Gender-Based Language Use in Sitcoms. A speech act analysis of the series "How I Met Your Mother"

Term Paper, 2020

16 Pages, Grade: 1.7



1 Introduction

2 Politeness as a linguistic trait

3 Methodology

4 Discussion

5 Scene Register
5.1 First scene: gender-homogeneous
First scene analysis
5.2 Second scene: gender-homogeneous
Second scene analysis
5.3 Third scene: gender-heterogeneous
Third scene analysis
5.4 Fourth scene: gender-heterogenous
Fourth scene analysis
5.5 Fifth scene: mixed genders
Fifth scene analysis

6 Conclusion
6.1 Development of language and characters
6.2 Evaluation


1 Introduction

The field of pragmatics in terms of language and gender is an interesting one to do research about. There is earlier work on the topic which shows diverse differences between how men and women communicate individually. We see in series, television shows, scripted movies and such, in what ways language can be predictable by knowing how women and men work when they take part in homogenous or heterogenous conversations. Several writers, like Penelope Brown (1998: 81) stated in her work, that women seem to speak in a more polite way than men do, which might have something to do with their social status. She reveals, that women “try to secure their social status through signals of status in speech” (Brown 1998: 81), which happens to be so because they gain their social status through appearance, while men do the same thing through their jobs for example (ibid.). Brown (1998) thinks, that women must work hard to reach a higher level of status by using formal speech. Even if men choose to speak in an unformal way in the same situations (ibid.). Brown has a lot more examples to give proof of her studies, which will be commented on later.

In this paper, the American sitcom “How I Met Your Mother” will be taken as an analyzed example to show the differences in language and gender. This is indeed one out of many examples, but it will be used to either confirm different author´s statements in relation to that issue or negate them. One of the authors that will be referred to in this academic paper, will be Monika Bednarek. She did a whole research on language and gender on television and dealt with the analyzation of the series “Gilmore Girls” in her book “The Language of Fictional Drama and Television: Drama and Identity”. She analyzed the characters´ language use and especially the utterances of the feminine protagonists (Bednarek 2010: 85 ff.).

There are various opinions on the topic of gender-based language use and this gender-theory, which this paper will provide an insight for. Especially on how the different language-styles work when it comes to comparing a few authors´ opinions with each other and trying to find evidence in television series for or against their sayings.

As John Bradley (1998: 13) puts it, “men speak one way, women speak another”. In comparison to Mulac et al., who argues that “genders speak differently, because they grow up in different sociolinguistic cultures” (Mulac et al. 1998: 641). That is basically the essence of the origin of this text and ought to be verified in the following presented work. Bradley (1998: 13) further claims, that men and women use different dialects as they talk. In fact, he supposes that men speak a certain dialect when they talk to women, just like women use their “own” dialect when talking to men which occurs because of differently allocated sex roles in our society (ibid., 13-15). In his research, he tested his theory in different kinds of cultures, for example in an area, where people speak the Yanyuwa language. Apparently, he could confirm his theory, but we will get to that at a later point in this paper (ibid.).

Other authors and researchers could confirm and share his point of view. There is on the one hand Edina Eisikovits, as well as on the other hand Penelope Brown, to name just a couple. Eisikovits (1998: 42) describes sex as “a major variable”, which is similar to what John Bradley (1998: 13) states. She adds that women are known to use more socially prestigious speech than men do (Eisekovitz 1998: 47). However, Penelope Brown, who contributed her writings to a reader about gender and language, declares that women might simply be in general “more polite than men” (Brown 1998: 81).

These remarks are only a sneak peek into what the main topic of this paper will be. All these indications will be dealt with in detail in the following pages and chapters.

Eventually, to see whether that statements of the authors can be equally confirmed, this paper will try to benefit from different scenes from the exemplary sitcom that was mentioned above. Therefore, there will be scenes according to two different linguistic aspects analyzed, that is heterogeneous. Another two scenes, in which homogenous genders will have a conversation, whereas the fifth and last scene will display language usage in mixed genders´ talks.

2 Politeness as a linguistic trait

When it comes to pragmatic and linguistic speech analysis, there are several aspects to consider and acknowledge to analyze properly, e.g. turn-taking, politeness, backchanneling or interruption, to entitle just a few (Mulac et al. 1998). In this academic writing, the focus of analyzation regarding exemplary sitcom, will only be on politeness.

The authors Brown, Holmes, Goodwin and Gal (1998: 77-78) ask themselves whether women really tend to be more polite than men. They conclude that the procedure of politeness turns out to be an actual strategy that is transferable to dialogues on television series and sitcoms as shown in the following analysis (ibid., 78). To give an example, Brown et al. claim that women give and get more compliments than men (ibid.).

