Language and Sex
A major issue in the sociolinguistics of speech is the relationship between sex and language. Since the mid-1970s research on language and sex has concentrated on the role language plays in the location and maintenance of women in a disadvantageous position in society.
Before this, linguists had taken an interest in sex and language in two other respects. The earlier of these was the presence in a few languages of lexical, phonological, morphological forms that are used only or pr redominantly by speakers of one sex or the other. More recently, in earlier research in sociolinguistics, sex was investigated as an independent variable related to linguistic variables, along with social status, style, age and ethnicity.
At the time most of the studies were done, linguists were most interested in sex-related linguistic features as purely linguistic phenomenon, and secondarily as a possible cause and effect of the relation between men and women in a social and political sense was not to develop un ntil sixties.
Do women and men speak differently? English speakers are often aware that the answer to this question is almost “yes” for all speech communities.
The linguistic forms used by women and men contrast – to different degrees – in all speech communities. Th
Sex differences in language are often just one aspect of more pervasive linguistic differences in the society reflecting social status or power differences. If a community is very hierarchical, for instance, and within each level of the hierarchy men are more powerful than women, then linguistic differences between the speech of women and men just one dimension of more extensive differences reflecting the social hierarchy as a whole.
I can give you one particular example of an experience I had during my several journeys to the In ndian subcontinent:
In Bengali society, for instance, a younger person should not address a superior by first name. Similarly wife, being subordinate to her husband, is not permitted to use her husband’s name. She addresses him with a term such as s u n c h o ‘do you hear?’ When she refers to him she uses a circumlocution. One nice example of this practice is provides by the Bengali wife whose husband’s name was t a r a , which also
The fact that there are clearly identifiable differences between women’s and men’s speech in the communities discussed here reflects the clearly demarcated sex roles in these communities. Sex-exclusive speech forms (i.e. some forms are used only by women and others are used only by men) reflect sex-exclusive social roles. The responsibilities of woman and men are different in such communities, and everyone
knows that, and knows what they are. There are no arguments over who prepares the dinner and who puts children to bed.
Not surprisingly in western communities where women’s and men’s social roles overlap, the speech forms they use also overlap. In other words women and men do not use completely different forms. They use different quantities or frequencies of the same forms.
Across all social groups women use more standard forms then men and so, correspondingly, men use more vernacular forms than women. In Detroit, for
Instance, multiple negation (e.g. I don’t know no
This pattern is a typical one for many grammatical features. In many speech communities, when women use more of a linguistic form than men, it is generally the standard form – the overtly prestigious form – that women favour. When men use a form more often than women, it is usually a vernacular form, one which is not admired overtly by the society as a whole, and which is not cited as the ‘correct’ form. What is the explanation for it? Why does female and male speech differ in this way?
Some explanations of women’s linguistic behaviour
When this pattern first emerged, social dialectologists asked: ‘why do women use more standard form then men?’ At least four different (thought not mutually exclusive) explanations were suggested. The first appeals to social class and its related status for an explanation, the second refers women’s role in society, the third to women’s st
I Social status
Some linguistics have suggested that women use more standard speech forms then men because they are more status-conscious than men. The claim is that women are more aware of the fact that the way they speak signals their social class background or social status in the community. Standard speech forms are generally associated with high social status, and so, according to this explanation, women use more standard speech forms as a way of claiming such status. It is suggested that this is especially true for women who do not have paid employment, since they cannot use their occupations as a basis for signaling social status.
The fact that women interviewed in New York and in Norwich reported that they used more standard forms then they actually did, has also been used to support this explanation. Women generally lack status in the society, and so, its is suggested, some try to acquire it by using standard speech forms, and by reporting that they use even more of these forms than they actually do.
II Women as guardian of society’s values
A second explanation for the fact that women use more standard forms than men points to the way society tends to expect ‘better’ behaviour from women than from men. Little boys are generally allowed more freedom than little girls. Misbehaviour from boys is tolerated where girls are more quickly corrected. Similarly, rule-breaking of any kind by woman is frowned on more severely than rule-breaking by men.
Women are designated the role of modelling correct behaviour in the community. Predictably then, following this argument, society expects women to speak more correctly and standardly than men, especially when they are serving as models for children’s speech.
This explanation of why women use more standard forms than men may be relevant in some social groups, but it is certainly not rude for all. Interaction between a mother and her child are likely to be very relaxed and informal and it is in relaxed and informal and it is in relaxed informal contexts, that vernacular forms occur most often in everyone’s speech. Standard forms typically associated with more formal, and
less personal interactions. It seems odd to explain women’s greater use of more standard speech forms (collected in formal tape-recorded interviews) by referring to a women’s role as a speech model in her very intimate and mainly unobserved interactions with her child.
III Subordinates behave politely!
A third explanation which has been proposed for women’s use of more standard forms is that people who are subordinate must be polite. Children are expected to be polite to adults. Women as a subordinate group, it is argued, must avoid offending men – and so they speak carefully and politely.
It is not immediately apparent why polite speech should be equated with standard speech. It is perfectly possible to express yourself politely using a Liverpool accent and its is equally possible to be very insulting using RP.
