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Language, Society and Power Week 5 – Language and gender


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Rachael-Anne Knight, 2003, University of Surrey – Roehampton

Language, Society and Power, Week 5

Language, Society and Power

Week 5 – Language and gender


Aims: To discuss if and how the English language can be considered sexist

To understand some of the differences between the speech of men and women

To appreciate the possible reasons for these differences

What is gender?



The terms ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ are often used interchangeably but the term ‘gender’ was originally introduced to have a slightly different meaning to ‘sex’. In this way, ‘sex’ refers to biological differences whereas ‘gender’ refers to social differences. So for example, the fact that men have lots of facial hair and women don’t is a sex difference but the fact that women wear skirts and men don’t (in Western cultures) is a gender difference.

0.1Sexist Language


Sexism means that the sexes are represented unequally. Usually, we associate sexism as a notion that represents women as being less able or skilled in some way than men.

0.1.1Symmetry


One way in which English is sometimes considered to be sexist is in the asymmetry of the vocabulary and how words are applied.

0.1.1.1System of vocabulary


For example, the generic word for horses is “horse”, for male horses it is “stallion” and for female’s “mare”. For humans however, the generic term and the term for adult males in “man”. This creates asymmetry in the language as it possible for the term “man” to be ambiguous. This is known as he-man language.

0.1.1.2Names


It is often said that women do not really have their own names. They take their father’s surname when they are born and their husband’s when they get married. Of course many women now keep their own surname after marriage or take their mother’s maiden name.

0.1.2Use of Vocabulary


It is not only the words available in the language that may be considered to be sexist, but also, how they are used. So for example, it is acceptable to call a female a “girl” for much longer than it is acceptable to call a male a “boy”.

        1. Titles


The use of titles is also asymmetrical. Men only use one title throughout their lives. Women generally use Miss before they’re married and Mrs afterwards. The use of the title Ms is a recent introduction that was meant to end the inequality of the system by not showing whether or not a woman was married. However, now it seems that the use of your title also suggests political affiliations. Some people may think that you are a feminist if you use Ms or anti feminist if you use Miss or Mrs. Some people also think Ms is used for divorced women.

0.1.2.1Marked terms


Some terms may make females seem to differ from the standard by adding a suffix to words used to describe them. Thus we have pairs such as actor/actress, steward/stewardess.
Even words which can be used to refer to a person of either sex can be marked. So, for example we may call a female doctor a “lady doctor”, suggesting that the norm is a male doctor.

0.1.3Semantic derogation


This refers to the process by which words may acquire negative connotations. In terms of sexist language, we often find that words referring to women have undergone this process. For example, we often find the term ‘lady’ used where a gender neutral or male term is used if the job is done by a man. Therefore we have “dinner lady”, “tea lady”, “lollipop lady” and “cleaning lady”. The equivalent male term “lord” has not undergone this derogation.
The terms “master” and “mistress” and “sir” and “madam” are also unequal. The male terms refer only to the power relations whilst the female terms also have sexual connotations.

0.1.4Insults and obscenities


In English we usually find that insults and obscene words are usually to do with parts of the body or sexual behaviour. We usually also find that more of these terms relate to women and in general are more offensive than equivalent terms for men.

0.2Linguistic differences between men and women.


There are many well-researched differences between men’s and women’s speech, at each level of linguistic analysis.
      1. Levels of analysis

        1. Phonetics and Phonology


Studies of Norwich English have found that in all social groups men and more likely to say things like “walkin’” (a non-standard form) than women. This is also the case for glottal stops in London English, where men are more likely to use a glottal stop in words like “butter”, than women.
In terms of their intonation, women have a higher pitch in part because they have smaller larynxes and smaller vocal folds. However, the physical differences are probably not enough to explain the differences in pitch that are used. Women may talk with a higher pitch in part to make them seem smaller than they are, and men may use a lower pitch to make them seem bigger than they are.

0.2.1.1Syntax


Similar differences are found in the use of grammatical forms. For example, in Detroit English, men are more likely to use multiple negation (e.g. “I don’t want none”) than women. In British English too, men and boys use more non standard forms such as non-standard “–s” (e.g. “They calls me all the names under the sun”), non-standard “has” (e.g. “you has to do what you’re told”), and non-standard “was” (e.g. you was with me, wasn’t you?).

0.2.1.2Discourse


It seems that despite the common stereotype, men talk more than women when in mixed sex groups. There is also evidence to suggest that men interrupt women more than they interrupt other men and also more than women interrupt men or other women. Women give more back channel support, this is feedback which shows the speaker they are being listened to. Women also use more modal forms (could, would, should, might) than men. Women seem to talk more about personal, intimate topics than men.

0.2.2Possible explanations for differences

        1. Use of standard forms


There are many explanations for why women use more standard forms than men.

The social status explanation states that men use more standard forms because they are more status conscious than men. The idea is that women are more aware of how their speech signals their status and therefore use more standard forms that are associated with such status. There is some evidence to support this as women often ‘over report’ their usage of standard forms. However, it was originally claimed that women without paid employment use the most standard forms as they can’t claim status through their jobs. This claim has since been disproved.


The guardian explanation suggests that as society expects women to behave better than men, they therefore use more standard forms. This explanation also draws on the fact that women are most often the models for children’s speech. However, most analyses are of speech in interview settings, which we would expect to be more standard, and not of the relaxed speech between mother and child, which we would expect may contain fewer standard forms.
The politeness explanation suggests that women are subordinate in society and therefore must be polite. However, it is difficult to see how standard forms relate to the issues of politeness, as it is possible to be polite using the vernacular.
The machismo explanation seeks to explain men’s behaviour rather than women’s. It is, after all, men who are more likely to use non-standard forms. This explanation states that non-standard forms carry connotations of masculinity and toughness. This may explain why women use fewer such forms and is supported by the fact that men often over report their use of non-standard forms. However, this explanation does not suggest why all speakers use more vernacular forms in informal settings.

        1. Discourse


The dominance explanation suggests that differences in the conversations of the sexes occur because women have less power than men and speech reflects these differences. This theory however, suggests that men demean women, who are just powerless victims.
The difference explanation suggests that the sexes develop different speech styles because of time spent in single sex groups as children and in adult life. Women’s styles are based on cooperation and support whilst men’s are based on status. In mixed sex groups the different styles clash leading to misunderstandings.

0.2.3General problems with language and gender research


There are two main problems with much of the research on language and gender. One is that often, we assume that all women and all men are the same and do not take into account other important variables like age and ethnicity. A second is that often the situation in which research is conducted is an unnatural one. Recent studies try to address these issues by using new techniques and including other sociolinguistic variables.


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