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?


Dan said...

One example of an interesting project came out of discussions about coursework with my A2 students this week, so thought I'd share it.

The aim is to look at if there are linguistic differences in the ways males and females introduce themselves to strangers. This gives quite a neat and focused area to look at.

The methodology used would be to set up a speed-dating event for 5 males and 5 females and place a voice recorder on each table to record the minute of conversation each dater is allowed.

The frameworks used to analyse the data could vary. Initially we might have some quantitative data about features such as pronoun use, questions versus statements, politeness markers, semantic fields etc. but this could be developed to look more closely at qualitative data.

This seems to me to be quite a manageable and productive set-up to get hold of some really good data.

Anonymous said...

Shan-ann Cornwall YK07

I think that the whole debate is interesting on both sides 'The Dominance Model' and 'The Difference Model'. I think it is not just one, but one influences the other. Maybe its the Patriarchy society that we live in that influence the way men and women use language differently.

I do not think it is good to generalise as context plays an important role in the way language is displaye such as; views and beliefs, upbringing, age, occupation and how many participants there are present.

In my own experience girls and boys do talk differently, this may be a case of individual differences and differences in upbringing. However noys of simular age group, ethnicity, beliefs and background share similarities of linguistic language
and visa versa.

Solyanna Keflom said...

I think that the debate will be ongoing as it is mainly coming from people’s opinions as it is hard to actually collect evidence for this study without having a Hawthorne effect and so on. So in this particular study it does make sense to make generalisations over the majority because it is almost impossible not to and talk about EVERY individual.

We definitely should not be looking at specific content as there will always be someone else who won’t agree although you could take a large sample of specific contents from all over the world from diff types of women and then come to a generalised conclusion.
In my experience I do believe that men and women do talk differently and agree with many of Lackoffs’ theories on her dominance model- this just says that there is, and always will be an underlying dominant and patriarchal society.

Finally, I do think that most guys talk about similar things despite their class, ethnicity or surroundings, unless they are gay and the same with lesbians-they usually go to the extremes of what sex they aspire to be i.e. a gay man usually gossips or makes an effort to use rising intonations, tag questions and back channelling.

Dan said...

Thanks for the comments so far :-)

I think it's easy (and human nature maybe) to generalise the differences we notice in our own observations about male and female language into the wider community, but the Janet Hyde review of gender studies showed very very small differences across masses of studies, so I'm going with the numbers rather than intuition!

The point about sexuality is an interesting one too. I've known plenty of camp gay guys but also plenty of gay men who spoke like a straight man (and wouldn't have been identified as having "gay" language, whatever that may be). Do gay men "aspire" to be women or aspire to have females speech? I don't think so. But perhaps there are some gay men who use traditionally female patterns in their language as a marker of their difference to straight men. I think Deborah Cameron has done some work on this, but Paul Baker has done a really good book called Sexed Texts that looks at this in detail.

Thanks for the comments and keep them coming :-)

Anonymous said...

Zoe Ennin GA08

As time goes on, I feel the way women and men communicate will become more similar just as their roles in society are becoming. There are more instances today when women in a sense 'break the mould' and have a more masculine approach to talking, opposing the assumptions made by Tannen's and Lakoff's research that women are more polite. Furthermore there are more men who express their weakest emotions in everyday conversations.

For this reason, new research needs to be conducted on a regular basis in order to keep the debate relevant and applicable to real-life. In agreement to Solyanna and Shan-Ann the debate is ongoing and interesting.

Dan said...

Thanks, Zoe - interesting point about ongoing research to keep things up to date.

Some of the latest studies of female/male language look at fairly new forms of communication, such as email, text messaging and instant messaging, and there's even been some on Twitter.

Some links:

Thea said...

I strongly agree with Deborah Camerons point that there are many differences within each gender. I also believe that although stereotypes are frowned upon there is a vast foundation of truth that comes with every sterotype. I feel that individual differences plays a major role when considering such a debate as, like previously mentioned there are hundreds of differences within a gender.

Along side language change and my own observations I think that the main differences between male and female speech lies among our teenage years. There is always an over ruling pressure to be liked and accepted among both genders. If girls spoke with minimal politeness it is very unlikely they would have strong network of friends. Alternately, if boys usd too much politeness they may be made fun of or be the victim of constant banter by their friends.

To conclude i feel that there will always be a difference in the way men and women speak, just as there will always be a difference in the way we think and behave, however i feel the extremes are usually overcome as we mature and age.

Dan said...

The point you make about pressure in teenage years, Thea, is a very important one, I think.

If many of the main things we acquire in language are done and dusted by the time we're 7 or 8, there's still time for our adult language identities to be shaped during our teenage years, and we often find ourselves becoming the person we grow up to be when we hit 15 or 16 (a scary thought in some cases...).

There's lots of informal policing of clothing, lifestyle, music and language too that goes on among teenage boys and girls, so there are massive pressures to conform and it's easy to see why some people speak the way they do: because everyone else does.

