Gender and Language Change

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2007

20 Pages, Grade: 2,3


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Historical background of the Early Modern English (EME)
2.1 The development of the English language during the epoch of the Renaissance (EME)
2.2. The social position of men and women

3. Concept of the historical corpus

4. Empirical studies

5. Synchronic approach of the language change
5.1 Gender differences
5.1.2 Politeness
5.1.3 The choice of topics

6. Gender themes in writing: sexist and non-sexist language

7. Conclusion


1. Introduction

Sex differences have always been a subject of interest for human beings. So, such interest in language is not an exception. However, linguists prefer the term gender rather than “sex” because sex has to do with biological distinction; it is “a matter of genes, gonads and hormones” (Talbot 1998: 7). The term gender was also chosen as a neutral, an indiscriminating one (see Nevalainen 2003: 110, Curzan 2004). In contrast to the term sex “gender” refers to a linguistic construct on the one side and to the social construct on the other side. Gender as a linguistic construct relates to a gender system of language which is represented by e.g. the personal pronouns he, she, it or lexical items that “refer to men and women, as well as girls and boys” and which “retain gender semantically in a natural gender system” (Curzan 2004). Language as a social construct relates to the roles of males and females in society. The attitudes towards men and women are reflected in the language. Otherwise, we can observe gender differences analysing certain language patterns. It is assumed that language not only reflects gender division, but also creates and sustains it (Coates 1993: 4). In this paper I will be looking primarily at the impact of gender as a social variable on the English language. I will analyse the language change in the past, namely, in the Late Middle and the Early Modern English periods with help of the historical corpora. The paper should answer the question how the social variables such as gender together with social rank or genre cause change of the linguistic variables such as grammatical constructions from a diachronic point of view. The concept of a historical corpus and the historical background will be explained in order to understand the base of the investigations. Also, there will be a chapter on the present-day investigation on the language variation. Afterwards we should be able to compare the results from the past and present studies.

2. Historical background of the Early Modern English (EME)

The reason for taking the historical background into account while analysing the language change is the tide connection of the internal and the external perspectives: “The gender constructs in the English language reflect social constructs of gender in the world of its speakers; if gender in the language is isolated from its extralinguistic motivations, it proves impossible to explain in all its variation, both synchronic and diachronic” (Curzan 2004:). The history provides us with the important information about the political, economic and social situation and, thus, allows identifying the social role of men and women at those times. After examining the historical background we will be looking at some concrete examples of the language change concerning gender.

2.1 The development of the English language during the epoch of the Renaissance (EME)

The period of the Renaissance had a large influence on the development of the English language. After the invention of the printing press, literature and also education, initially exclusively designed for members of the church and aristocrats, they were also available for those who had been excluded from education for centuries. As more and more people learned to read and write the dominance of Latin, formerly exclusive language of science and literature only used by upper parts of society, declined. Within the Renaissance, the influence of the English language increased.[1]

At first, English was only spoken by the low and lowest classes. But as the influence of English increased, there were three main problems to meet to establish English as the language of education and culture:

- Recognition in the fields and social classes formerly dominated by Latin
- Establishment of common rules of orthography
- Enrichment of vocabulary to be able to talk about topics previously dominated by Latin in the English language

Within the period of the Renaissance, the influence of the English language grew continuously. During the reformation, Latin did not only lose much of its influence in science, but also in church.

English became more and more established in the fields of science and education. Members of the upper society began to promote English language instead of Latin. There was the common claim of taking part in the progress of the Renaissance. The extended use of the English language also caused an increasing national awareness.

To be able to talk about topics regarding sectors formerly dominated by Latin, it was necessary to extend the lexicon of the English language concerning those topics. Therefore, completely new words were created; however, they were to a large extent influenced by Latin - the traditional language of science and culture - but also by other languages such as French. Although traditional scholars were against this tendency, they could not prevent the ongoing process of the enrichment of the vocabulary of the English language: 10,000 to 12,000 new words entered the English lexicon within the period. However, problems occurred in interpreting these new words, as their understanding demanded, for example, skills in Latin. To meet these problems, the first etymological dictionaries were written such as the “Universal Etymological English Dictionary”, “A Table Alphabetical of Hard Words” or “New World of Words”.

2.2. The social position of men and women

In this part of the work we will take a closer look at the men’s and the women’s position in the society of the Early Modern English period for we can rely on our statements later when interpreting the results of the concrete examples.

Education depended on the social background and gender. The rich families of the upper classes had an opportunity to send their children to the public schools, whereas “children of the lower social strata rarely went to school [because their parents could hardly afford it]” (Nevalainen 2003: 41). “Girls had no access to the institutions of higher education [such as universities], but there were some schools for girls and apprenticeship was also available for them, but although only rarely. Prestigious language of law and administration was beyond the reach of the lower orders and women” (Nevalainen 2003: 41). “The level of literacy was […] socially stratified. […] Literacy was more common in towns than in the countryside, and in particular the urban elite, merchants, grocers and haberdashers had literacy rates of around 90 per cent […]. Women’s signature literacy was as low as 1 per cent in 1500 […], and it grew more slowly than men’s” (Nevalainen 2003: 42).

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Figure 7.1: Illiteracy in England (Jucker 2000: 83)

In contrast to women men were participating and ruling almost all public spheres, “including national and local politics, the economy, the church and the legal system (Nevalainen 2003: 43)”:

Women have no voyse in Parliament, They make no Lawes, they consent to none, they abrogate none. All of them are understood either married or to bee married and their desires or [are] subject to their husband, I know no remedy though some women can shift it well enough. (T.E, [Thomas Edgar?] The Lawes Resolutions of Womens Rights, 1632: 6 (cited in Nevalainen 2003: 114).

Women were identified according to their father’s social position or to the marital status (Nevalainen 2003: 37). Some women could do something on their own, for example, continuing economic activity left by their husbands; they could also move up the social ladder, mostly through marriage (ibid.). Although women did not take part in the high spheres of the public life, they had their own fields of activity. They were, for example, friends and family, streets, taverns, market, church and in case of noble women - Court (Nevalainen 2003: 114). Women were also differentiated by the social rank - from the upper to the lower class and by the marital status in addition. They had not access to the certain areas of public life such as the spheres of learning and professions; therefore, they could not provide language change in these areas (Nevalainen 2003: 131). All in all the inequality between man and women existed at those times, whereas men had more to say.


[1] The information is provided in the seminar “Corpus Linguistics and the History of Language”

SS 2006

Excerpt out of 20 pages


Gender and Language Change
Justus-Liebig-University Giessen  (Institut für Anglistik)
'Corpus Linguistics and the History of English'
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ISBN (eBook)
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1032 KB
The paper contains some graphics on the sociohistorical studies of the language change in the Early Modern English period (EME). The paper provides the diachronic(EME) as well as the synchronic (present-day time) view on the impact of gender on the English language.
Gender, Language, Change, Linguistics, History, English“
Quote paper
Olga Kuzin (Author), 2007, Gender and Language Change, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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