer to the masculine or feminine labels given to nouns, as, unlike languages such as French and Spanish, English does not have grammatical gender. Instead, gendered language in this instance means:

Language that carries a bias towards a specific sex or gender.

Language and gender inequality

The use of gendered language can often lead to gender inequality, which creates an unfair bias towards a certain gender. This can result in harmful stereotypes which cause discrimination and portray a negative view of a certain gender. These stereotypes and negative views are often directed at women. For many years, women did not have the same rights and opportunities as men, such as not being able to vote or access certain public places, like pubs. The use of gendered language has the power to reinforce and maintain male supremacy in society.

Below are some examples of gendered language:

Examples of gendered language

Mr and Mrs

‘Mr’ can be used to refer to any man, regardless of his marital status. However, there are different terms to use for a woman, depending on her marital status. ‘Miss’ is used if she is not married. ‘Mrs’ is used if she is married. ‘Ms’ is a more neutral term for women who do not wish to disclose their marital status. The use of different terms for women and not men could be seen as problematic as it portrays the idea that their lives are defined only by the relationships they have with men.

Throughout history, a woman’s role in society has been closely associated with her marital status, which is why women use different titles. This highlights the privilege of men and the status they already have in society without being expected to marry someone.

Gender-biased job titles

In the past, gender roles were followed more strictly and there was a clearer divide between the expected roles for men and women. Men were seen as the main earners, whereas women looked after the children and carried out unpaid domestic work, like cooking and cleaning.

Some gender-biased job titles include:

  • Policeman

  • Fireman

  • Postman

  • Chairman

  • Cameraman

Notice how they all end in man! The use of these jobs titles is problematic as it excludes the word women, implying that only men are fit for these positions… We all know now that women are able to work in any of the above jobs! However, the language we use when describing these jobs continues to cement the idea that they are typically done by men. This portrays men as strong and smart, and women are forgotten or overlooked.

Gendered Greetings

How many times have you heard Ladies and gentlemen or “Hello sir/madam? Although they are used to address both male and females and are not biased towards one specific gender at a time, these greetings are still gendered. Because of this, they are not inclusive to people who do not associate with those binary terms.

Examples of gender-inclusive language

Gender-Neutral Job Titles

In today’s society, more job titles either have a female equivalent or are gender-neutral. Gender-neutral job titles can be seen as better as they do not carry a bias towards any sex or gender. Using these titles helps to limit negative stereotypes surrounding certain jobs and reduces inequality faced by women, as anyone is able to use them, not just men.

Language and gender Image of a business meeting StudySmarterInstead of using gendered terms such as 'business man' or 'business woman', we can say 'business person', Pixabay

Examples of gender-neutral job titles include:

  • Police Officer (instead of Policeman)

  • Fire Fighter (instead of Fireman)

  • Postal Worker (instead of Postman)

  • Chair/Chairperson (instead of Chairman)

  • Camera Operator (instead of Cameraman)

Gender-neutral greetings

Instead of using greetings such as ladies and gentlemen or sir/madam, it is becoming more common to use neutral greetings such as everyone or folks to be more inclusive towards non-binary people.

Gender differences in language use

It has been argued that men and women use language in different ways, which reflects how they view themselves in society and how others perceive them. A variety of theories have been developed by linguists to study the ways that men and women use language. This allows us to gain a deeper understanding of possible similarities and differences between genders through the language we use in conversation.

Let's look at a basic overview of four of these theories.

Language and gender theories

Difference Theory

The difference theory simply aims to prove that men and women do speak in different ways. But, this does not mean that one way is better than the other. A supporter of this theory is Deborah Tannen. In her book, You Just Don’t Understand (1990), Tannen explores these differences. Below is a summary of her findings:

MEN:

WOMEN:

See communication as a competition to gain status

Communicate to gain the support of others

Are more independent

Are more dependent on others

Try to fix problems

Try to find sympathy from others

Talk briefly about facts

Talk lots about their feelings

Are more direct and give more demands

Are more indirect and give suggestions

More likely to express opinions and argue against others

Less likely to cause conflict

What do you think of this theory? Do you see any problems with the way men and women are presented?

Dominance Theory

The dominance theory is the idea that the language men use is superior and holds more dominance in society, whereas the language women use is seen as inferior. This theory could be seen as problematic as it suggests that men have more authority over women, and women should be submissive. Some supporters of this theory include linguists such as Don Zimmerman, Candace West, Pamela Fishman and Dale Spender.