A more sophisticated version of this explanation, suggests that by using more standard speech forms women are looking after their own need to be valued by the society.
IV Vernacular forms express machismo
One answer which has been suggested to the question ‘why don’t man use more standard forms?’ is that men prefer vernacular forms because they carry macho connotations of masculinity and toughness. If this is true it would also explain why women might not want to use such forms.
There is some evidence to support the suggestion. Men apparently want to sound less standard than they actually are. This suggests that men regard vernacular forms positively and value them highly, even if they don’t always openly admit to doing so. It has been suggested, then, that these forms have ‘covert prestige’ by contrast with the overt prestige of the standard forms which are cited as models of correctness.
The converse of this claim is that standard forms tend to be associated with female values and femininity. Some linguists have pointed to the associated with female forms with female teachers and the norms they impose in the classroom, with the suggestion that boys may reject this female domination, and the speech forms associated with it, more vigorously than girls. More generally in the society, a preference for vernacular forms may be reaction to what is perceived as overly influential female norms.
V Some alternative explanations
Women’s greater use of standard speech forms may simply be a reflection of their sensitivity to contextual factors. Standard speech forms are used in more formal contexts. They reflect social distance. They are used in contexts where people operate primarily in terms of social status and role. When people do not know each other well, they tend to speak in ways that reflect their social roles (e.g. customer – shopkeeper, teacher – pupils, interviewers – interviewee) rather than relating as individuals.
Standard speech forms are appropriate to such transactional roles. Where women use more standard speech forms than men in social dialect interviews, this may be due to the fact that they experienced the interview as a relatively formal interaction with a stranger.
This explanation, which accounts for the difference in women’s and men’s speech forms by referring to the relationship between the people concerned in the context in which they are operating, provides a thought-provoking alternative to explanations which characterize women as status-conscious individuals who use more standard speech forms to ensure they are perceived as socially statusful.
This discussion of alternative explanations of women’s linguistic behaviour also illustrates another important point. The ‘same’ behaviour may be interpreted quite differently by different researches. Identifying linguistic differences between groups is just the first step. Interpreting their significance is another, and any interpretation will be influenced by a researcher’s theoretical framework and beliefs about the relationship between language and social factors. A researcher who believes the status dimension is more influential in accounting for linguistic differences than the solidarity dimension, for instance, will provide a different explanation from one who sees a person’s social contacts as more influential in accounting for their speech than their social class background.
It is worth nothing that although sex generally interacts with other social factors, such as status, class, the role of the speaker in an interaction, and the formality of the context, there are cases where the sex of the speaker seems to be the most influential factor accounting for speech patterns. In some communities, a women’s social status and her sex interact to reinforce differential speech patterns between women and men. In others, different factors modify one another to produce more complex patterns. But in a number of communities, for some linguistic forms, sex can itself be a primary factor accounting for speech variation. The sex of the speaker can override social class differences, for instance, in accounting for speech patterns.
Overall, then, the nature of the relationship between sex and speech is complex, and the way a speaker’s sex interact with a range of other factors needs careful examination in each speech community. The social roles that women and men play, their different values and social networks (who they talk to most), and their sensitivity to contextual factors, including characteristics of the person they are talking to, are relevant factors accounting for people’s speech patterns.
A very often reported version of the gender pattern shows female speakers avoiding socially disfavoured linguistic features only in formal styles. There will no doubt be more research on the relationship between sex and other patterns of sociolinguistic variation, including social status. At this point, it seems that the influence of gender is more fundamental than it has appeared so far, but that social status does play an independent role in linguistic variation as well. It will be fascinating to learn more about how the two work together.
With regard to topic control in conversation it was repeatedly stated that women use by far more strategies than men did to enhance the changes that what they said would be attended to. One such device is to ask questions. Question-asking is regarded as one of the means women can use to compel attention to what they say, attention that they might not otherwise get from a male conversation partner. The other side of the coin, in a sense, to the use of question as a way of increasing the chance of uptake on the speaker’s topic, is the use of statements. Statements are not part of an adjacency pair, there is no structural reason they should induce a response.
To sum up: The gender pattern involves the differential use of certain status-making linguistic forms by sex. In particular, those forms revealed as disfavoured by overall patterns of class and style stratification are used more frequently by men than by women, especially in the formal speech styles. Recent research indicates that sex may be more fundamental as an influence an sociolinguistic variation than has been recognized so far.
Another emphasis in research on language and sex has to do with certain linguistic features that women use, apparently in response to dominance by men. From the perspective, female register research is closely related to another area of language and sex study of cross-sex conversation. These studies consistently show that men use various interactional means to size and maintain control over the progress of conversations. Women use – as a mentioned – other interactional strategies.
The gender pattern has resisted a really convincing explanation, although several have been offered. Lesley Milroy’s work on language, sex and social network and Trudgill’s discovery of the male covert prestige phenomenon suggests than an explanation of the gender pattern might be better if focused on male behaviour. From this women’s use of prestige features simply conforms t