Different Words, Different Worlds? An Empirical Study Of Gender-Related Distinctions In Linguistic Usage

Thesis (M.A.), 2009

74 Pages, Grade: 2.0


0 Introduction

Language is the most important means of communication. It can be defined as follows:

A language is considered to be a system of communicating with other people using sounds, symbols and words in expressing a meaning, idea or thought. This language can be used in many forms, primarily through oral and written communications as well as using expressions through body language. (http: //www.unixl.com/dir/education/ languages/ language_ definition/ : 03.09.09)

For many years, linguists and sociologists have examined language on the basis of gender questions. Language differences between masculine and feminine articles develop at a very early stage when a person learns how to speak. Children arc affected by the people around them, e.g. their parents, their educators or their peer group. While children learn a language and the gender differences that are involved in this learning process, they also become acquainted with the style of speech and the behavior that is appropriate to their gender and which is predetermined by the society they live in.

The purpose of this thesis paper is to show and explain the differences in the usage of language between women and men and to clarify how far these differences have an impact on everyday life of the sexes.

This paper consists of eight chapters and a conclusion, which is divided into two parts, one being theoretical; the other empirical.

Chapter 1 defines the difference between gender and sex and explains what is meant by the study of language and gender.

Chapter 2 provides a short overview of the historical background of gender differences in language and is followed by Chapter 3, which will focus on the concept of language socialization. This chapter also deal with features that are typical for feminine and masculine speech as well as the position of women and men in society.

Chapter 4 points out the differences in the language of women and men as well as the features of cross-gender communication. Furthermore Chapter 4 will discuss the conversational goals that are set by female and male conversational partners. After this discussion, Chapter 5 will focus on the topics of politeness in same-gender and cross-gender communication.

Chapter 6 examines the consequences of gender differences in language. Chapter 7 and 8 will demonstrate an empirical part in which eight empirical studies on the usage of tag questions in female and male speech will be compared and discussed. By means of these empirical studies, the claims and statements about tag questions listed in the theoretical part will be supported and documented. To conclude, Chapter 9 will summarize the most important points of the thesis and alludes to future prospects for the study of language and gender.

1 Gender and Sex

The first thing we humans realize when we meet a person is not his or her visual nature or his or her age, but rather what sex that person is. This is something that is so obvious to us; something noticed more or less unconsciously, that we do not even think about it.

1.1 The difference between gender and sex

Sex is a biological classification of human beings in the categories of male and female. Penelope Eckert and Sally McConnell-Ginet (2007: 10) define it as follows:

Sex is based in a combination of anatomical, endocrinal and chromosomal features, and the selection among these criteria for sex assignment is based very much on cult ural beliefs about what actually makes someone male or female. Thus the very definition of the biological categories male and female, and people's understanding of themselves and others as male or female, is ultimately social.

Gender refers to specifically social differences. A quotation of Penelope Eckert and Sally McConnell-Ginet (2007: 19) states as follows:

Gender is not something we are born with, and not something we have, but something we do (West and Zimmermann 1987) - something we perform (Butler 1990)

That means t hat people speak and act in a way that is appropriate for their gender. They learn these appropriate patterns of behavior and patterns of speech during their socialization process, which will be explained in greater detail later in this thesis paper. One example would be a small girl who admires her mother, e.g. the way she dresses and paints her foce. Thc girl may put on her mother's high-heeled shoes and use her mother's makeup to emulate her mother or to be a woman (Eckert and McConnell-Ginet 2007:10). lt is possible that some language differences between men and women have biological, physical or anatomical reasons, i.e. differences in sound intensity, but the most significant distinctions are socially constructed. Therefore, this paper will focus on the differences in „gcndcr" rathcr than thosc in „scx".

1.2 The study of language and gender

Language is the most important method of communication. For many years, linguists, sociologists and psychologists have been interested in the patterns of communication between men and women. JaneL Holmes, for example, a wellknown linguist, has arranged several studies concerning the differences in topics of politeness between men and women. Her findings will be explained in detail at a later point, but there are also many other researchers who have examined differences in the language of women and men, their conversational goals, their body langnage, etc. All kinds of behavior, verbalism and forms of communication in same-sex and different-sex groups have been studied. In our society, there are many stereotypes and beliefs of patterns of behavior regarding the language of the genders. To prove and to confute these stereotypes is a partial discipline of the study of language and gender. Each science has its beginning points and in order to overview the roots of the study of language and gender, this thesis will take a look at the historical background.

