Gender (As a Social Variation)

Notes on how gender does/does not affect language

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Difference Theory


  • Males + females, either biologically, or by socialisation are inherently different
  • Does not imply that one is superior to the other

Deborah Tannen - You Just Don't Understand,1990
Tannen summarises what she represents to be the six contrasts of male and female language

  • Status vs. Support
  • Independence vs. Intimacy
  • Advice vs. Understanding
  • Information vs. Feelings
  • Orders vs. Proposals
  • Conflict vs. Compromise

In each case, what is judged to be more typically male comes first 

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Tannen - Difference Theory

Status versus Support

  • Men seek to achieve the upper hand or to prevent others from dominating them.
  • Women, talking is often to gain confirmation and support for their ideas

Independence versus Intimacy

  • Men, concerned with status, tend to focus more on independence
  • Women often think in terms of closeness + support, struggling to preserve intimacy

Advice versus Understanding

  • Tannen claims that to many men a complaint is a challenge to find a solution

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Tannen - Cont.

Information versus Feelings

  • Historically, men's concerns were seen as more important than those of women, but this may be reversed so that the giving of information + brevity of speech are considered of less value than sharing of emotions + elaboration

Orders versus Proposals

  • Men may use and prefer to hear a direct imperative
  • Women often suggest that people do things in indirect ways

Conflict versus Compromise

  • Some women in trying to prevent fights, refuse to oppose the will of others openly. 'But sometimes it is far more effective for a woman to assert herself, even at the rick of conflict.'
  • Men will often resist vocally, while women may appear to accede, but complain subsequently

For all of Tannen's points, there will be men and women who are exceptions

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Dominance Theories - Spender


  • Prime reason for variation between language use of each gender is to do with the historically patriarchal structure of society.
  • In mixed-sex conversations, men are more likely to interrupt than women

Dale Spender - Man Made Language, 1980

  • Refers to the view of the male as the norm the idea of patriarchal order. She claims that it is especially difficult to challenge this power system as it is part of the way in which we think of the world.
  • She comments that the 'tools we have for doing this are part of that patriarchal order' 

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Dominance - Pamela Fishman

Work Women Do, 1983

  • conversation between sexes sometimes fails because of how men respond or don't respond

Conversational Insecurity, 1990

  • Fishman questions Lakoff: Lakoff suggests that asking questions shows women's insecurity and hesitancy in communication, Fishman sees questions as an attribute of interactions: Women ask questions because of the power of these and not due to personality weaknesses
  • Fishman claims that in mixed-sex interactions, men speak on average for twice as long as women
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'Defecit' Model

'Defecit' Model - Lakoff - 1970s

  • States that men + women are not only different, and that one dominates the other (man over woman), but differences exist because of unferior female attributes in terms of language use
  • Can incloude the 'male norm' as the standard form of language and attributes prestige
    --> women's language is deviating from this due to its deficiencies
  • Lakoff implies in her book Language and Woman's Place 1973 that women must modify their language use in order to meet this expectation of a male-structured language
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George Keith and John Shuttleworth

Living Language - 2000

  • Women - talk more than men, talk too much, are more polite, are indecisive/hesitant, complain and nag, ask more questions, support each other, are more co-operative
  • Men - swear more, don't talk about emotions, talk about sport more, talk about women and machines in the same way, insult each other frequently, are competitive in conversation, dominate conversation, speak with more authority, give more commands, interrupt more

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Robin Lakoff

Language and Woman's Place - 1975

  • Hedge
  • Use (super) polite forms
  • Use tag questions
  • Speak in italics
  • Use empty adjectives
  • Use hypercorrect grammar + pronunciation
  • Use direct quotation
  • Have a special lexicon
  • Use question intonation in declarative statements
  • Use 'wh-' imperatives
  • Speak less frequently
  • Overuse qualifiers
  • Apologise more
  • Use modal constructions
  • Avoid coarse language/ expletives
  • Use indirect commands +  requests
  • Use more intensifiers
  • Lack a sense of humour
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The Male as The Norm

This is one of Tannen's most influential ideas; that the male is considered to be the norm. This is implied through terms such as 'men', 'man' and 'mankind'; the term for the species or people in general, 'mankind', is the same as for that one sex.

Susan Githens comments on Tannen's view:

'women are treated based on the norms for men, and men with good intentions speak to women as they would other men and are perplexed when their words spark anger and resentment.'

Tannen points out that it usually women who are expected to change their language. However Spender theorised that women who talk like men are judged differently - and harshly. 

Personal pronouns and possessives after a noun may also show the implicit assumption that the male is the norm. 

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Tannen Cont.

Interruptions and Overlapping

Interruption is not the same as merely making a sound while another is speaking; such a sound can be supportive and affirming. Tannen calls this a cooperative overlap or an attempt to take control of the conversation - an interruption or competitive overlap.
This can also be explained through claiming and keeping turns.