In 1975, Zimmerman and West conducted a study titled Sex Roles, Interruptions and Silences in Conversation (1975). In the study, they recorded 31 conversations between two people at a time. Ten of these conversations were between just men, 10 between just women, and 11 between both men and women. Below is a summary of their findings:

Men:

  • Spoke more in general.

  • Interrupted women more.

  • Didn’t let women speak.

  • Responded to women in a minimal and delayed way.

  • Rarely interrupted other men.

Women:

  • Were silent more, and for longer periods of time.

  • Only interrupted other women, not men.

Deficit Theory

The deficit theory is the idea that the language men use is seen as the standard, whereas the language women use differs from the standard and is seen as insufficient. This theory could be seen as sexist as it portrays women as weaker and of lower status, highlighting the inequality faced by women. Supporters of this theory include Otto Jespersen and Robin Lakoff.

Below are some of the findings from Otto Jespersen’s book, Language: Its Nature, Development and Origin (1922):

WOMEN

  • Talk a lot.

  • Use simpler words as they have smaller vocabularies.

  • Use more false starts and unfinished sentences because they speak before they think.

  • Exaggerate more.

  • Use too many adjectives and adverbs.

  • Are emotional, not grammatical.

  • Are more indirect, so are not as effective as men.

MEN

  • Have larger vocabularies and use more difficult words.

  • Are in charge of establishing new words in the English language.

Below are some of the findings from Robin Lakoff’s book, Language and Women’s Place (1975):

Women use more:

Examples:

Backchannelling

“Uh-huh”, “Mm”, “Yeah”

Hedging

“Sort of”, “Kind of”

Intensifiers

“Very”, “So”

Apologies

“I’m sorry, but…”

Tag questions

“You live here, right?

“You sing, don’t you?

Modal verbs

“Could”, “Should”, “Ought to”

Wh- Imperatives

Why don’t we…”

Indirect commands

“It’s cold in here” indirectly means: close the window

Diminutives (pet names)

“Honey”, “Sweetie”, “Darling”

Women may use these things more than men BUT they use less:

  • Slang.

  • Swear words.

  • Insults.

And perhaps the most sexist observation of all…

  • Women don’t have a good sense of humour and are bad at telling jokes.

If reading any of the theories so far has got you looking like this...

Language and gender image of frustrated woman StudySmarterGender-related topics in English Language can be frustrating! Pixabay

You are not alone!

Diversity Theory

The diversity theory argues that there is a difference between sex and gender. It also suggests that the sex we are assigned at birth does not affect the language we use. Instead, the roles we have in society and the way we interact socially influences our language. Supporters of this theory include Deborah Cameron and Judith Butler.

Deborah Cameron believes that difference is a myth. Her research takes inspiration from contemporary theorists who challenge the idea that men and women use different language. She thinks that the differences in gender are because of the expectations placed on us by society. She coined the term verbal hygiene in her 2012 book of the same name, to refer to the ways in which people think they are supposed to speak in order to fit into the norm and meet the expectations of a correct society.

Which theory do you agree with most?

Language and Gender - Key takeaways

    • Gendered language is language that is biased towards a certain sex or gender. It can cause and help maintain gender inequality.

    • Gender-neutral language does not carry a bias towards a certain sex or gender. It is inclusive.

    • The 'Difference theory' focuses on the idea that men and women communicate in different ways.
    • The 'Dominance theory' focuses on the dominance of the language men use, as opposed to women.
    • The 'Deficit theory' focuses on men’s language being the standard, and women’s language being insufficient as it differs from the standard.
    • The 'Diversity theory' focuses on the idea that the sex we are assigned at birth does not affect our language use, but our place in society and the way we socialise does.

Frequently Asked Questions about Language and Gender

Language and gender are closely tied together, as the language we use reflects our gender roles in society.

Language and gender refers to the study of the language used by men and women, and how they differ to reflect someone’s position in society.

A language and gender theory is a set of ideas that looks at the similarities and differences between the language men and women use.

The study of language and gender focuses on the correlation between the language we use and our gender.

Language and gender is important as the language we use reflects the way we view ourselves and others in society.

Final Language and Gender Quiz

Question

What is the Difference Approach?

Show answer

Answer

The difference approach looks at the fundamental differences in how men and women communicate with each other.

Show question

Question

What is the Dominance Approach?

