Theories for Explaining Linguistic Behaviour in Gender Interaction

Language and Gender

Essay, 2006

10 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Already in the 1960s and 70s have feminist linguistics started to examine language on the basis of gender questions. Numerous works focused on the problem whether women are discriminated through a more powerful “male” language use and how sexist language might be avoided. Within the subject, several different theories arose. This essay will at first demonstrate the development process of two main theories dealing with gender and language (the so called dominance and the difference -theory) and afterwards assess their adequacy in explaining linguistic behaviour in gender interaction.

In 1973, Robin Lakoff, a feminist linguist at the University of California, laid the foundations for a methodical and academic research on the subject of women’s language. Her most important works Language and Woman’s Place and Women’s Language threw light upon the possibility of discrimination through language use. A very important example for such a case might be Lakoff’s observation of the way how women see themselves and which role they are holding within the American society. Thus, Lakoff does not only examine the specific language used by women, but also the language used about women[1]. Since language is guided by our thoughts, she considers it to be a mirror of the speaker’s subconsciousness[2]. In order to investigate this phenomenon more closely, Lakoff scrutinized her own expressions as well as expressions of friends and acquaintances. Furthermore, she analysed conversations in the television programme. As the field of this small study was very restricted, no universality is claimed for its results[3], but as an outcome, several criteria are established that are seen as typical for women’s language. These standards are as follows:

(1) use of a large stock of words related to the woman’s specific interest
(2) use of empty adjectives (like divine, charming, cute)
(3) use of question intonation where declaratives might be expected
(4) frequent use of hedges (well, y’know, kinda)
(5) use of an intensive “so” (I like him so much)
(6) use of a hypercorrect grammar
(7) use of superpolite forms
(8) lack of a sense of humour
(9) speaking in italics in order to be more ladylike

(adapted from: Lakoff, 1975: 53-56)

Concerning the effects of these specific features of women’s language, Lakoff concludes that because of their use, a statement is frequently weakened and the speaker is consequently regarded as insecure, powerless and weak as well[4].

In order to explain why women tend to have a language which is marked by the features mentioned above, Lakoff refers to Lionel Tiger, who describes the social behaviour of primates. In his book Men in Groups, the anthropologist states that male primates often hunted together in groups, while the females stayed behind as individuals[5]. Hence, the lack of understanding between men and women had its roots in the early men’s behaviour[6]. While the interest of the man was adjusted to an object, the female attitude was rather focused on subjects and feelings. Consequently, males were rather orientated on relationships, while women pursued individualist aims, which – according to Lakoff – caused their use of a rather powerless language[7].

Unfortunately, Lakoff does not pay too much attention to the fact that a man may actually also use a rather powerless “woman’s” language and that a woman might equally make use of a more powerful register as well. Instead, she speaks of “dual effects”[8] and “general tendencies”[9] in her theory, but avoids to thoroughly consider the question of the speaker’s overall position of power. Moreover, she does not exclude the possibility of a genetic disposition for powerless “woman’s” language, although her theory is mainly based on influences from society[10].

A few years after Lakoff had made her first contribution to the subject matter, Zimmermann and West also made an attempt to clarify the relation between allegedly powerful male and powerless female language usage. For this purpose they chose a different approach, examining overlaps and interruptions in conversations between same sex and mixed sex pairs. Although their work distances itself from Lakoff’s theory, Zimmermann and West conclude that there actually was an asymmetry between speakers in correlation to their social status[11]. Nevertheless, the researchers also emphasize that, in order to draw proper conclusions, the reasons for this specific asymmetry needed to be examined in a much more sophisticated way[12].


[1] Lakoff, Robin. Language and Woman’s Place. New York / San Francisco / London: Harper & Row, 1975: 1.

[2] Lakoff, 1975: 3.

[3] Lakoff, 1975: 5.

[4] Cameron, Deborah et. al. Lakoff in Context: The Social and Linguistic Functions of Tag Questions. in: Coates, Jennifer / Cameron, Deborah (eds.). Women in Their Speech Communities: New Perspectives on Languages and Sex. London / New York: Longman, 1988: 75f.

[5] compare: Lakoff, 1975: 76.

[6] Lakoff, 1975: 77.

[7] ibid.

[8] Lakoff, 1975: 57.

[9] ibid.

[10] Lakoff, 1975: 47, 57.

[11] Zimmermann, Don H. / West, Candace. Sex Roles, Interruptions and Silences in Conversation. in: Thorne, Barrie / Henley, Nancy (eds.). Language and Sex: Difference and Dominance. Rowley (Mass.): Newbury House, 1975: 105 ff.

[12] Zimmermann / West, 1975: 124 f.

Excerpt out of 10 pages


Theories for Explaining Linguistic Behaviour in Gender Interaction
Language and Gender
Queen's University Belfast  (School of English)
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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385 KB
Theories, Sociolinguistics, Difference-Theory, Dominance-Theory, Lionel Tiger, Deficit-Theory, Joan Swann, William O'Bar, Robin Lakoff
Quote paper
Jan H. Hauptmann (Author), 2006, Theories for Explaining Linguistic Behaviour in Gender Interaction, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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