Language and Gender - Is there a gender gap in language?

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2003

21 Pages, Grade: 2,0 (B)


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Socialisation in Childhood

3. Women´s Language
3.1. What a divine idea!
3.2. The Two-cultures Approach
3.3. The Key is Understanding
3.4. Tribes and Immigrants
3.5. Men Created Language

4. New Aspects of Women´s Speech

5. Conclusion


1. Introduction

The belief in sex differences has a long tradition. Researches of social scientists have helped to create and confirm this belief and have helped to develop theories which stress differences rather than similarities. Robin Lakoff was one of the first linguists who proposed that women´s speech style is a powerless style. She introduced the term “women´s language” which implies that women and men speak different languages. Lakoff and others have claimed that differences in male and female language have their source in early childhood socialisation. The assertiveness training movement which emerged in the 1970s was first established to help people who have communication problems and was later designed especially for women to solve their alleged problems of speech style and male-female communication. In the 1980s another approach gained popularity. The origins lie in the work of the linguist John Gumperz. The two-cultures approach maintains that communication between women and men is communication across cultures because the reasons for misunderstanding between them are similar to those of ethnic groups. More recent works of Elizabeth Aries and Mary Crawford challenge these approaches and demonstrate that similarities between men and women are far greater than differences.

In this paper I want to discuss several approaches to gender differences and try to answer the questions whether there are differences in male-female communication and what the causes are for these differences.

2. Socialisation in Childhood

To explain gender differences it is obvious to examine the construction of gendered personalities through socialisation. Knowledge about gender begins already in early childhood. In the following I will introduce different explanations of possible causes for gender differences through childhood socialisation.

Robin Lakoff says in her book Language and Woman´s Place that the socialising process of little girls raises serious problems. It will influence their life as a woman in the way that she will be accused of being unable to speak or to express herself forcefully. From Lakoff´s observations and reports from others she concludes that the mother influences the life of most children under the age of five. She says that both boys and girls first learn “women´s language” (I will come back later to this term) as their first language. Boys, as they grow older, go through a stage of rough talk. For girls the use of this kind of talk is denied because parents find it more shocking. By the age of ten, children split up in same-sex peer groups and the two languages are already present. But the boys have unlearned their original form of expressions and adopted new forms, while girls retain their old ways of speech. The problem is that when a woman refuses to talk like a woman she is ridiculed and seen as unfeminine, if she does talk like a woman she is ridiculed as unable to think clearly or not taken seriously. Lakoff goes even further and says that girls must learn two dialects and become bilingual. Women learn to switch from “women´s language” to neutral language under appropriate situations. Lakoff has gained her knowledge, as she says herself, from personal observations. She has no empirical proof that children actually split up in single-sex groups and develop different forms of language.

Lakoff´s view is supported by Deborah Tannen. She offers a similar explanation of the difference in male and female language. She says that differences arise in the first place because the sexes are segregated in early childhood. Children choose to be together with others of the same sex. “Doing different things and having different values, boys´ groups and girls´ groups develop different strategies for talking”.[1] Deborah Cameron criticises this view in saying that if “men and women do have the differing communicational goals” this hardly arises from differences in children´s peer groups. It is rather the consequence of the “sexist division of labour in which men are destined to inhabit the public sphere with its dominant values of status and competition, while women specialize in domestic nurturing”. Therefore children construct their peer group norms according to their observations of the codes and social relations of gender which surround them.[2]

Jennifer Coates explains that “children learn their conversational strategies for the most part in single-sex peer groups”.[3] Therefore men fail to understand women because they are socialised in a different subculture. Cameron again argues against that view and says that gender differences are not socialised into us during childhood. She says, “it is socially reproduced in concrete practices and activities which go on all the time”.[4]

Elizabeth Aries offers a similar explanation to that of Cameron and says, “by the age of two or three, children acquire gender identity and can categorize themselves as males or females”.[5] They also learn the cultural expectations for behaviour and the consequences for deviation from those prescriptions. Maltz and Borker say that children tend to segregate in their play groups at the age of three. They argue that men and women grow up in different subcultures which have different rules for speaking. The problem again arises when women and men try to communicate because they have different cultural rules for conversation. Aries sees limitations of this view because children grow up in families or institutions that are populated by both sexes and can therefore not grow up in separate cultures. She also says that children grow up in families where both sexes can present different models of male or female behaviour. Children are aware of themselves as males or females and “there will be variability from one individual to another in how important gender may be to a person´s definition of who thy are, and in definitions of masculinity and femininity.” Children learn that “different behaviours are appropriate in different social contexts”.[6] Thus, males and females can show masculine or feminine behaviour depending on the situation.