Show answer

Answer

The Dominance Approach suggests that women are conditioned from childhood to be subordinate in language.

Show question

Question

What is the Diversity theory?


Show answer

Answer

The Diversity model argues that society and socialisation, not gender, influence the way men and women communicate.

Show question

Question

True or false? Janet Holmes further developed the dominance theory.

Show answer

Answer

False. Janet Holmes further developed the difference theory.

Show question

Question

Name theorists who support the difference approach.


Show answer

Answer

For example: Janet Holmes, Jennifer Coates,  Deborah Tannen, Christine Howe.

Show question

Question

How many contrasts in communication does Tannen identify? Give some examples.


Show answer

Answer

Tannen identifies six contrasts. For example, status vs. support, independence vs. intimacy,  conflict vs. compromise, etc.

Show question

Question

Complete the following: Howe’s research suggests:

  • Women are …  listeners and avoid ... language.

  • Men use language in a more …  way than women to seek ....

Show answer

Answer

Howe’s research suggests:

  • Women are active listeners and avoid strong language.

  • Men use language in a more competitive way than women to seek power.

Show question

Question

True or false? Deborah Cameron claims there is as much difference and similarity within each gender group as there is between men and women.


Show answer

Answer

True.

Show question

Question

True or false? Cameron suggests we should think about 

gender in linguistics in a less complex way than we have done so far.


Show answer

Answer

False. Cameron suggests we should think about gender in linguistics in a more complex way than we have done so far.

Show question

Question

Complete the following: 

Hyde proposes the gender similarities hypothesis (2005), which indicates that there are actually fewer ... between men and women than there are … .


Show answer

Answer

Hyde proposes the gender similarities hypothesis (2005), which indicates that there are actually fewer differences between men and women than there are similarities.

Show question

Question

What does male genderlect use 

communication for?


Show answer

Answer

  • ‘Report’ talk (exchanging information)
  • To show independence.
  • To show status.

Show question

Question

What does female genderlect use 

communication for?

Show answer

Answer

  • ‘Rapport’ talk (networking)
  • To connect.
  • To develop intimacy.

Show question

Question

Complete the following: In Tannen's Difference theory, men use language to show their independence, while women use it to ... with others.


Show answer

Answer

While men use language to show their

independence, women use it to connect with others.

Show question

Question

Which theorist defined gender as performative and a social construct?

Show answer

Answer

Judith Butler

Show question

Question

What is the difference approach in linguistics?

Show answer

Answer

The difference approach looks at the differences in communication between men and women.

Show question

Question

What is the dominance approach? 


Show answer

Answer

The dominance approach suggests people communicate according to traditional social roles (including the patriarchal belief in male dominance and female subordination).

Show question

Question

Who proposed the dominance theory?


Show answer

Answer

Robin Lakoff presented the dominance theory in 1975 in her work Language and Woman’s Place.

Show question

Question

Who proposed the difference theory?


Show answer

Answer

Deborah Tannen presented the difference theory in 1990 with her book You Just Don’t Understand.

Show question

Question

Complete the following: Lakoff suggests that general language also treats women as ..., ..., or ... .

Show answer

Answer

She suggests that general language also treats women as powerless, weaker, or subordinate.

Show question

Question

How many characteristics did Lakoff identify in women’s 

register? Give some examples.


Show answer

Answer

Lakoff identified 10 characteristics, for example: hedging, ‘empty’ adjectives, tag questions etc.

Show question

Question

What is another term for ‘Women’s language’ in linguistics?

Show answer

Answer

‘Women’s language’ is also referred to as

‘tentative language’ in linguistics.

Show question

Question

Separate the following into hedging modifiers and boosting modifiers:


Fillers

Tag questions 

Rising intonation in declarations.

Emphatic stress

Intensifiers.

Show answer

Answer

 Hedging Modifiers:

  • Fillers

  • Tag questions 

  • Rising intonation in declarations.


Boosting Modifiers:

  • Emphatic stress

  • Intensifiers.


Show question

Question

True or false? Lakoff suggests the tag question is used more by women to confirm or to indicate certainty of their own knowledge.

Show answer

Answer

False: Lakoff suggests the tag question is used more by 

women to avoid conflict or to indicate uncertainty of their own knowledge.

Show question

Question

Who uses ‘rapport-talk’ and why?

Show answer

Answer

Women use 'rapport-talk'  to connect socially and emotionally.