2 Historical Background

Language differences between women and men have always been a topic of interest to humans. In the Middle Ages, observer comments were recorded in diaries, letters, poems, novels and expressed in proverbs (Coates 1993: 17). The following paragraphs provide explanat ion about the concepts of folk linguistics, anthropology and linguistics as well as their significance. These concepts will be followed by the sociological and psychological aspects of the study of language and gender.

2.1 Folk linguistics

The term folk linguistics describes the very beginning of the study of linguistics as well as the beliefs and speculations about how language is used.

In accordance with Coates (1993: 17), this author will provide some examples of language differences in the areas of vocabulary, swearing, taboo word, grammar, literacy, pronunciation and verbosity. The following works and surveys evolved from the 1idclle Ages and right on up to the beginning of the 2oth century, before the discipline of linguistics was established.

The Danish professor Otto Jespersen (1922: 247) argues that men introduce new and fresh expressions and therefore, men are „the chief renovators of language". Jespersen also claims that men use a much wider range of vocabulary than women do and he supports his statement with data from an experiment in ""which male students used a greater variety of words than female students. Another example refers to the fact that women make use of beautified adjectives like pretty or nice. The intensifier, so" is also a typical woman's feature. Examples would be „Thank you so much" or , “I am so glad to see you".

Coates (1993: 20) also considers the so-called „vulgar language" that includes oaths, exclamations and taboo words. It is a widespread belief that women use a more polite and more ladylike language. They try to avoid swear words and cursing because it isn't considered womanly. The courtly tradition of the Middle Ages, which praise women to the heavens, generally declined Taboo words, but this tradition didn't allow women to swear and curse, nor were men allowed to do so when women were around. Due to this folk linguistic belief in male and female differences in swearing, the children of upper d ass families were to be raised by women in order to avoid any swear words in the child's presence.

This belief that there is a difference in the way men and women make use of „coarse" language is still widespread.

Lakoff (1975: 53) conducted the same study two hundred years later:

(a) ,,Oh dear, you've put the peanut butter in the refrigerator again."

(b) „Shit, you,ve put the peanut bu tter in the refrigerator again."

lt is safe to predict that people would classify the first sentence as part of „women's language", the second as ,,men's language".

A third belief amongst folk linguists is that due to the superiority of the male, the masculine gender was more worthy than the feminine. In the 18'h century, grammar was prescriptive rather than descriptive.

The pronoun ,,he", which is used in sentences like „Someone t turned off the light but he had gone when I entered the room", serve as a proof of this theory of superiority. Using the pronoun ,,she" instead of ,,he" in the previous example would have been considered to be „incorrect". The rise of Standard English also entailed the growth of the notion of correctness. All forms deviated from this standard were considered to be „incorrect".

Another important point that should be mentioned is that of literacy. Before the 20th century women had less access to literacy than men. Until the 1gth century, women who did not belong to the middle class or upper class were not literate whatsoever. Men who were members of the same classes were already literate. That is why some writers describe written sentences as „made by men" or even denote language as a whole as being „man-made".

All these discriminations against women in the Middle Ages led t o a different style of speaking between men and women.

Folk linguists also investigated the different forms of pronunciation between the genders. After the rise of a standard variety of written English, a standard variety of spoken English, known as RP (Received Pronunciation), arose. Received Pronunciation is the accent of 'Standard English' in England. This form of Standard English also constitutes what is called „good" speech. The prestigious language was associated with education and education was associated with men before the 2ot1i century. Still, it is not clear if there was a difference in pronunciation between male and female speakers. At least until the sociolinguistic analysis in the 20th century pointed out distinctions in pronunciation.

The last point concerning folk linguistics is verbosity. There is an English proverb that reads:

Many women, many words; many geese, many turds.

There has always been a stereotype that women talk too much. English literature is filled with clichés about the talkative woman. Even in the 15 th century, poems were written about women who talked endlessly. Another English proverb reads: Silence is the best ornament of a woman.

However, until modern linguistic research was conducted, there was no evidence that women talk more than men. There is however evidence that silence has been an ideal imposed on women for many centuries (Coates 1993: 36).