High Involvement and High Considateness

Tannen describes two types of speaker: high involvement and high considerateness.
The first are concerned to show enthusiastic support (even if resulting in simultaneous speech). They are ready to be overlapped because they will yield to an intrusion on the conversation.
The latter are by definition more concerned to be considerate of others; they choose not to impose on the conversation as a whole or on specific comments of another speaker.  

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Report Talk and Rapport Talk

Tannen's distinction of men and women's language is also described as Report talk (men) and Rapport talk (women)


  • Talk too much
  • Speak in private contexts
  • Build relations
  • Overlap
  • Speak symmetrically


  • Get more air time
  • Speak in public
  • Negotiate status/avoid failure 
  • Speak one at a time
  • Speak asymmetrically
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Peter Trudgill

Gender, Social Class and Speech Sounds, 1970s

Trudgill found that men were less likely and women more likely to use the prestige pronunciation of certain speech sounds. 
In aiming for higher prestige, women tended towards hypercorrectness.
Men would often use a low prestige pronunciation - thereby seeking covert (hidden) prestige by appearing 'tough' or 'down to earth'

On asking his subjects about their speech Trudgill. Men claimed to use lower prestige forms even more than the observation showed. Women, too, claimed to use higher prestige forms more than they were observed to do so. 

This may be a case of objective supporting in a traditional view of women as being more likely to have social class aspirations than me. It may also be that as social roles change, this may become less common.

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Deborah Jones

Gossip, 1990

This looks at women's oral culture which Jones categorised into four different terms. The terms which Jones uses show a new confidence as she is not fearful that her readers will think her disrespectful. She also shows confidence to use the lexicon of her research subjects, they are category labels and the non-linguist cant understand

  • House Talk - distinguishing functions is the exchange of information + resources connected with the female role as an occupation
  • Scandal - considered judging of the behaviour of others - women especially. Usually made in terms of the domestic morality, of which women have been appointed guardians
  • Bitching - the over expression of women's anger at their restricted role + inferior status. Expressed in private and to other women only. The women who ***** are not expecting change; they want only to make their complaints in an environment where their anger will be understood + expected.
  • Chatting - the most intimate form of gossip; a mutual self-disclosure, a transaction where women use to their own advantage they skills they have learned as part of their job of nurturing others. 
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Jennifer Coates

Looks at all-female conversation and builds on Tannen's ideas as well as Lakoff's. 

Language And Gender, 1998

Of tag questions -

'...speakers recognise different types of talk and use minimal responses appropriately. ...women use [perhaps, I think, sort of, probably], to mitigate the force of an utterance in order to respect the addressees' face needs. 

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Deborah Cameron

Verbal Hygiene, 1995

Men and women face normative expectations about the appropriate mode of speech for their gender. 
Women have been instructed in the proper ways of talking just as with dressing, cosmetics and in other 'feminine' kinds of behaviour. This acceptance of a 'proper' style of speech is what Cameron describes as 'verbal hygiene'

Cameron claims that verbal hygiene is a way to make sense of language + that it also represents a symbolic attempt to impose order on the social world. 

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Historical and Contemporary Changes

In 1553, the grammarian Wilson ruled that the man should precede the woman in pairs, such as male/female, husband/wife etc.
On this, Clive Grey comments that 'there are no corresponding publications where men are the audience for a book on 'improving' linguistic behaviour, indeed it is men who usually do the suggesting.
By 1900, Grey notes that publications tended to fall into two categories:

  • 'instructional advice for women wishing to improve their spoken and written English
  • the rise + development of sex-specification in the language, of which pronoun usage is one aspect' 

In 1646, another grammarian Joshua Poole ruled that the male should precede the female; this was both more 'natural' and more 'proper' as men were the 'worthier' sex. 

Nineteenth century grammarians reinforced the idea of male superiority by condemning the use of the neutral pronoun. 

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Patronising, Controlling and Insulting

Shirley Russell - Grammar, Structure and Style, 1993

Russell argues that insulting is a means of control. She quotes Julia Stanley, who claims that in a large lexicon of terms for males, 26 are non-standard nouns denoting promiscuous men. 
In a smaller list of nouns for women, 220 denote the same thing of a woman. All have disapproving connotations.

it is usually women who approve of men as stallion/stud, not other men. More likely the 'stud' is an object of fear/jealousy among men.
Russell and Stanley also overlook the selectiveness + sentimentality with which men use insulting terms - for every ***** there is a princess etc. While some men may use insulting language, a balanced account of men's disposition to insult, patronise and control women should also include when men do it to other men and to revere, praise and honour some women. (A determined fault-finder may still feel this represents men objectifying women.) 

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Paul Dutton

A useful and informative revision guide. Plenty of relevant information.

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