Transgenderism and the Female Register. A Gender-Differentiating Analysis of the Female Register among Trans Men and Trans Women

Term Paper, 2019

20 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Preliminary Considerations
2.1 The Female Register and Criticism of this Model
2.2 Different Perspectives: The Constructivist Model
2.3 Gender Non-Conformity

3. Analysis
3.1 Corpus and Method of Analysis
3.2 Results: Transgenderism and the Female Register
3.2.1 Hedges
3.2.2 Affective Adjectives
3.2.3 Swearwords
3.2.4 Intensifiers
3.3 Discussion

4. Conclusion


1. Introduction

Gender is one of the main influences on social life in Western society. Because of their gender, men are expected to behave and speak in a dominant, powerful and rational way. Women, on the other hand, should rather behave and speak in a more affable and emotional way (Baker 2008: 3-5). One of the first studies dealing with the linguistic differences between women and men is Language and Woman’s Place by Robin Lakoff (1973). Lakoff hypothesized that women have a distinct language based on their sex, the so-called female register, which is apparently different from men’s standard language. The female register includes lexical items like affective adjectives (cute, sweet, adorable, lovely), but also discourse particles like hedges (kind of, sort of, well, you know) and intensifiers (so, really, very) (Crosby and Nyquist 1977: 313315, Talbot 2010: 35-38). Numerous other studies subsequently dealt with the influence of gender on language and also with Lakoffs approaches on the female register (Dubois and Crouch 1975, Crosby and Nyquist 1977; McMillan et al. 1977; Martin and Craig 1983; Carli 1990, Bradac et al. 1995).

Lakoffs approach, and ultimately the whole Western society, is mostly based on a binary gender system. However, reality does not look that clear and binary, as the whole concept of gender is difficult to define. Nowadays gender is rather seen as a fluid and non-binary concept, because the cultural perception of what appears masculine or feminine and also a person’s feeling of their own gender can change (Baker 2008: 3-5). Another reason why gender cannot easily be defined as the binary social gender based on our biological sex is that there are people whose gender identity does not correlate with their biological sex, which was assigned at birth. Those people are called transgender or gender nonconforming (TGNC) (Patev et al. 2018: 2).

In the past few years, more and more studies have dealt with the relationship between gender nonconforming persons and language (Hancock et al. 2015; Patev et al. 2018). Hancock, for instance, looked at the perceptions of other people, whether the language use of a male-to-female transgender appeared feminine (2015). Patev dealt with gender-inclusive language regarding gender nonconforming persons (2018). However, little work has focused on the actual language use of gender nonconforming individuals, especially regarding to Lakoff s criteria. Lakoff argues ‘Women’s language’ is based on biological sex, hence the hypothesis is that female-to-male (FtM) transgender individuals use the female register more than male-to-female (MtF) transgender individuals, even though FtM persons identify with the male gender. The two research questions in this study, that follow from those considerations, are, first, does the language of a transgender person change during sex change and/ or hormone treatment? Second, do MtF individuals use the female register more often than FtM individuals or vice versa?

2. Preliminary Considerations

2.1 The Female Register and Criticism of this Model

Robin Lakoff s study “Language and Women’s place” was one of the first feminist approaches dealing with gender differences in language in 1973. Her work sparked great interest in the linguistic world and many other linguists based their studies on the one Lakoff made. (Talbot 2010: 35-38)

According to Lakoff a distinct Women’s language exists based on their sex, thus also based on their biology and genes. This female register is characterized by uncertainty, weakness and extreme politeness. Lakoff has a feminist perspective, arguing that women are treated unfairly and suppressed in terms of language, which is evidenced by asymmetric terms which should be similar such as "master” and “mistress". Nevertheless, the picture Lakoff draws in her approach depicts women’s language in an inferior and deficient way, as she copies many stereotypes. Lakoff stresses not to describe the language of all women, but only of women from ‘Middle America’.

The characteristics, which Lakoff claims are typical for the female register, are for instance different lexical items such as precise color terms (e.g. lavender, beige), affective or “empty” adjectives (e.g. lovely, sweet, cute, adorable) and very polite language and less swear words (e.g. shit, fuck). Moreover discourse particles without real own meaning and patterns of intonation are characteristic for women’s language, for example hedges (e.g. kind of, sort of, well, you know, um), tag questions (haven’t you?, didn’t I?) as well as rising intonation, hypercorrect grammar and emphatic stress. Lakoff declares her approach and the characteristics mentions above to be typically female by arguing that women try to weaken their statements because they are expected to have less power than men have (Lakoff 1973: 46-78).

However, Lakoff s theory also received some criticism from other linguists who examined her hypotheses. A major criticism is that her claims are not based on actual research findings, but on observations of other women’s and her own speech behavior (Lakoff 1973: 46). As a result, other linguists examined her hypotheses to see whether her claims hold up in systematic studies.

Dubois and Crouch (1975) called Lakoff s investigative method “asystematic, uncontrolled and unverifiable observation of such others” (1975: 289). Since Lakoffs results are based only on her own perceptions, her results are biased and not neutral. Dubois’ and Crouch’s own study primarily dealt with the gender-preferential use of tag questions in authentic oral conversations. As their number of participants was rather small, they stressed that their results cannot be generalized. Nevertheless, men used tag questions in a context women did not use tag questions at all, what calls into question Lakoff s hypothesis (Dubois and Crouch 1975: 289-294).