And it's also clear to see that there are some language styles we adopt as teenagers to mark us out as "not like" a different group of people - be they nerds, emos, fake yardies, chavs, rudebwoys (ahem) - so we signal our difference from other groups by not speaking like them.

Deborah Cameron looks at this sort of behaviour in TMOMAV (and talks about it too in her Language & Sexuality book), when she refers to the split at her old school between girls who were "swots" or "slags": "When I was a teenager, the girls at my school were divided (by ourselves rather than the authorities) into two distinct categories, "slags" and "swots". Whichever one you were, the cardinal rule was to avoid any way of behaving that was generally associated with the other. We paid far less attention to not behaving like boys: it wasn"t the boys that we ever really compared ourselves to. And this, it turns out, is typical." (from this link:

But equally, I really admire those teenagers who break out of those moulds and don't behave like sheep!

Anonymous said...

I agree with the view that bonds between boys can be as intense as girls', but they are based less on talking, more on doing things together.

Being a male myself, I can say this is how many of my friendships work. I beleieve this is because us males are much more blunt so we talk if we only have to and once the point is done thats it....

I think that women have different speech styles as women tend to sympahise etc.

Del Boy!!!

BL. said...

The topic on Gender and language variation is one that stirs up many interesting opinions. My own personal view is that a lot of generalisations can be made based on stereotypes and not concrete facts. For example, some may argue that women can't be dominant in discussions but what needs to be noted is that there are always exceptions. I do believe that the western culture and patriarchal society we live in has an effect on how both men and women speak, but fundamentally there will always be exceptions to every generalisation made. Age, culture, occupation and upbringing along with many other factors can influence how language varies between genders.

K.T.C said...

Similar to Solyanna's comment; due to lack of evidence and ability to collect reliable data this debate will continue. Therefore the ideas and models produced will always be criticised because they are only opinions and generalisations.

Alot of these ideas can be said to have some truth but it all depends on the context: upbringing, ethnicity etc.

For example a girl who has grown up with many brothers is less likely to fit the stereotypes associated with a female and vice versa

monique CN02 said...

I think its hard to generalise that all women speak like this and all men speak like that. I think in order to study gender and langauge, things like culture, status, age, race and occupation should be taken into consideration. For example women in some countries women are not reserved and are more reserved. Also in occuptations where women are in charge they are not going to be reserved as they have to give instructions.

Lakoff only concentrated on a small amount of people. This means that the data collected is not representative of everyone.It is not pratical to talk to everyone, so lakoff had to make a conclusion on the evidence she had.

I think it is important to look at the wider scale instead indivudial common language features of stereo types when looking at gender and language.

But I think that men and women do talk differently because I believe that language is a form of identity to be able to distinguish ourselves from the others.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the idea that women see language as an important tool for forming friendships such as little girls sharing secrets and women gossiping. However, I don't agree with the idea that men don't listen to women because it makes them feel inferior. I think the idea that men don't listen to women is just a stereotype.

I also believe that both the difference and dominance model contribute important ideas on the variations between men and women's language however, both models have some stereotypical ideas on men and women's speech that is not true of everyone. Some women are dominant and blunt in speech and some men prefer to be more co-operative in speech.

I don't believe that there is one single definition for the difference between men and women's language I think that there is a contribution if different factors and each theory. has it's flaws.

Anonymous said...

I totally agree with Monique you cannot be stereotypical and generalise men and women in the way they use language .
There is so many factors that contribute to the way in which language is spoken ,such as ethnicity ,occupation ,culture ...etc
for example in other cultures women can be seen as aggressive ,blunt
and out spoken .

However i do believe that there is a slight difference in the way both sexes integrate due to the way in which society has made us believe that men are mean to bread winners and problem solvers. where as women are looked as the emotional ,supportive and polite beings.

In addition most of the theories seem to be backdated ,it would be great to see a rather modern view on gender and language.

shantel chinyere O

Anonymous said...

I believe that as time has gone on females roles in society and opportunities to have more dominant roles are increasing. This is constantly changing the fact that males have more dominance and how men and women use speech. Some women will seem more expressive, use less hedges, precise colour terms and tag questions and this could be because of their role in society.

I beleive that woman do build friendships more on talking and that men build theirs more on doing stuff. In my opinion this is because boys are more active and prefer to do hands on work instead of asking how someone's days been. I think that boys like to find out minimal information quickly to make friendships.


Anonymous said...

i strongly agree with debora tannens difference model, because males and females have different ways ofcommunicating and buliding friendships., it is also due to then nature of boys to seem manly and be blunt whislt speaking, but for feamles it is allright for them to appear emotional.

ruwaida abubakar cno3

Anonymous said...

I don't think its helpful at all to generalise about men and women communicate because a generalisation will never get the truth it would just be a idea that we assume fits a whole social group. Its more helpful to look at the context of language because that is what determines how we communicate e.g. our language adapts to the environment we are in regardless if your male or female. In my experience the language of males and females is becoming inseparable people they speak more or less the same these days. I think this is a way of people trying maybe too hard to fit into a group rather than being an individual,people prefer to sound the same as everyone else rather then sound different. The gap between how females speak and how males speak is closing. Peoples speech depends on the environment they are in and the type of person they are.

