Language and Gender

Deborah Cameron - Verbal Hygiene

Deborah Cameron says that wherever and whenever the matter has been investigated, men and women face normative expectations about the appropriate mode of speech for their gender. Women's verbal conduct is important in many cultures; women have been instructed in the proper ways of talking just as they have been instructed in the proper ways of dressing, in the use of cosmetics, and in other "feminine" kinds of behaviour. This acceptance of "proper" speech style, Cameron describes as "verbal hygiene".

Cameron does not condemn verbal hygiene, as misguided. She finds specific examples of verbal hygiene in the regulation of "style" by editors, the teaching of English in grammar schools, politically correct language and the advice to women on how they can speak more effectively. In each case, Cameron claims that verbal hygiene is a way to make sense of language and that it also represents a symbolic attempt to impose order on the social world.

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Jennifer Coates (& Deborah Jones)

Jennifer Coates looks at all-female conversation and builds on Deborah Tannen's ideas. She returns to tag questions - to which Robin Lakoff drew attention in 1975. Her work looks in detail at some of the ideas that Lakoff originated and Tannen carried further. She gives useful comments on Deborah Jones' 1990 study of women's oral culture, which Jones calls 'Gossip' and categorises in terms of 'House Talk', 'Scandal', 'Bitching' and 'Chatting'. 

  • House Talk - it's distinguishing function is the exchange of information and resources connected with the female role as an occupation. 
  • Scandal - a considered judging of the behaviour of others, and women in particular. It is usually made in terms of the domestic morality, of which women have been appointed guardians.
  • Bitching - this is the overt expression of women's anger at their restricted role and inferior status. They express this 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 and expected.
  • Chatting - this is the most intimate form of gossip, a mutual self-disclosure, a transaction where women use to their own advantage the skills they have learned as part of the job of nurturing others.
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Peter Trudgill - gender, social class & speech sou

Trudgill’s 1970’s research into language and social class showed some interesting differences between men and women. Trudgill made a study in which subjects were grouped by social class and sex. He invited them to speak in a variety of situations, before asking them to read a passage that contained words where the speaker might use one or the other of the two speech sounds. An example would be verbs ending in -ing, where Trudgill wanted to see whether the speaker dropped the final g and pronounced this as -in’.

In phonetic terms, Trudgill observed whether, in, for example, the final sound of “singing”, the speaker used the alveolar consonant /n/ or the velar consonant.

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 (above that of their observed social class) the women tended towards hyper correctness. The men would often use a low prestige pronunciation - thereby seeking covert (hidden) prestige by appearing tough” or “down to earth”.

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Deborah Tannen - Difference Approach

Professor Tannen has summarised her book “You Just Don’t Understand” in an article in which she represents male and female language use ina series of six contrasts which are;

1.Status vs. support - men see conversation as a contest, women do not think of the people they converse with as ‘trying to get one up on them’

2.Independence vs. intimacy - men see consulting with their partner to be ‘asking for permission’ rather than simply discussing

3.Advice vs. understanding - to many men a complaint is a challenge to come up with a solution, but often women are looking for emotional support not solutions

4.Information vs. feelings - to men talk is information. It has a practical purpose and if it doesn’t... it’s just not worth saying

5.Order vs. proposals - women hedge their orders, “Let’s”. Men can feel that by doing this, a woman is trying to slyly manipulate him to do something rather than just directly ask, like he would.

6.Conflict vs. compromise - women are more reluctant to openly oppose others

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Robin Lakoff - Dominance Theory (1975)

In 1975, Lakoff published an influential account of women’s language. In a related article she published a set of basic assumptions about what marks out the language of women. Among these are claims that women;

*Use (super) polite forms
*Use tag questions
*Speak in italics
*Use empty adjectives
*Use hypercorrect grammar and 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 or expletives
*Use indirect commands or requests
*Use more intensifiers
*Lack a sense of humour

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George Keith & John Shuttleworth

Their records suggest that 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 cooperative

Whereas men;

  • Swear more
  • Don't talk about emotions
  • Talk about sports more
  • Talk about women and machines in the same way
  • Insult each other frequently 
  • Are more competitive in conversation
  • Speak with more authority
  • Give more commands
  • Interrupt more
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Representations of gender

Gender affects spoken language and speech between people. Ideas about gender are represented theough language itself; lexical choices, morphology (prefixes and suffixes), syntactical choices. Written (and blended) texts also present ideas about gender; audiences are positioned according to society’s gender ideologies.

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Female stereotypes

Make up
Physically weak
Live longer

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Male stereotypes

Show less emotion
Physically demanding jobs
Deep voices
Physically active
Not paternal
Higher ranking positions
Mentally strong
Bin man
Police man
Fire man

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Gender collocations

Collocations - words most likely to be seen together

Mr & Mrs
His & Hers
Boys & Girls
Lads & Lasses
Husband & Wife
Brother & Sister

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Asymmetrical pairing / pairs

When the apparent symmetry between words is false because of the connotations.

Example; actor is a more serious term than actress. A lot of females in the profession prefer to be called an actor because of the connotations - Kate Winslet

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Robin Lakoff - Deficit Model

This is the theory that the make way of speaking is the normative and the female departs from the norm. Sufficient distinctive features of male and female language have been identified and given its own name, ‘genderlect’.