Next, Crosby and Nyquist (1977) provided an extensive analysis of Lakoff s hypotheses. Two of their three studies of oral conversations supported Lakoff. However, one study, called the “information booth study”, did not support Lakoff s hypothesis, because no linguistic differences regarding to sex could be identified. They argue that the conversations may were too short to show linguistic differences, the topic this study focused on (politeness) is not as decisive for the female register as other characteristics or the study just represents an established ritual in our culture. According to Lakoff rituals decrease linguistic sex differences (1977: 313-321).

Martin and Craig (1983) examined oral mixed-sex and same-sex conversations. At first appearance, their results support Lakoff, as women used more hedges than men overall. However, male and female participants used a similar number of hedges speaking to men. All in all, Martin and Craig argued their do not support Lakoff s hypotheses (1983: 16-23). Furthermore Bradac, Mulac and Thompson (1995) examined oral same-sex and mixed-sex conversations. According to their results, women used more intensifiers, but men used more hedges and their results were stable with same- sex as well as mixed-sex conversations. (1995: 93-114)

Overall, the female register is a complex issue. There is no clear answer until today, whether and which linguistic differences can always be found between women and men. (Schwartz 2002: 11-12) Furthermore, the deficit approach by Lakoff is not the only attempt to explain linguistic differences between men and women, also the Constructivist Model by Eckert and McConnell-Ginet deals with sex, gender and its influence on people’s speech behavior.

2.2 Different Perspectives: The Constructivist Model

Sex differences are often presented as answer and evidence to linguistic differences, despite our limited knowledge about the connections between biological differences and social behavior. Nevertheless, the dominant ideology claims men and women are just different, like two sides of a coin, and based on their differences they behave differently. This approach is called essentialism, one of its representatives is Lakoff.

The Constructivist Model, on the other hand, not only offers a completely different view on language and gender, but also questions our understanding of the concept gender. According to the Constructivist hypothesis, gender should not be seen as something we simply have, but something we constantly do. Gender is an act of performance and an accomplishment, that is steadily strengthened by every person who performs gender-specific acts. Hence the decision what is perceived male or female is a social decision. To illustrate, when a baby is born one of the first questions usually is, whether the baby is a girl or a boy. If it is a girl, the child will receive a lot of pink dresses and other flowery and frilly clothes. Boys, on the other hand, usually get blue pants with trucks or dinosaurs on them, because pink is perceived female and blue is perceived male. Yet, there is no reason why blue should not be girlish and why pink should not be boyish. Therefore, this decision is a social one.

Sex refers to a person’s biological status whereas gender refers to the social roles and associations based on the sex, thus it is the “social elaboration of biological sex” (Eckert and McConnell-Ginet 2003: 8). Like in the example above, society tries to combine behavior with biologically based sex but exaggerates the biological differences. However, also sex is not always as clear-cut as many might think. One of every 100 babies is born with not 100% typically binary male or female characteristics, e.g. with XY chromosomes but a vagina and internal testicles. Even though this binary view seems incomplete, society is still very eager to maintain and produce this dichotomy. The actual difference between men and women is rather fluid than dichotomous, but this contradicts our view of the world and our view of gender roles.

Although this view is ingrained in most societies, it is not impossible to change it. As we have stated, gender and therefore also gender roles are social practice and can only be maintained if they are produced again and again by numerous individuals. If

we manage to change our own behavior, e.g. by taking people serious who do not fit into our stereotypical binary gender system like transgender people, also the whole way of dealing with gender and gender non-conforming individuals may changes. (Eckert and McConnell-Ginet 2003: 9-50)

2.3 Gender Non-Conformity

Gender Non-Conformity is a very complex and multifaceted topic. The American Psychological Association defines the term “transgender” as “an umbrella term for persons whose gender identity, gender expression or behavior does not conform to that typically associated with the sex to which they were assigned at birth.” (American Psychological Association) Gender identity here expresses the inner perception and feelings of a person of being male or female, gender expression refers to the way an individual communicates its gender, e.g. with clothing, hairstyle, make-up and also way of behaving and speaking (American Psychological Association). Furthermore, the terms “transsexual” and “transgender” are often used interchangeably, but nowadays “transgender” rather than the older term “transsexual” is preferred (Marden 2016: 14). We should also take into consideration, that there are not only binary transgender individuals, but also non-binary individuals, who often prefer the pronouns they / them instead of the usual he / him or she / her pronouns. However, labeling is always difficult and the affected person should always be asked, which pronouns etc. are preferred. (Davis 2009: 5-6).

There are multiple different ways how and to which extent a transgender individual transitions to the preferred gender and no judgment should and can be made whether a way is “right” or “wrong”. Anyway, most transgender persons start to express their identified gender in environments, in which they feel safe. Little by little many individuals adopt their preferred appearance in more and more situations until they always live this way. Moreover, a new name is chosen, often also the sex designation on identity documents is changed. The last steps, after meetings with a psychologist, usually are hormone therapy and sometimes also medical procedures like a sex reassignment surgery (SRS) (American Psychological Association).


Excerpt out of 20 pages


Transgenderism and the Female Register. A Gender-Differentiating Analysis of the Female Register among Trans Men and Trans Women
University of Augsburg
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ISBN (Book)
Language and Gender, Transgender, Female Register
Quote paper
Sina Nachtrub (Author), 2019, Transgenderism and the Female Register. A Gender-Differentiating Analysis of the Female Register among Trans Men and Trans Women, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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