As already mentioned in the introduction, using politeness as a form of speech seems to be necessary for women, because in that way, “they try to secure their social status through signals of status in speech” (ibid.). From that fact can be drawn, that we still live in a society in which men have a high norm of prestige through their status that is defined by their job or money etc. (ibid., 81). Women might not yet have that kind of status nowadays, so they need to make an effort in using “a higher proportion of standard forms” and prestige “than men do in comparable situations” (ibid.).

3 Methodology

In the following chapter, the database will be fairly described, the research basis and hypotheses will be represented as well as illustrated to show in what way they will be tested in the next few chapters.

Above all, when one tries to find answers according to the questions that are raised concerning language and communication differences in male and female, there can be found a lot of answers from various authors. They dealt with the analysis of women´s and men´s language and finalized that differences stand out. Although, it is important to not just resume that those speculations are true, but rather test all statements with an appropriate method. In this case, the accounted differences will be reviewed and checked by analyzing speech in the series “How I Met Your Mother”. Usually analyzing live-interviews or reality shows might be easier when it comes to testing the speech and dialogues on backchanneling or interruptions for example, because they are authentic and not scripted. On the other hand, as proven in the relevant chapters, especially politeness and gender typical traits can be found in these entirely scripted, “pre-planned” sitcoms, as Bednarek (2010: 15) describes them. The findings and results that were mentioned in the previous chapters of this paper will be held up against the gained results through this paper´s analysis. While going through the scenes and paying attention to the certain emotions and behavior of the characters, the linguistic aspects will be acknowledged to check at what extent the author´s statements are still true in today´s sitcoms. They will be explored to see whether the final conclusion will confirm their research findings or even be proven completely different, because of gender-untypical behavior or modern feminism that is found in many areas in today´s society and on TV, as Monika Bednarek (2010: 30) also determined in her analysis of the series “Gilmore girls”. In the same way, it will be interesting to see, whether the outcome can support the author´s theses or deny them.

4 Discussion

In this chapter, some of the collected arguments that support gender-based language differences depending on gender in television will be listed and demonstrated in comparison to the authors´ and researchers´ arguments against the thesis.

A few of those arguments were already mentioned in previous chapters. To continue with the findings of John Bradley (1998: 13), it needs to be referred to his research. He made statements that men and women each speak their own dialect to each other based on his knowledge about diverse language use in certain cultures, as he tested the Yanyuwa language (ibid.), to go with the example from the paper´s introduction. Of course, those findings can´t be transferred to every other kind of language. Still, he was able to approve his theory by doing a questionnaire in which he asked for a reason for these differences (ibid., 14). One respondent pointed out, that both genders simply use the language God has given them (ibid., 15). Another answered by reasoning how men and women should respect each other (ibid.). Their different ways of talking would only be a way of embodying that respect (ibid.). Someone else assumed that men and women are naturally different in their look, body, job etc. Regarding to that, their various ways of speech would only be a natural matter (ibid.).

The same theory was confirmed in Eisikovits´ (1998: 42) writings. Apparently, she sees social perceptions in terms of changes in the linguistic behavior as evident. She also states, that “women have shown to evidence greater stylistic variation than men” (ibid., 47). They seem to speak more formal, she says (ibid.). The cause for that matter might be the different share of prestige standard for each men and women and their “occupation in different social niches”, which is reflected by their way of speaking (ibid. 48). Just like men tend “to use non-standard forms to affirm their own masculinity and toughness” (ibid., 51). The author Lakoff was also quoted in “Gender and language”. His opinion reflects in almost the same manner how some characteristics of “women´s language” appear as weak or hesitant, as he says (Brown, Holmes, Goodwin & Gal 1998: 81). A psychological approach confirms his sayings by explaining that women own a secondary status compared to men (ibid.). Naturally, that´s why females feel unsure of themselves which would be the reason for their tendency to use the standard or formal form in speech (ibid.). The origin of their more formal and polite way of speaking could also be the cultural expectation that determines women to show “a higher level of politeness […] from inferiors to superiors” (ibid., 83). All in all, it seems like diversity in male and female language usage are “attributable to social differences in the position of women and men in the society” (ibid.). On the other hand, all these arguments appear to put women into a weak place, whereas all they do, is following certain strategies by deciding to apply that kind of behavior, like flattering the addressee or creating accordance with him (ibid., 82). In fact, being polite is a more complicated form of speech, because one “takes the other´s feelings into account” and keeps working on an ongoing relationship with the counterpart, claims Brown (ibid., 84). According to the politeness theory, one of the reasons why women perhaps constantly speak more polite, might be, because they often speak to superiors (ibid., 84-86).

