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Language and Gender

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English

Could someone’s gender really affect the way they perceive the world and communicate with others? This is what some linguists think! In this article, we will begin by exploring 'gendered' language, which is language that is biased towards a certain sex or gender. We will explain how it can affect larger societal issues like gender inequality. We will also explore the differences between the ways men and women use language, by looking at some gender and language theories that study.

Gendered language

In the case of the English language, the term ‘gendered language’ does not refer to the masculine or feminine labels given to nouns, as, unlike languages such as French and Spanish, English does not have grammatical gender. Instead, gendered language in this instance means:

Language that carries a bias towards a specific sex or gender.

Language and gender inequality

The use of gendered language can often lead to gender inequality, which creates an unfair bias towards a certain gender. This can result in harmful stereotypes which cause discrimination and portray a negative view of a certain gender. These stereotypes and negative views are often directed at women. For many years, women did not have the same rights and opportunities as men, such as not being able to vote or access certain public places, like pubs. The use of gendered language has the power to reinforce and maintain male supremacy in society.

Below are some examples of gendered language:

Examples of gendered language

Mr and Mrs

‘Mr’ can be used to refer to any man, regardless of his marital status. However, there are different terms to use for a woman, depending on her marital status. ‘Miss’ is used if she is not married. ‘Mrs’ is used if she is married. ‘Ms’ is a more neutral term for women who do not wish to disclose their marital status. The use of different terms for women and not men could be seen as problematic as it portrays the idea that their lives are defined only by the relationships they have with men.

Throughout history, a woman’s role in society has been closely associated with her marital status, which is why women use different titles. This highlights the privilege of men and the status they already have in society without being expected to marry someone.

Gender-biased job titles

In the past, gender roles were followed more strictly and there was a clearer divide between the expected roles for men and women. Men were seen as the main earners, whereas women looked after the children and carried out unpaid domestic work, like cooking and cleaning.

Some gender-biased job titles include:

  • Policeman

  • Fireman

  • Postman

  • Chairman

  • Cameraman

Notice how they all end in man! The use of these jobs titles is problematic as it excludes the word women, implying that only men are fit for these positions… We all know now that women are able to work in any of the above jobs! However, the language we use when describing these jobs continues to cement the idea that they are typically done by men. This portrays men as strong and smart, and women are forgotten or overlooked.

Gendered Greetings

How many times have you heard Ladies and gentlemen or “Hello sir/madam? Although they are used to address both male and females and are not biased towards one specific gender at a time, these greetings are still gendered. Because of this, they are not inclusive to people who do not associate with those binary terms.

Examples of gender-inclusive language

Gender-Neutral Job Titles

In today’s society, more job titles either have a female equivalent or are gender-neutral. Gender-neutral job titles can be seen as better as they do not carry a bias towards any sex or gender. Using these titles helps to limit negative stereotypes surrounding certain jobs and reduces inequality faced by women, as anyone is able to use them, not just men.

Instead of using gendered terms such as 'business man' or 'business woman', we can say 'business person', Pixabay

Examples of gender-neutral job titles include:

  • Police Officer (instead of Policeman)

  • Fire Fighter (instead of Fireman)

  • Postal Worker (instead of Postman)

  • Chair/Chairperson (instead of Chairman)

  • Camera Operator (instead of Cameraman)

Gender-neutral greetings

Instead of using greetings such as ladies and gentlemen or sir/madam, it is becoming more common to use neutral greetings such as everyone or folks to be more inclusive towards non-binary people.

Gender differences in language use

It has been argued that men and women use language in different ways, which reflects how they view themselves in society and how others perceive them. A variety of theories have been developed by linguists to study the ways that men and women use language. This allows us to gain a deeper understanding of possible similarities and differences between genders through the language we use in conversation.

Let's look at a basic overview of four of these theories.

Language and gender theories

Difference Theory

The difference theory simply aims to prove that men and women do speak in different ways. But, this does not mean that one way is better than the other. A supporter of this theory is Deborah Tannen. In her book, You Just Don’t Understand (1990), Tannen explores these differences. Below is a summary of her findings:

MEN:

WOMEN:

See communication as a competition to gain status

Communicate to gain the support of others

Are more independent

Are more dependent on others

Try to fix problems

Try to find sympathy from others

Talk briefly about facts

Talk lots about their feelings

Are more direct and give more demands

Are more indirect and give suggestions

More likely to express opinions and argue against others

Less likely to cause conflict

What do you think of this theory? Do you see any problems with the way men and women are presented?