Shanelle Best

Karolina Krzyzostaniak said...

Personally, I think that this debate is an interesting one. The fact that there are so many different factors that can influence the way people talk just makes it even more fascinating as it leaves a lot of room for people to make different points about it, keeping the discussion going. It isn’t something that can ever really have a definite answer, which just adds curiosity to it.

I don’t think it’s helpful to generalise anything when it comes to English language and the variation of it between different people. Everyone speaks differently. Even if two people live in the same city, on the same street all their lives, their language will be different because of how they were brought up, what kind of people they hang out with on a daily bases, and even the subjects they take… The list is endless. In my opinion specifics are vital when it comes to this, and looking at language as a whole is like trying to analyse a meal without knowing its ingredients.

In my experience, men and women do speak differently, but I don’t think it’s because of domination in the conversation like Lakoff suggested, but rather because of difference of people, like Tannen stated. However, taking that in mind, there are still many people, both men and women, who use the same language, despite being of different genres. Like I said, I don’t think this should be looked on as a whole, but different details should be thought about as well.

Anonymous said...


Personally, I agree with the idea that women see conversation as a way to get closer and build a rapport. Whereas men feel that talking isn't really important and some men see it as quite feminine. Evidence of this can be seen in our everyday lives. For instance, women are uncomfortable with silence whereas men find it soothing hence women talk more and share secrets to kill the silence and create a bond.

With all that,s been said I also strongly believe that the difference in speech between men and women is in some way down to the way they were socialised- culture variation.

Anonymous said...

I believe that women and men's language is too stereotypical. Lakoff and Fishman both say that women use language to bulid rapport and that men don't use language to build relationships and come across as uniterested. However, in the society today there are alot of men that use emotions within their language to be more intimate.
A new study should be conducted to show that women are not always the emotional ones and not always looking for sympathy or rapport and that men can be just as initmate.
This goes against Tannens 'DIFFERENCE MODEL' and beacuse it was done in the 1980s the evidence is quite old, and so
results from a new study would show a massive change within gender and language.
In my experince males use just as much emotive language and topic initaition that females do. And some males can talk for ageess :)
Chloe DR02

Anonymous said...

It is a interesting debate and everyone is due to have different opinions. I think that this is a topic that cannot be generalised and it is better to lok at different conexts because everyone is different.

In my experience i think that in men and women do talk differently but some women take on men attributes and some me take on women attributes. For example femine boys and tom boy girls.

In regards to age i think boys and girls of the same age group do share similar speech characteristics.

Immanuella Okunubi said...

To be honest i don’t think you can say a gender is the main factor that affects language variation. With generalisations comes exceptions but in this case language has developed and evolved within the last few decades. The stereotype that men are less likely to show emotion (through language), is a stereotype which means it is not always true. Language that may've been seen as 'un lady-like' or not feminine (e.g. expletives) are not necessarily seen like that anymore, these are words that are used to describe an emotion e.g. so if a female uses a curse or swear word, it doesn’t mean she is using unfeminine language, it just means that is how she chose to articulate herself in that point in time, by saying something like men use more expletives than women could then mean that men are just as emotional as women, they just articulate it in a different ways.

Agreed, gender does have an influence on language that we use, but I don’t think you can rule out other key factors such as your environment, your ethnicity and your class, not forgetting that it is from the home that you first learn language, and then in the school is developed and so on and so forth.

Annie G said...

Although I agree that gender can be influential in the way we interact and express ourselves, in my own opinion, I don't think it is right to dwell too much on whether gender is the sole element that affects language. As McElhinny assessed in her study of 'Gendering of the Police Force', we saw that occupation was far more important and influential than gender. This goes to show that women's language is not fixed and biological, but by all means depends on context.

To be fair, I do agree with some of the points raised by Tannen and the 'Difference Model' and Lakoff, but think that both come across as sexist.

I believe it is to simplistic to say that women speak a certain way, and men another, but instead believe that a whole heap of factors affect the way in which we interact with each other. I also think that language depends on the individual, personality, ethnicity or social background may affect the way in which we speak. Yes, we may live in a 'patriarchal society' and yes it may seem as if 'men dominate conversation' leaving women to be the passive participant, but what I think the other linguists fail to take into account is the different environments conversations can take place in, status and position, and context. Their arguements can only go so far.

Anonymous said...

im just starting my A2 year and doing an investigation on language and gender. however im looking at how a boy speaks to a girl on facebook and how he speaks to another boy to see if the same generalizations occur as they would when speaking face to face any thoughts? would be grateful for your comments!

Francesca said...

if anyone wouldn't mind spending a few minutes completing my questionnaire on language and gender and helping with my English A Level it would be much appreciated!

Dan said...

Hi Francesca, I can bump this onto the first page if you like (and stick on the EngLangBlog twitter feed too?). Just let me know.