2.2 Dialectology and anthropology

Coates (1993: 38) points out the following:

Dialectologists have analyzed the speech of rural communities in order to investigate linguistic change and the decline of rural dialects.

There are several aspects dialectologists observed in the gender differences m language: (a) women as informants, (b) the questionnaire and (c) the fieldworker. Most dialectologists preferred informants who belonged to the so-called ORM (non-mobile, older, rural, male), believing they spoke a rather „pure" dialect, but there have been dialectologists who preferred women as informants, feeling they were more conservative, stayed at home more, talked to each other and didn't mix with strangers. Dialectologists explain lingual differences between men and women in terms of men's interaction with strangers and their involvement in travel and military services. Another explanation they put forward is that women, due to their inferior status in society, try to acquire a higher status by choosing a variety of language that is rather standard-like and more formal.

The questionnaire was the main instrument used to collect dialectal data. Most questionnaires were divided into different sections and some sections were especially designed for women, others for men. This was the case because many dialectologists assumed that there are differences in men's and women's vocabulary due to their different social roles. Men were confronted with questions about men's work and women with questions about typically female issues. Since men's work was regarded as more important than women's matters, their vocabulary was given a higher-ranking.

Most fieldworkers were men and this is one reason why most informants in the surveys of fieldworkers were men. Still, there already were several female field workers, which led to the fact that women were also interviewed. Since women were considered to be aware of their inferior status, they intended to produce more formal language in the presence of a male interviewer. This may explain the experience of many observers that women's speech tends to be closer to the standard norms that are referred to as Received Pronunciation. Many of these surveys took place in the 1950s. Two famous researchers were Sever Pop (1950) and Angus Mclntosh (1952), who carried out dialectal studies. They investigated lexical as well as morphological items.

In conclusion, women have been largely ignored in dialect studies. Therefore, dialectologists had no usable evidence that there have ever been linguistic gender differences. Primarily, the discipline of Sociolinguistics began to investigate gender-related distinctions in language (Coates 1993: 45-55).

Anthropologists have not only observed language, but also the whole domain of social behavior. Missionaries and explorers have discovered phonological, morphological and lexical contrasts in the linguistic behavior of men and women and the differed between men' language and women's language (Flannery 1946, Ide 1991). Flannery (1946), for example, found out that in many communities, e.g. in Eastern Siberia, pronunciation is a defining marker of sexual identity. If a member of this speech community does not pronounce a word correctly in the same way as the same-sex member does, he is considered to be bisexual. Missionaries and explorers pointed out the fact that in some languages, e.g. the language spoken by the Yana in the state of California, there are morphological differences in male to male conversations and in conversations that include one or more women.

Quoted from Coates (1993), Edward Sapir (1929, and in Yaguello 1978), a Jewish-German-American anthropological linguist, described the language that is spoken by the Yana in California. Sapir pointed out that words used in male to male communications are longer. In a minority of cases, when a word in the communal language ends with a long vowel, a diphthong or a consonant, or if the word is a monosyllable, men add a suffix / -na/ to the original form, e.g. / au/ (fire) => / auna/. In the majority of case , when a word in male speech ends in a short vowel -/ a, i, u/ - , this vowel is lost and the preceding consonant becomes voiceless, e.g. / gagij(crow) => / gak'/. In these cases, the communal language seems to be a logical abbreviation of the male form. Sapir assumed that the lower status of women is symbolized by reduced female forms.

A third difference identified by anthropologists refers to the lexical contrast. In some languages, e.g. Japanese, the pronoun for the first person or second person varies in men's speech and women's speech. Some vocabulary concerning the degree of kinship also varies according to whether the speaker is male or female. These differences in vocabulary have the effect that women's speech sounds more polite than men's speech. Anthropologists try to explain gender-related differences in language through taboos that prescribe certain forms of linguistic behavior, especially for women.

A second explanation makes reference to contact with the speakers of other languages, for example, when men marry women from outside their village or where tribal language differences are present and spread in their speech communit ies (Coates 1993: 38-45).

With respect to the historical background, it is not only the folk linguistics, dialectology and anthropology that are of great importance, but also the sociological and psychological aspects.