Dominance Theory

The dominance theory is the idea that the language men use is superior and holds more dominance in society, whereas the language women use is seen as inferior. This theory could be seen as problematic as it suggests that men have more authority over women, and women should be submissive. Some supporters of this theory include linguists such as Don Zimmerman, Candace West, Pamela Fishman and Dale Spender.

In 1975, Zimmerman and West conducted a study titled Sex Roles, Interruptions and Silences in Conversation (1975). In the study, they recorded 31 conversations between two people at a time. Ten of these conversations were between just men, 10 between just women, and 11 between both men and women. Below is a summary of their findings:

Men:

  • Spoke more in general.

  • Interrupted women more.

  • Didn’t let women speak.

  • Responded to women in a minimal and delayed way.

  • Rarely interrupted other men.

Women:

  • Were silent more, and for longer periods of time.

  • Only interrupted other women, not men.

Deficit Theory

The deficit theory is the idea that the language men use is seen as the standard, whereas the language women use differs from the standard and is seen as insufficient. This theory could be seen as sexist as it portrays women as weaker and of lower status, highlighting the inequality faced by women. Supporters of this theory include Otto Jespersen and Robin Lakoff.

Below are some of the findings from Otto Jespersen’s book, Language: Its Nature, Development and Origin (1922):

WOMEN

  • Talk a lot.

  • Use simpler words as they have smaller vocabularies.

  • Use more false starts and unfinished sentences because they speak before they think.

  • Exaggerate more.

  • Use too many adjectives and adverbs.

  • Are emotional, not grammatical.

  • Are more indirect, so are not as effective as men.

MEN

  • Have larger vocabularies and use more difficult words.

  • Are in charge of establishing new words in the English language.

Below are some of the findings from Robin Lakoff’s book, Language and Women’s Place (1975):

Women use more:

Examples:

Backchannelling

“Uh-huh”, “Mm”, “Yeah”

Hedging

“Sort of”, “Kind of”

Intensifiers

“Very”, “So”

Apologies

“I’m sorry, but…”

Tag questions

“You live here, right?

“You sing, don’t you?

Modal verbs

“Could”, “Should”, “Ought to”

Wh- Imperatives

Why don’t we…”

Indirect commands

“It’s cold in here” indirectly means: close the window

Diminutives (pet names)

“Honey”, “Sweetie”, “Darling”

Women may use these things more than men BUT they use less:

  • Slang.

  • Swear words.

  • Insults.

And perhaps the most sexist observation of all…

  • Women don’t have a good sense of humour and are bad at telling jokes.

If reading any of the theories so far has got you looking like this...

Gender-related topics in English Language can be frustrating! Pixabay

You are not alone!

Diversity Theory

The diversity theory argues that there is a difference between sex and gender. It also suggests that the sex we are assigned at birth does not affect the language we use. Instead, the roles we have in society and the way we interact socially influences our language. Supporters of this theory include Deborah Cameron and Judith Butler.

Deborah Cameron believes that difference is a myth. Her research takes inspiration from contemporary theorists who challenge the idea that men and women use different language. She thinks that the differences in gender are because of the expectations placed on us by society. She coined the term verbal hygiene in her 2012 book of the same name, to refer to the ways in which people think they are supposed to speak in order to fit into the norm and meet the expectations of a correct society.

Which theory do you agree with most?

Language and Gender - Key takeaways

    • Gendered language is language that is biased towards a certain sex or gender. It can cause and help maintain gender inequality.

    • Gender-neutral language does not carry a bias towards a certain sex or gender. It is inclusive.

    • The 'Difference theory' focuses on the idea that men and women communicate in different ways.
    • The 'Dominance theory' focuses on the dominance of the language men use, as opposed to women.
    • The 'Deficit theory' focuses on men’s language being the standard, and women’s language being insufficient as it differs from the standard.
    • The 'Diversity theory' focuses on the idea that the sex we are assigned at birth does not affect our language use, but our place in society and the way we socialise does.