Aries´ explanations seem most comprehensible. The views of Tannen and the others that all children segregate in single-sex groups is not convincing. As I already said Lakoff´s knowledge is based on her observations. Contrary to her view I observed different behaviour, namely that children especially in younger years play in mixed-sex groups. I would not deny that some children prefer being together with members of the same sex but I would not say that it is global truth. More likely to believe is that children are influenced by both sexes because they grow up in families where there is a male and a female role model and therefore learn feminine and masculine behaviours. On the other hand, it is more likely today that children grow up in single-sex families. But then they also do not grow up isolated. In every day life they come in contact with people from the opposite sex like teachers, friends or neighbours.

In summary, the model that children segregate in different play groups and develop different forms of male and female language is not convincing. More likely to believe is that they learn both masculine and feminine behaviour and learn to use it in appropriate situations. The question if and why there are gender differences remains unanswered and needs further examination.

3. Women´s Language

3.1. What a divine idea!

As already mentioned above, Robin Lakoff introduced the term “women´s language”. With her work the search for the definite features of women´s speech began. Lakoff says that “’women´s language’ shows up in all levels of the grammar of English”.[7] Differences are to be found in lexical features, syntactic rules and intonational patterns. She gives an example for lexical differences when saying that women are likely to use more precise terms for colours. Not only that distinct vocabulary of words like ecru or lavender is absent in men´s active vocabulary, men also find discussions whether a book jacket has the colour of lavender or mauve amusing. (In this case I as a woman would even dare to say that I find this also amusing.)

Concerning expletives, women use weaker forms like “oh dear” and men use stronger ones like “oh shit”. The cause for this lies in childhood education. Girls were encouraged to behave like “little ladies” whereas boys were allowed to show temper. Another example of disparities shows a group of adjectives whose use indicates approbation or admiration for something. Some of these adjectives are gender-neutral like great or terrific, others like divine or lovely are restricted to use by women.

Lakoff says, ”there is no syntactic rule in English that only women may use. But there is at least one rule that a woman will use in more conversational situations than a man. This is the rule of tag-question formation”.[8] According to her impression, women use the type of tag question in which the speaker´s own opinions are being expressed more than men. In this case the speaker is stating a claim but has less than full confidence in the truth of the claim.


[1] Deborah Cameron, Verbal Hygiene (London, 1994), p. 193.

[2] Deborah Cameron, Verbal Hygiene, p. 196.

[3] Deborah, Cameron, “Not gender difference but the Difference Gender Makes` - explanation in research on sex and language.” – In: International Journal of the Sociology of Language (Berlin, 1992), p. 15.

[4] Deborah Cameron, “Not gender difference but the Difference Gender Makes` - explanation in research on sex and language.” – In: International Journal of the Sociology of Language (Berlin, 1992), p. 24.

[5] Elizabeth Aries, Men and Women in Interaction. Reconsidering the Differences (New York, Oxford, 1996), p. 194.

[6] Elizabeth Aries, Men and Women in Interaction. Reconsidering the Differences, p. 197.

[7] Deborah Cameron, The Feminist Critique of Language (London, 1998), p. 223.

[8] Deborah Cameron, The Feminist Critique of Language, p. 228.

Excerpt out of 21 pages


Language and Gender - Is there a gender gap in language?
Humboldt-University of Berlin  (Anglistics/American Studies)
The linguistic situation in the USA
2,0 (B)
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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533 KB
Language, Gender
Quote paper
Bettina Hanke (Author), 2003, Language and Gender - Is there a gender gap in language?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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