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Trends of female spoken language

  • Hedges - softens or weakens the force with which something is said. Eg perhaps.
  • Polite forms
  • Tag questions - turning statements into questions. Eg isn’t it?
  • Emphatic language - Eg so.
  • Empty adjectives - Eg adorable, sweet.
  • Hypercorrect grammar & punctuation
  • Lack of humour
  • Direct quotations
  • Specialised vocabulary - Eg in colour terms.
  • Question intonation in a declarative context
  • Intensifiers - Eg so, very, absolutely.
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Trends of male spoken language

More direct style - uses directives and explicit commands. Eg “give me the scissors”.
Interrupt more - to hijack and dominate the conversation.
Swear more
Better humour
Tell more jokes
Simplified vocabulary in some fields
Use more non standard forms with covert prestige - they ‘dumb down’ their language as a means of social bonding.

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Other factors

Social status - this is more important to women than men. Speech can be taken as an indicator of social class, so women make more of an effort to conform to standard usage in an effort to demonstrate their respectability.

Society’s expectations of women - society expects ‘better’ behaviour from women than men. This begins in childhood when boys’ misbehaviour is tolerated more than girls’. “If a little girl talks ‘rough’ like a boy, she will be ostracised, scolded or made fun of” - Lakoff. Society also expects women to play the dominant role in child rearing, and this includes providing children with models of ‘correct’ speech for them to imitate.

Overt & covert prestige - this approach shifts the focus towards men. Why are they more likely of deviate from Standard English? Men associate non standard forms with masculinity and toughness.

The subordinate role of women - suggests that women’s speech patterns are created by their subordinate role within society. Women must defe their speech to men. Lakoff’s features reflect women’s lack of confidence and assertiveness (Dominance Theory).

Dominance - the female sex is seen as the subordinate group whose difference in speech style results from male supremacy.

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Germaine Greer

“Comments went to a blog I came across bewail the tendency of female comics to work around the theme of bras, periods, chocolates, weight watchers”.

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Janet Holmes (1992)

Tag questions are not a sign of uncertainty but a sign of politeness. They also help keep conversation flowing.

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Mills (1991)

Sees feminine style style of speech as a mechanism of social control. This means that women try to be ‘nice’ and ‘ladylike’ and carefully monitor their behaviour to ensure it’s appropriate.

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Zimmerman & West - Dominance Theory (1975)

The research focused on the ways in which men came across as dominant and controlling in mixed sex interactions. They found that in their small set of data, 96% of all interruptions were made by men. They saw this as a sign that women had restricted linguistic freedom and that men sought to impose their dominant status on women through applying constraint in conversational practice.

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Language and gender examples

Lack of gender neutral pronoun - ‘they’ isn’t used as it’s often seen as grammatically incorrect and ‘he’/‘she’ is tephe default.

Honorifics - there is more for women. ‘Miss, Mrs, Ms’ and assumptions can be made from them. There is only one for men (Mr) - generic.

Offensive terms - more negative terms aimed at women than for men. According to the article about the new EU legislation, the following terms are now considered sexist and have been amended.
Man made should be artificial or synthetic.
Firemen is disallowed.
Air hostess should be flight attendant.
Headmasters and headmistress must be heads or head teachers.
Manageress and mayoress should be manager and mayor.
Police officers must be used instead of policeman and policewoman unless the officer’s sex is relevant.
Waiter and waitress remain.

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Marked and unmarked language

One of the features of English is that lexical terms used to describe females are often marked to distinguish them from those used to describe males. The act of marking suggests deviation or difference from a norm (the unmarked item).

Overt marking takes places through affiliation - adding a prefix of suffix to a word to show it deviates from the norm. Often we add the suffix -eps to demonstrate gender. Another way in which overt marking often draws attention to a sense of difference is through modification; ‘female doctor, male nurse’ etc.

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Generic terms

Both the Dominance model and Lakoff’s model highlight how the use of gendered terms, such as the male pronouns he/his/him (used when the gender of the referent is unspecified) are examples of exclusive language and represents a male centred world. Replacing these terms however would not be simple.

Text taken from Police Regukations 2003:
“A member of the police force shall arrest at all times abstain from any activity which is likely to interfere with the impartial discharge of his duties or which is likely to give rise to the impression amongst members of the public that it may do interfere; and in particular a member of the police force shall not take any active part in politics”.
The use of ‘his’ and ‘force’ suggest its a male dominated job and links to the Dominance theory.

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Semantic derogation

The sense of negative meanings/connotations that some words have attached to them. It has been claimed that in English there are many terms that refer to women only and have strong negative connotations attached to them. For example, words like ‘bachelor’ have very positive connotations of a free and independent lifestyle (bachelor pad/party) whereas the de,ale equivalent ‘spinster’ has more negative connotations. Other words have changed meaning over time. ‘Lady’ was once prestigious but has undergone semantic derogation, shown in its use in terms such as ‘dinner lady’ and ‘cleaning lady’.

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Jane Pilkington (1992)

Women in same sex talk are more collaborative than men in all male talk. Women aim for more positive politeness strategies. Men are less supportive and complimentary to each other.

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Koenraad Kuiper (1991)

Studied all male talk amongst a rugby team. Men pay less regard to the need to save face and use insults as a way of expressing solidarity.

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