In contrast to that, Mulac et al. explained gender differences as an outcome of boys and girls growing up in different (American) subcultures. Hence, both genders “learnt to do different things with words in a conversation” (Mulac et al. 1998: 644-645). Another given explanation is the systematically different experiences they make (ibid). Thus, the results of these gender-based differences in communication are naturally stereotypical and have nothing to do with women as the “weaker gender” and men as the “more dominant gender” (ibid., 645). While females´ communication is oftentimes filled with harmony, males are centered on dominance, instead (ibid.). Although, Mulac et al. (1998) add, that power in men´s speech as well as subordination in women´s speech need do be considered when (cultural) differences are explained (ibid.).

Apart from that, isn´t it always a choice of character whether women speak in a polite way? Also, on the modern television, viewers see all kinds of women using various language styles that can depend on their character. In sitcoms, the speech parts are scripted, so they don´t have a choice to behave otherwise. If a woman isn´t the typical feminine type and instead portrayed as self-confident with a steady career, she would rather likely speak in a more dominant way. Nevertheless, Bednarek (2010) argues based on her series analysis, that women indeed tend to use utterances like “Oh my god” or “for X´s sake” whilst men would use harsher expressions, like “Damn” (Bednarek 2010: 122.130). Therefore, it does appear as if men and women use language in some ways differently. They use various expressions for the same cause or circumstance as in the given example. Having said this, it can´t be generally agreed or disagreed on the theory of gender-based differences in language use. There are always exceptions that negate the rule.

5 Scene Register

In the scene register, the five chosen scenes from the sitcom will be listed with the dialogues originally applied. There will be a scene analysis following each scene, providing few more information according to the context.

5.1 First scene: gender-homogeneous

Season 1, Episode 12: “The Wedding”

Scene starts at 06:31 minutes and ends at 07:32 minutes.

1 Ted: I don´t believe this. Claudia is crazy.
2 Barney: But, to be fair, she´s also hot.
3 Ted: I totally checked “plus one”. I´m sure I did.
4 Barney: (sarcastically) Yeah, right.
5 Ted: (outraged) I did!
6 Barney: Yeah, I don´t think you did. You know why? Because deep down, you didn´t want 7 to show at this thing with a date. See, for all your big talk about being ready for a 8 relationship, deep down, you´re single. It´s your default setting. Ted, you know 9 what´s in the back of your brain?
10 Ted: (annoyed) Oh great, here comes the little Barney speech.
11 Barney: Behind a curtain, in a dark little room secretly controlling your every move?
12 Marshall and Ted: A little Barney…
13 Barney: A little Barney. And you know what he said? (with funny high-pitched voice): 14 “Ted, you will bring no dates to this wedding. You will hit on drunk bridesmaids with 15 actual-size Barney.” (laughing)
16 Ted: Wow. Please stop. I got to call Claudia. If I just explain to her…
17 Marshall: (interrupting) Ted, no! Let it go. She´s about to get married, she´s got enough 18 to worry about.
19 Ted: Then what am I gonna do?
20 Marshall: The only thing you can do- tell Robin she can´t come.
21 Ted: (exasperated sigh)

First scene analysis

In the first scene that is given here, the three male protagonists of the series Marshall, Ted and Barney are gender-typically sitting in a booth at their favorite bar, discussing Ted´s problem: He just tried to talk the bride Claudia into letting him bring a date to their wedding that takes place in two days. She wouldn´t let him, because his request is too spontaneous. Barney takes the role of the dominant leader in the scenery. At first, in line two, he doesn´t really pay attention to Ted´s issue (line four) and focuses on what´s interesting to him (line two). Also, it seems like he wants to make a point and get into the center of their conversation by telling Ted, what to do and that he is making a mistake by wanting to bring a “plus one” to a wedding (lines 6-9, 11, 13-15). Marshall is the rather sensitive one in the discussion. In line 17, he does interrupt Ted, but not because he´s not interested in his problem. Instead, he wants to act reasonable and give a helpful answer by telling his friend, what he needs to do.


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Gender-Based Language Use in Sitcoms. A speech act analysis of the series "How I Met Your Mother"
M.Ed. Linguistics: Pragmatics – 4039
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ISBN (Book)
Pragmatics, Sitcom, gender, gender-based, How I Met Your Mother, dialogues, gender-based speech differences, language use, speech act, speech act analysis, linguistic analysis
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Delilah Cawello (Author), 2020, Gender-Based Language Use in Sitcoms. A speech act analysis of the series "How I Met Your Mother", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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