2.3 The sociological aspect

Sociology and applied social studies, in general, concentrate on human preconditions, activities and outcomes of the gregariousness and common habitat living. Sociolinguistics is a partial discipline of applied social studies. It deals with the connections of language and society. According Lo Coates (1993: 67), most early sociolinguistic work was mainly concerned with differences in social class. However, the sociolinguists soon realized that other non-verbal linguistic variables were involved in structured linguistic variation. Such variables are, for example, age and gender, which come in addition to social class, education and ethnic group.

The researchers initially discovered that, for gender in many speech communities, female speakers use a higher proportion of prestige forms than male speakers. Thus, the prestige norms seem to have a stronger influence on women than on men. Several studies, for example, in Norwich (Trudgill 1974), in Glasgow (Macaulay 1978) or in Sydney (Eisikovits 1988), have shown that male and female speakers prefer different variants. Variants that are defined as being prestigious are typically those for female speakers while non-Standard and non-prestige forms are associated with working-class speakers but also with male speakers (Coates 1993: 67-77).

In the course of time, sociolinguists and researchers have discovered a variety of gender differences related to language in many different categories, as is explained in the following. The sociological aspect will be defined in detail m Chapter 3, but one must .first take a look at the aspect of psychology.

2.4 The psychological aspect

The psychological approach primarily describes and explains the experience, behavior and characteristics of humans, their development during a lifetime and the interior and exterior causes for this development. The psychological approach also questions „why" there are gender-related differences in language. For example, why are women more likely to be influenced by the prestige form RP and why are men more likely to be influenced by the non-standard and vernacular forms? Social psychologists have studied attitudes towards speech from different perspectives. Their research confirms that RP is much more prestigious than regional dialects and accents. Therefore, speakers who use speech close to the standard form of a language are targeting the acquisition of a greater status. Furthermore, speakers who use standard forms are said to be more ambitious, more intelligent and more self-confident. Still, there are also rewards for speakers of non-standard forms in terms of personal attractiveness. They are said to be serious, talkative, good-natured and to have a sense of humor (Coates 1993: 83).

A speaker may choose this kind of language, thus also choosing the attributes he wants to be connected with. This is not only the case with regard to language and status, or language and social class, but also with all other features, namely language and politeness or language and dominance. This may be conscious or unconscious.

Why are there differences in speech styles between men and women? Do they occur due to their educational background? Are women less self-confident than men? What might be the psychological aspect of language differences?

The author of this thesis feels that these questions are difficult to answer since all people are different in their beliefs, their actions and because they have different world views. vVe are all formed by our society and our families or by the people who join us during the course of a lifetime.

It is the opinion of this author that the sociological aspect and the psychological aspect are associated with each other and cannot be considered as totally different approaches seeing as how people act and speak unconsciously in a way that is predetermined by the society they live in. Each society has its own beliefs and expectations with regard to the speech styles used by men or women. The author of this thesis feels that most people do wish to fit into this pattern and are therefore swayed from society, psychologically speaking.

In her essay, Lakoff (1975) claims that 'women's language' is powerless, but even if she was not able to prove this statement empirically, she described a stereotype which has existed and continues to exist in the minds of many people. McMillan, Clifton, ?McGrath, and Gale (1977: 554) state that the nature of women's language and men's language can give us clues about women's and men's subculture and that language analysis is a very important tool for understanding a culture or a subculture. They also indicate that only by understanding the language can we fully understand the meaning of events to people in that culture or subculture. Diverse social scientists (Bernard, 1972; Kluckhohn, 1953) have suggested that there are various feminine and masculine subcultures. Rokeach's national study (1973) reports several differences in the way women and men rank and describe values and norms. Rokeach's results show that women's subculture places higher value on the interpersonal and emotional dimensions of interaction, while men's subculture places higher values on instrumental and rational dimensions. These differences may, of course, cause differences in the usage of language and speech styles.

Language socialization describes the period in which children learn how to behave, how to act and how to speak in a way that is appropriate for their gender. The next chapter focuses on this learning process, namely language socialization.

3 Language Socialization

Clausen (1986: 5) defines socialization as follows:

The term socialization is used by sociologists, social psychologists and educationalists to refer to the process of learning one's culture and how to live within it. For the individual, it provides the skills and habits necessary for acting and participating within their society. For the society, inducting all individual members into its moral norms, attitudes, values, motives, social roles, language and symbols is the means by which social and cultural continuity are attained.

