Thursday, September 22, 2011

Debate of the month: gender and language variation

One of the big topics for debate in English Language A level in recent years has been over whether women and men communicate differently. Since the early 1970s, with the publication of Robin Lakoff’s Language and Woman’s Place , there has been plenty of focus on what might be termed “women’s language” but as Lakoff herself was quick to point out, her observations weren’t based on empirical studies (systematic data collection) but “(data)... gathered mainly by introspection: I have examined my own speech and that of my acquaintances, and have used my own intuitions in analyzing it”.

Lakoff’s observations included some that have made it into pretty much every A level student’s (and teacher’s) list of key facts about gender and language: women use more precise colour terms, more tag questions and more evaluative adjectives than men. But of course, without any actual data to back these claims up, it was hard to work out whether what Lakoff was saying was perceptive and new or just the recycling of fairly standard stereotypes.

While Lakoff herself made some powerful points about the ways in which girls are socialised to behave in ways that are viewed as linguistically female - not talking rough or appearing "unladylike" - other linguists focused a little more on the conversational interactions between men and women. Some chose to look at interruptions and the dominance of men and submissiveness of women in conversational interaction (like Zimmerman and West – pdf here  - in 1975), others at power and status (O’Barr and Atkins - summary here  – in 1980), before Maltz and Borker (1982) started looking in a bit more detail at the ways in which men and women are socialised into different gender roles and how this might affect language patterns.

This was an approach that led to Deborah Tannen’s work – subsequently referred to as the Difference Model -  and her bestselling book You Just Don’t Understand (Tannen talks about it here).

Tannen’s approach focussed on what she called the “cross-cultural communication” between the genders:

For women, as for girls, intimacy is the fabric of relationships, and talk is the thread from which it is woven. Little girls create and maintain friendships by exchanging secrets; similarly, women regard conversation as the cornerstone of friendship. So a woman expects her husband to be a new and improved version of a best friend. What is important is not the individual subjects that are discussed but the sense of closeness, of a life shared, that emerges when people tell their thoughts, feelings, and impressions.

Bonds between boys can be as intense as girls', but they are based less on talking, more on doing things together. Since they don't assume talk is the cement that binds a relationship, men don't know what kind of talk women want, and they don't miss it when it isn't there.

Boys' groups are larger, more inclusive, and more hierarchical, so boys must struggle to avoid the subordinate position in the group. This may play a role in women's complaints that men don't listen to them. Some men really don't like to listen, because being the listener makes them feel one-down, like a child listening to adults or an employee to a boss.

However, Tannen’s approach came in for criticism from some for its broad-brush approach to gender, and the industry spawned by the Tannen book – John Gray’s Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus  being one big seller – dumbed everything down to a new low.

Elsewhere, Jennifer Coates produced masses of work on the dynamics of spoken interaction in her excellent books Women Talk and Men Talk, pinning down the details of talk among and between the sexes and interpreting the results with an open mind. It’s about as far removed from the hippy dippy generalisations of John Gray as you can get.

More recent work on gender and language has taken one of two approaches. With advances in neuroscience, some commentators have started to look at how certain characteristics might be hard-wired into us and how men and women might just be built genetically in certain ways that we can’t avoid.

This approach has attracted criticism – this article by Madeline Bunting of The Guardian is really good – and linguists such as Deborah Cameron have argued that gender is just one factor in many that might affect our conversational styles, and that anyway, there are more differences between different men or different women (within the sexes) than there are between most men and women.

Her excellent Myth of Mars and Venus lays into the gender difference industry with an accessible overview of research and an argument that suggests it’s not only women who suffer from the obsession with different speech styles, but men too.

So, over to you. What has your own study and research suggested about gender and language variation? Are you about to embark on an A2 Language Investigation into gender? If so, what are you going to look for and why?

  • What do you think of the whole debate?
  • Is it helpful to generalise about how men and women communicate or should we always look at specific contexts?
  • In your experience, do men and women, boys and girls talk differently?
  • If so, why might this be and how does it show itself in what they say and how they say it?
  • If not, what do you see happening instead?
  • How different are the speech styles within one gender group? Do all boys share similar speech characteristics....girls, football, beer and..err...meat?