Language and Gender

There are two different types of Language and Gender questions you could be asked about: representations of gender and gender in action.

For instance, magazine articles, adverts and books all include representations of gender (usually stereotypes) and not what males and females are really like. It's the perception of a gender difference, not a real gender difference.

Transcripts, however, will show you how gender differences affect language (unless they are faked, be careful!)

A distinction you must understand:


1. of women: relating or belonging to women or girls
2. biology of the sex that produces offspring: relating or belonging to the sex that produces sex cells gametes that fuse with male sex cells during sexual reproduction


1. conventionally associated with women: conventionally thought to be appropriate for a woman or girl
2. attributed to women: considered to be characteristic of women

The big question in linguistics: does being female affect a person's language, or is it merely the attitude towards feminine that make us think there is a difference?

Gender Researchers

Many leading linguists have a thing or two to say about language and gender. If you decide to do this question and get a transcript of male/female conversation, (language in action) it would be useful to quote a researcher... learn the ones here and you should have no problem.

Difference Theory

As the title indicates, the difference theory is the idea that males and females really do converse differently.

A big advocate of this approach is Deborah Tannen. She believes the difference starts in childhood, where parents use more words about feelings to girls and use more verbs to boys. Males and females belong to difference sub-cultures and therefore speak differently. Her book, You Just Don't Understand, claims that there are six main differences between the ways males and females use language:

  1. Status vs. support - men see language as a means of asserting dominance; women see it as a way of confirming/supporting ideas.
  2. Independence vs. intimacy - men "go it alone"; women seek support.
  3. Advice vs. understanding - men see language as problem solving; women see it as a means of empathy.
  4. Information vs. feelings - males are concerned with the facts; women with emotions.
  5. Orders vs. proposals - men use imperatives; females use hidden directives.
  6. Conflict vs. compromise - men will argue; women will try to find a middle ground.

She also said of males and females:

Women: Men:
Talk too much Get more air time
Speak in private contexts Speak in public
Build relations Negotiate status/avoid failure


Speak one at a time
Speak symmetrically Speak asymmetrically

Well... she's the researcher, I suppose, but..."women talk too much"? This, as Deborah Cameron can prove, is merely a myth... and as Dale Spender put it, it perhaps stems from the idea that in an ideal world, women wouldn't talk at all... Don't all Tannen's beliefs sound vaguely as though they stem from stereotypes?

In a male/female conversation, the following female researchers found these, which seem to match the difference approach:

Christine Howe

  • Men have strategies for gaining power.
  • Men are much more likely to respond to what is being said, keen to put their views across.
  • This makes it harder for the listener to participate in the conversation.
  • Women are more active listeners. They use minor interjections, such as "uh huh" and "oh really" (back-channeling).
  • The differences between male and female conversation begins at socialisation (ages 3-4).

Ann Weatherall

  • Women's talk is co-operative.
  • Men's talk is competitive.
  • Women are more likely to use hedging, "sort of" "kind of"...
  • Women speak for less time and are less likely to interrupt.
  • Females use more tag questions:

    F: We're seeing Mum later, aren't we?
    M: We're going to see Mum today.

Pilkington did research into all female and all male conversation in a bakery over a period of nine months. He found:

  • Women talk to affirm solidarity and maintain social relationships.
  • Women focus on feelings, personal anecdotes and relationships.
  • Women support, build on each others' points and complete others' utterances
  • Women agree frequently.
  • Men find long pauses (thinking time) acceptable.
  • Men frequently disagree and challenge others' points.
  • Their conversation is competitive to a point of verbal abuse. They take part in verbal sparring, often using mock insults.

You don't have to agree with them and pointing out in the exam the problems with the studies (e.g. that they're generalising, that they're dated) would also get you marks. And besides, the exam question is only one example of male and female conversation -- there's no proof that it's representative.

Dominance Theory

After all those annoying linguists who say that there is a difference, William O'Barr and Bowman Atkins wrote a book called Women's Language Or a Powerless Language? (1980):

  • They studied the language of the courtroom and found female lawyers to be assertive, interrupt, everything that Pilkington argued for males.
  • They also found that witnesses of both sexes would use Robin Lakoff's weak "female" language.
  • They concluded that these weak language traits are actually a "powerless language" rather than a "female language".

O'Barr and Atkin's research is interesting, and seems to suggest that it is not so much differences in the sexes' language, more the situations that they face which result in the difference. This theory is known as the dominance theory: if there is a difference in language, it is because males have always dominated in both the home and workplace, and females have had to play the domestic roles.

Robin Lakoff (1975) was a believer in this to some extent. She combined elements of dominance and deficiency (another theory that claims women's language is weaker because it's EXPECTED to be weaker..."women don't swear" being a common assumption) and created a set of female characteristics:

  • Women hedge.
  • Women use super polite forms: "Would you please...?" "I'd really appreciate it if..."
  • Women speak in italics (use more prosodic features): It's soooo nice...
  • They use empty adjectives: divine, lovely, adorable...
  • They use modal verbs: should, would...
  • Overuse qualifiers. "I think that..."
  • They use mitigated responses and hidden directives.
  • They have special lexis for things like colours and cloth.
  • They avoid coarse language and expletives.
  • Women can't tell jokes.

Many of these, like hedging, hidden directives, overuse of qualifiers, she claimed were because of the patriarchal society - historically, women had never had any power, and when faced with opportunities to place their opinion, they grow nervous...

"Women don't tell jokes"? I'm sure there's at least a little humour sprinkled throughout these pages... and what did one snowman say to another? can you smell carrots! And guess what, Lakoff, I'm female...

