Language in use  
English Language & Linguistics

English Language

 

Women's Language

This page deals with language and gender. This is different from "sexism" which is a form of prejudice (which can be studied, for example, as part of a criminal justice degree online). Discussing gender we appreciate that men and women use language differently; sexist language uses language as a weapon for separating men and women and most often as a means of diminishing women. Read examples of sexist language here.

Men and Women. Do They Speak the Same Language?

Women 'gossip' while men 'talk shop', men are "firm" while women are "bossy."

There is a widespread belief that women talk more than men, yet research findings consistently contradict this. Men have been shown to talk more than women in settings as diverse as staff meetings (Eakins and Eakins 1978), television panel discussions (Bernard 1972) and husband-and-wife pairs in spontaneous conversation (Soskin and John 1963).

When asked to describe three pictures, male subjects took on average 13.00 minutes per picture compared with 3.17 minutes for female subjects (Swacker 1975).

Evidence suggests that men and women tend to discuss different topics (Aries and Johnson 1983; Seidler 1989). For example, men tend to talk about sport, politics and cars, whereas women tend to talk about child-rearing and personal relationships.

Recent work in Sociolinguistics has focused upon the variations in the conversational styles of men and women, and has tried to find reasons for these variations..

Female Patterns of Speech

It seems women are more ready to let other speakers into the conversation or to allow another speaker to dominate the discussion.

Backchannels are not speaker turns in the normal sense but rather they acknowledge what the current speaker says and generally encourage her/him to go on (Stenstrom 1994,5).

In the following dialogue speaker <1>, a man, is holding the floor and speaker <2>'s contribution is limited to a series of supportive backchannels. Speaker <2>, it hardly needs saying, is a woman.

<1> I saw a kingfisher Saturday morning
<2> Did you?
<1> It took off about three feet from my side. I didn't see it in the bush. It took off out of a bush, [went]
<2> [Mm]
<1> past the front of me canoe and look into a tree. (I sat there]
<2> [Very nice]
<1> and thought <unclear>
<2> Yeah [lovely]
<1> (looking] down at me ,but the sun was shining Saturday morning early it was real bright
<2> Beautiful

Women tend to use more standard forms of English.

At an early age, girls tend to have one or two girlfriends with whom they play regularly. They are more likely to discuss feelings and the impact of events upon themselves.

Women use language to create and maintain social cohesiveness and their activities are generally co-operative and non-competitive.

A study of children at play in a Philadelphia street (Goodwin: 1980; 1988; 1990) found that girls tended to use mitigated directives, i.e. when they wanted to get the group to do something they used suggestion rather than a direct command. Girls use forms like 'let's', 'we're gonna', 'we could' to get others to do things, instead of appealing to their personal power.

Women send out and look for signs of agreement and link what they say to the speech of others. They are careful to respect each other's turns in speaking and tend to apologise for talking too much.

Some vocabulary items are gender dependent. A word like "gorgeous", for example is three times as likely to be used by a female speaker as by a male (men use it only to talk about women, not for example about clothes, furniture, or food), while the expression "ever so nice" is used most typically by women over 45, and hardly ever by men of any age.

In all female groups women often discuss one topic for more than a half-hour.

Men tend to use less standard forms of English.

On the whole, boys have a larger network than girls, partly because of the types of activity they engage in, e.g. football.

Boys tend to have more hierarchically organised groups than girls and speech is often used to assert dominance. Goodwin's study (cited above) found that boys used aggravated, or explicit directives to get what they wanted, e.g. 'Get off', 'Gimine', 'I want'. This type of command establishes status differences.

Certain stylised speech events such as joking, arguing and storytelling are valued in the boys groups.

Men tend to jump from topic to topic, vying to tell anecdotes about their achievements. They rarely talk about their feelings or their personal problems.

Men compete for dominance, with some men talking a lot more than others. They don't feel the need to link their own contributions to others. Instead, they are more likely to ignore what has been said before and to stress their own point of view.

What Happens in Talk Between Men and Women?

Lack of Communication is one of the most frequently given reasons for breakdown of marital relations.

Traditionally, it has been seen as the woman's responsibility to initiate conversations on topics likely to be of interest to men, and to maintain the conversation.

Pamela Fishman taped daily conversations of three young American couples (fifty-two hours of speech). She found that women asked the vast majority of questions: 263 out of a total of 370. This may reflect women's relative weakness in interactive situations: they exploit questions and answers in order to force a response and keep the conversation going.

Women are much more likely to use minimal responses (e.g. 'yeah' or 'mhm',) to signal their active involvement in the conversation and to support the current speaker (Fishman 1980a; Coates 1989; 1991).

In mixed-sex conversations men interrupt women more, with the result that women are less able to complete their turns at talk and tend to talk less.

As a result, men tend to dominate topics of conversation and women tend to take on the role of listener.

Powerful and Powerless Language

The following ten features have been identified as "Women's Language" (based on: Lakoff 1975):

1. Hedges, e.g. sort of; kind of, I guess;

2. (Super) polite forms e.g. would you please...I'd really appreciate it if:..,

3. Tag questions;

4. Speaking in italics, e.g. emphatic so and very, intonational language;

5. Empty adjectives, e.g. charming, sweet, adorable;

6. Hypercorrect grammar and pronunciation;

7. Lack of a sense of humour e.g. poor at telling jokes;

8. Direct quotations, e.g. "Hannah said that he said...";

9. Special vocabulary, e.g. specialised colour terms like 'Dove grey';

10. Question intonation in declarative contexts.


  • Record conversations between men, women and mixed man and women. Do you agree with the conclusions above?
  • Compile a questionnaire to determine people's views on the language of men and of women. eg Who talks most and why, who is more assertive, who can tell a joke better, who gets their own way and how ...
  • Taking the conclusions above, draw up a list of opposite features which might be typical of men.
  • Make a list of suggestions for a men's magazine showing how a man could communicate more easily with a woman.
  • Discuss the idea that either women "get their own way" by using the above features of language or women would be more powerful if they used male language features.
 

Links

Sexism