When children learn a language they are influenced by their caretaker and therefore, the gender of the caretaker influences the way children learn about language. According to Tannen (1993), gender has been linked to the way children use language in everyday life. During the socialization process, children learn to use language and they learn the culture's norm of women's typically feminine and men's typically masculine language and behavior. This process is called language socialization. In each culture, thcrc arc norms and beliefs for typically feminine and typically masculine patterns of speech and patterns of behavior that children learn to apply (Tannen 1993: 63-85).

Children usually assume the language styles and speech patterns from their parents in adult interaction as well as in adult-to-child interaction. Still, it is not solely the socialization from adults that influences the language that children adopt. They are socialized by other children, their so-called peer group. According to Goddard and Paterson (2001: 34-35), the process of socialization as well as learning about gender starts at a very early age and lasts an entire lifetime. Right from birth, boys and girls are given different toys, are dressed in different ways and are raised in a different manner. They learn what kind of behavior and what kind of styles of speech are and are not acceptable for their gender.

Whiting and Edwards (1988), quoted from Tannen (1993: 85), state that

patterns of interpersonal behavior are most influenced by the company that one keep and the organization of activities performed with the company. If girls and boys frequently engage in different activities, which evoke different forms of social organization, then there will be differences in their behavior.

The following subchapters comment on the features children learn about in their socialization process, namely „typically" feminine and „typically" masculine language.

3.1 „Typically'' feminine versus „typically'' masculine language

Several research projects conducted on gender and conversation have shown that men and women generally discuss the same topics with close friends. These topics are religion and morals, memories, family activities, personal finances, friendship, social and political issues, secrets about the past, community / civic affairs, and work. The difference lies in the intensity of the topics. \i\Tomen discuss personal problems, doubts/ fears, family problems and intimate relations more than men do. In contra t, men di cu a topic like port more than women. The following table shows the percentage of topics discussed in same-sex groups.

[Tables are not displayed in this preview]

Table 1: Women's and men's reports of topics discussed with close friends (Eckert and McConnell-Ginet 2007: 123)

It is obvious that women prefer talking about personal problems, doubts and fears as well as family problems. These topics can also be summarized as interpersonal and sentimental topics while men do not like to talk about their feelings or their relationships with other persons. Men primarily talk about impersonal and public topics, e.g. sports.

In addition, it is a „typical" feminine feature that women spend much more time than men talking with their friends. Most women make regular daily or weekly telephonc calls and discuss everything that goes through their mind with friends, even on the phone. These telephone calls might even last for hours. Men do not make so many telephone calls and tend to keep things short when they do. They prefer activities like sports compared to talking with their friends. One reason for this is that men are rewarded for accomplishments, while women are rewarded for aspects of their 'humanity'.

Talk of this nature already begins during puberty. One need look no further than to an example from a playground. A person might observe tha.t girls sit aside and talk to each other while boys play together and do not waste many words to communicate (Eckert and McConnell-Ginet 2007: 122-128).

Glass (1992: 24-28) points out the following features to be „typical" for men and women in conversation.

[Tables are not displayed in this preview]

Table 2: Typical men and women features in conversation

The question begs, what is it that leads to these differences in behavior between men and women? One explanation is thought to be the social position of men and women and the dominance of men that has existed and still does exist in our society. The next chapter focuses on this topic.

3.2 Dominance - social position of men and women

lt is an age-old belief and still exists in many cultures that men dominate women both in job and family life as well as in speech and interaction. So how does dominance in interaction really arise? The claim that social relations like dominance and subordination are constructed in interaction i one of the most essential doctrines of the sociolinguistic interaction approach in communication analysis. It is the core of the theory that is subject to this approach and therefore it is so important to analyze interaction. The basic principles of interactional linguistics following Tannen (1997: 19) involve the beliefs mentioned in the following:

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Different Words, Different Worlds? An Empirical Study Of Gender-Related Distinctions In Linguistic Usage
University of Koblenz-Landau  (Institut für Sozialwissenschaften)
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Janine Gehrlein (Author), 2009, Different Words, Different Worlds? An Empirical Study Of Gender-Related Distinctions In Linguistic Usage, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/150814


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