The feminist Dale Spender also believed the dominance approach. She once said:

"The crux of our difficulties lies in being able to identify and transform the rules which govern our behavior and which bring patriarchal order into existence. Yet the tools we have for doing this are part of that patriarchal order. While we can modify, we must none the less use the only language, the only classification scheme which is at our disposal. We must use it in a way that is acceptable and meaningful. But that very language and the conditions for its use in turn structure a patriarchal order."

Under the dominance theory, in a gender-neutral area, males and females should use language in the same way.


So, which approach do you believe? Dominance or difference? Can you tell what I think? It doesn't really matter which side you take: as long as you can mention the researchers and distinguish between dominance and difference in the exams, you'll get lots of marks!

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Have you ever heard the phrase, "You can't do it -- you're a woman"? Stereotypes are damned annoying (shock horror, I just used an expletive), aren't they? Unfortunately, stereotypes often imbue our representations of gender.

Gender stereotypes generally fall into two categories:

Women are:

  • Weak
  • Pretty
  • Intuitive
  • Emotional
  • Domestic
  • Social

Men are:

  • Strong
  • Decisive
  • Practical
  • Rational
  • Public
  • Commanding

Just look at this extract from Mills and Boons novels (horrible books, I know).

As Holly went upstairs to check on her sister, who was staying at Gregory’s while their parents had taken the weekend off to visit a festival of flowers, she couldn’t still her tumbling thoughts.

Ignoring the terrible writing, it's very stereotypical. The first thing to notice is that Holly is checking on her sister -- taking on a domesticated, caring role. Why doesn't Gregory check on her? She is also portrayed as weak and emotional: "couldn't still her tumbling thoughts" -- unable to control her emotions.

Hot anger trembled through her body.

Another weak, emotional female here. The syntax is particularly interesting. It uses the active voice for the emotion (subject, verb, object) and thus renders the female as a passive object. The verb choice "trembled" is also interesting, considering that it is "anger." The weak female cannot even feel such an aggressive emotion properly; it has to be dulled down by a weak verb.

It's okay for males, but it seems that women drew the short straw! The sad thing is, that even in the modern world, people still buy and read this rubbish, being drip-fed the stereotypes...

Where does stereotyping come from?

We only have to look into the history books to see male dominance. It wasn't until 1918 that females in the UK got the vote... British history has always been patriarchal - which means the rule of men. They ran the government, the Church and everything else in the public sphere.

Because they set the rules, they dictated what women could and couldn't do. In fact, in Victorian times many books were published about the gender difference -- stating what males and females could and could not do. It was believed that they fell into different spheres (domestic and public), that because of their biology, it was natural for women to be more caring and stay in the house, while men should be out, making a living.

These social constructs were very restraining for females, and perhaps lead to the "sociable" stereotype. When females were locked in the house, their only way of communicating with the outside world was through holding "tea parties" and other events.

Some interesting acts of Parliament:

1553 – It was agreed that it was more natural for the man to come before the woman.
1746 – John Kirkby wrote Eighty Grammatical Rules. Rule 21 said that the male gender was ‘more comprehensive’ than the female.
1850 – Act of parliament was passed that stated that ‘he’ should be used for both sexes.

These constructions have also naturally affected language in action. If we believe what Lakoff says about hedging - is it any surprise that women hedge, when they have been oppressed for centuries? Or that, when roles have been always seen as for male, females move more towards R.P. in a job interview than men? (Okay, I confess, I'm a dominance gal).

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The one place you can use taboo language and get away with it -- isn't Language a fantastic subject? But think of all the derogatory terms for females, in comparison to those for males:






The list of female insults could go a lot further (in 1977 Julia Stanley suggested there were 220 terms for promiscuous female, and only 20 for a male) and most of them are horrible -- sexually insulting. On the male side, the insults are often seen as less taboo, and many of them are effeminate (feminising the male). This reflects the dichotomy of the patriarchal society: it was okay for a male to go out and sleep with anyone he chose, but if a female did the same she had immediately stepped over a line.

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Semantic Derogation

Marked terms and titles are where a term has been marked out as gender specific, usually by adding an affixation, such as -ess and -ette. It has been suggested that the female equivalent of a term usually takes on diminutive connotations... (Schultz) not surprising, if you think of it as "just the female equivalent of a male role."

For example:

Major - a leading drummer

Steward - in charge

Majorette - throws sticks

Stewardess - comes around serving

The two terms Mr and Mrs are asymmetrical - unequal. For the male term, the status of the man is disclosed, but the female term marks her out as married or unmarried: Miss/Mrs. Nowadays, many females opt for a neutral Ms.

Semantic derogation is where the female term in a male/female pair will acquire negative connotations over time.

For example, the two words "bachelor" and "spinster" have the same denotation (dictionary definition), to be unmarried, but very different connotations (psychological associations). Bachelor might conjure the words: free, young, choosing to stay single... while spinster connotes: old, decrepit, unwanted...

Other semantic derogation:



The word 'lady', for example, is very diminutive, even though it was once the equivalent of 'lord'. Examples: tea lady, dinner lady, cleaning lady and lollipop lady. All diminutive terms and connected with care or domesticity.

Political Correctness

Political correctness has risen in recent years to find the gender pairs and replace them with more gender-neutral terms: police officer, chair person, fire fighter, etc. It's hoped that over time, this will break down the ingrained connotations that 'fireman' and 'police man' are men's job, while 'dinner lady' is a female occupation.

The political correctness approach has its critics though: those who doubt it will ever change things; those who ask ludicrously if "manhole" should be changed to personhole and "Manchester" to "Personchester".

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