Language and Gender

Language and gender are closely tied together, as the language we use reflects our gender roles in society.

Language and gender refers to the study of the language used by men and women, and how they differ to reflect someone’s position in society.

A language and gender theory is a set of ideas that looks at the similarities and differences between the language men and women use.

The study of language and gender focuses on the correlation between the language we use and our gender.

Language and gender is important as the language we use reflects the way we view ourselves and others in society.

Final Language and Gender Quiz

Question

What is the definition of gendered language?


A: Language that is biassed towards a certain sex or gender.

B: Language that is grammatically feminine.

C: Language that is grammatically masculine.

Show answer

Answer

A: Language that is biassed towards a certain sex or gender.

Show question

Question

Which of the following is an example of gendered language?


A: Hello everyone

B: Good morning Sir

C: Alright folks

Show answer

Answer

Good morning Sir

Show question

Question

Which of the following is not an example of gendered language?


A: Fireman

B: Postman

C: Police Officer

Show answer

Answer

C: Police Officer

Show question

Question

Women use the term Miss when they are not married.


True or false?

Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

The English language does not have a grammatical gender.


True or false?

Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

A language and gender theory is always true.


True or false?

Show answer

Answer

False.


A theory is a set of ideas and interpretations that aim to explain something. It is not always true.

Show question

Question

Language and gender are not linked at all.


True or false?

Show answer

Answer

False

Show question

Question

Which of the following people did not support the dominance theory?


A: Dale Spender

B: Otto Jespersen

C: Dom Zimmerman

Show answer

Answer

B: Otto Jespersen 

Show question

Question

What does the difference theory aim to prove?


A: Men and women speak in different ways

B: Men and women don’t speak in different ways

C: Women are better than men

Show answer

Answer

A: Men and women speak in different ways.


(But one is not seen as better than the other)

Show question

Question

Which of the following people supported the difference theory?


A: Candace West

B: Deborah Cameron

C: Deborah Tannen

Show answer

Answer

C: Deborah Tannen

Show question

Question

What did the dominance theory focus on?


A: The dominance of men’s language

B: The dominance of women’s language

C: The dominance of both men and women

Show answer

Answer

A: The dominance of men’s language 

Show question

Question

Who did not support the deficit theory?


A: Robin Lakoff

B: Pamela Fishman 

C: Otto Jespersen

Show answer

Answer

 B: Pamela Fishman

Show question

Question

What did the deficit theory aim to prove?


A: Men’s language is standard, women’s is insufficient

B: Women’s language is standard, men’s is insufficient

C: All language differs from the standard so is insufficient

Show answer

Answer

A: Men’s language is standard, women’s is insufficient

Show question

Question

What did Deborah Cameron believe?


A: There is not a difference between sex and gender

B: Men and women speak in different ways

C: Language use depends on society and socialisation

Show answer

Answer

C: Language use depends on society and socialisation

Show question

Question

Gender inequality primarily affects women as opposed to men.


True or false?

Show answer

Answer

Gender inequality can affect anyone, but mostly affects women.

Show question

Question

Which of the following best describes a deficit-based approach?


A: Blaming individuals who lack something

B: Blaming societal issues

C: Trying to fix societal issues

Show answer

Answer

A: Blaming individuals who lack something

Show question

Question

Which of the following best describes the deficit approach in language and gender?


A: Women’s language is the standard, men’s is insufficient

B: Men’s language is standard, women’s is insufficient

C: All language differs from a set standard

Show answer

Answer

B: Men’s language is the standard, women’s is insufficient

Show question

Question

Who is not a supporter of the deficit approach?


A: Deborah Cameron

B: Robin Lakoff

C: Otto Jespersen

Show answer

Answer

A: Deborah Cameron

Cameron is a supporter of the diversity approach.

Show question

Question

According to Lakoff, what do women use less than men?

Show answer

Answer

Slang, swear words and insults

Show question

Question

According to Jespersen, which of the following is true of men?


A: Men have smaller vocabularies

B: Men use simpler words

C: Men have larger vocabularies

Show answer

Answer

C: Men have larger vocabularies

Show question

Question

The deficit approach views men’s language as the norm.