Show question

Question

Who uses ‘report-talk’ and why?

Show answer

Answer

Men use 'report-talk' to exchange information rather than to connect.

Show question

Question

True or false? Tannen writes that boys and girls learn 

different approaches to language and communication from childhood, influencing them as adults in social situations.  


Show answer

Answer

True.

Show question

Question

How many categories exist in the Difference approach? Give some examples.

Show answer

Answer

There are six categories, for example: Status vs. Support, Intimacy vs. Independence, Information vs. Feelings etc.

Show question

Question

 Which of Tannen’s six categories does the following describe:

Typically, men communicate to give information, whereas women communicate to build up relationships or to network.

Show answer

Answer

Status vs. Support

Show question

Question

Complete the following: The difference approach reflects on ... and suggests that men and women belong to two different ... that develop in … .

Show answer

Answer

The difference approach reflects on equality and suggests that men and women belong to two different sub-cultures that develop in childhood.

Show question

Question

Complete the following: ’Women seek ... and ... for their problems, while men seek a ... to the problem.’ 

Which of Tannen’s categories does this fit?

Show answer

Answer

Women seek comfort and sympathy for their problems, while men seek a solution to the problem. (Advice vs. Understanding).


Show question

Question

What is the Deficit Approach?

Show answer

Answer

The Deficit Approach suggests there are differences in the way women communicate based on how they think. 

Show question

Question

What is the Dominance Approach?

Show answer

Answer

The dominance approach suggests that women are conditioned from childhood to be subordinate in language. 

Show question

Question

What is ‘women’s register’?

Show answer

Answer

Lakoff identified "women's register" as a language girls are brought up to use that makes them appear as the weaker sex.

Show question

Question

Complete the following: Fishman views questions as a 

feature of … : women ask questions because they have …, not because they feel insecure.

Show answer

Answer

Fishman views questions as a feature of interactions: women ask questions because they have power, not because they feel insecure.

Show question

Question

True or false? Jesperson suggests there are similarities in the way women communicate based on how they think.

Show answer

Answer

False: Jesperson suggests there are differences in the way women communicate based on how they think.

Show question

Question

True or false? In Geoffrey Beattie’s study (1982), men and women interrupted with about equal frequency.


Show answer

Answer

True.

Show question

Question

Complete the following: Fishman concluded that women work ... than men in communication because they have …  .... of success.


Show answer

Answer

Fishman concluded that women work harder than men in communication because they have less certainty of success.

Show question

Question

Choose the right answer(s) (more than one may be correct) 

In her experiment, Fishman discovered that :


Show answer

Answer

The women were more actively 

engaged in 

conversation than the men.

Show question

Question

Who said the following? ‘There is an unequal distribution of work in communication.’


Show answer

Answer

Pamela Fishman (1978)

Show question

Question

Complete the following sentence:

Jane Pilkington discovered that ... in same-sex conversations were more … and polite. 

Show answer

Answer

Jane Pilkington discovered that women in same-sex conversations were more collaborative and polite.

Show question

Question

Choose the right answer (there may be more than one):

Jane Pilkington found that men in same-sex conversation were:


Show answer

Answer

less collaborative.

Show question

Question

Choose the correct answer:  Spender’s main arguments are:

Show answer

Answer

That language determines the limits of our world.

Show question

Question

What is the definition of gendered language?


A: Language that is biassed towards a certain sex or gender.

B: Language that is grammatically feminine.

C: Language that is grammatically masculine.

Show answer

Answer

A: Language that is biassed towards a certain sex or gender.

Show question

Question

Which of the following is an example of gendered language?


A: Hello everyone

B: Good morning Sir

C: Alright folks

Show answer

Answer

Good morning Sir

Show question

Question

Which of the following is not an example of gendered language?


A: Fireman

B: Postman

C: Police Officer

Show answer

Answer

C: Police Officer

Show question

Question

Women use the term Miss when they are not married.


True or false?

Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

The English language does not have a grammatical gender.


True or false?

Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

A language and gender theory is always true.


True or false?

Show answer

Answer

False.


A theory is a set of ideas and interpretations that aim to explain something. It is not always true.

Show question

Question

Language and gender are not linked at all.


True or false?

Show answer

Answer

False

Show question

Question

Which of the following people did not support the dominance theory?


A: Dale Spender

B: Otto Jespersen

C: Dom Zimmerman

Show answer

Answer

B: Otto Jespersen 

Show question

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