True or false?

Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

Lakoff’s work is 100 years old.


True or false?

Show answer

Answer

False.


But Jespersen’s is!

Show question

Question

Jespersen’s work could be seen as sexist.


True or false?

Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

Lakoff conducted her own research.


True or false?

Show answer

Answer

False

Show question

Question

According to Jespersen, why do women use more false starts and unfinished sentences?


Show answer

Answer

Because they speak before they think.

Show question

Question

What is an example of hedging?


A: “I know”

B: “Sort of”

C: “It’s okay”

Show answer

Answer

B: “Sort of”

Show question

Question

What is an example of an intensifier?


A: “Sweet”

B: “Funny”

C: “Very”

Show answer

Answer

C: “Very”

Show question

Question

What did O’Barr and Atkins find out from their study?


Show answer

Answer

The language used by people is not dependent on the gender they are, but how much power they have in society. 

Show question

Question

Which of the following is the focus of deficit thinking in education?


A: Students of a lower socioeconomic background underachieve.

B: Students of a lower socioeconomic background overachieve.

C: Students of a higher socioeconomic background underachieve.

Show answer

Answer

A: Students of a lower socioeconomic background underachieve.

Show question

Question

If a teacher uses the deficit model, they believe in what?


A: Bringing out the best in all students.

B: Fixing students who are lacking in some way.

C: Letting students find their own strengths.

Show answer

Answer

B: Fixing students who are lacking in some way.

Show question

Question

True or false: the diversity approach argues that there is not a difference between sex and gender.

Show answer

Answer

False.


The diversity approach argues that there is a difference between sex and gender.

Show question

Question

According to the diversity approach, what influences the language we use?

Show answer

Answer

Roles in society and social interaction with others.

Show question

Question

What does someone's 'sex' refer to?

Show answer

Answer

Biological characteristics (e.g., reproductive organs, chromosomes, hormones).

Show question

Question

What does someone's 'gender' refer to?

Show answer

Answer

Socially constructed characteristics (e.g., roles and norms in society).

Show question

Question

True or false: gender is not a binary concept.

Show answer

Answer

True.


There are more than two gender identities.

Show question

Question

Fill in the blank:


Deborah Cameron believes that difference is ______

Show answer

Answer

A myth.

Show question

Question

What is the focus of Deborah Cameron's research?

Show answer

Answer

The relationship between language and gender and how it is affected by society.

Show question

Question

What does Deborah Cameron believe causes differences in language use?

Show answer

Answer

The expectations that are placed on us by society (not biological factors).

Show question

Question

Who suggested the idea of gender performativity?

Show answer

Answer

Judith Butler

Show question

Question

What does the term 'gender performativity' refer to?

Show answer

Answer

The idea that gender is something that can be performed.

Show question

Question

Fill in the blanks:


Judith Butler believes that our _____ is constructed through the _____ we choose to use.

Show answer

Answer

gender

language

Show question

Question

True of false: Judith Baxter believed in the notion of power relations.

Show answer

Answer

True.

Show question

Question

What does the term 'power relations' refer to?

Show answer

Answer

How people use language to communicate effectively and maintain dominance.

Show question

Question

Fill in the blank:


Judith Baxter's research focused on the relationship between language, gender and _______

Show answer

Answer

Leadership.

Show question

Question

William O'Barr and Bowman Atkins opposed the view of which linguist?

Show answer

Answer

Robin Lakoff.

Show question

Question

Christine Howe suggests that socialisation begins at what age?

Show answer

Answer

Around age 3/4 

Show question

Question

True or false: Christine Howe believes that our gender is the only thing that affects the language we use.

Show answer

Answer

False.

Show question

Question

William O'Barr and Bowman Atkins believe that weak/uncertain language is used by ______ in vulnerable positions with a lack of power.

Show answer

Answer

A. Men

Show question

Question

What is a marked term?

Show answer

Answer

A marked term refers to word that is changed (e.g. added affixes) to convey a different meaning.

Show question

Question

What is an unmarked term?

Show answer

Answer

An unmarked term is a word that has not been changed in any way. It is seen as the default.

Show question

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