Women and language

By Joanna Chojnicka

Here’s a short overview of the approaches to women’s language in the history of linguistics. It is rather theoretical, but I can relate the ways I have been treated by some men (and women) over the years to some of these theoretical reflections. Maybe I can write another, more personal post about it, if I find the courage. Or maybe some readers would want to share their experiences in a guest post?

In sociolinguistics, we can use the so-called 4-D model to represent the history of studies on women’s language. The model comprises the following “stages”, in order from the earliest to the most recent: Deficit, Dominance, Difference, and finally Diversity. These words stand for various explanations as to why women speak differently than men (Hellinger & Bußmann 2002).

During the Deficit stage, it was assumed that within a given culture, there exists an objective set of norms for using language. Women were believed to be unable to follow these norms due to shortcomings residing in their “nature” – in other words, they were seen as biologically, anatomically, intellectually etc. deficient (Hall 2003).

During the Dominance stage, it was recognized that the way women use language may be a by-product of male dominance over women. For example, the fact that women’s speech abounds in politeness, mitigation or hesitation strategies is an effect of being forced to talk deferentially and respectfully to men, rather than an inherent property of women’s “nature”.

The Difference theory, in turn, claims that women and men speak differently because “children are socialized into divergent interactional patterns within single-sex playgroups” (Hall 2003: 353). The following is a typical list of features associated with women’s (left) and men’s (right) speaking styles (Talbot 2003: 475-476):

Sympathy             Problem-solving
Rapport                Report
Listening              Lecturing
Private                  Public
Connection           Status
Supportive           Oppositional
Intimacy               Independence

Earlier approaches, of course, also subscribed to such lists, but they claimed these speaking styles to be innate and motivated by diverging social roles of women and men. The supportive and intimate style is “natural” to women because they are responsible for bearing and raising children, while the lecturing and oppositional style is “natural” to men because they have to compete for power and respect in the public sphere. Such essentialist beliefs were challenged by critical and social constructivist theories which inspired the socialization approach. Here, socializing boys into more prestigious and powerful speaking styles came to be seen as serving to support a particular social status quo where men remain in control over public domains. At the same time, socializing girls into weaker speaking styles (e.g. by scolding them for “speaking rough”) produces women who are perceived as “being unable to speak precisely” or express themselves “forcefully” (Lakoff 2004: 40-41). This, of course, justifies their exclusion from the public sphere and their isolation and seclusion in the privacy of their homes. [This isolation, to draw a parallel to Marx’s class analysis, prevents women from developing a group consciousness and organizing resistance.]

Finally, the Diversity theory acknowledges that there is no single men’s language or women’s language – men differ among themselves, women differ among themselves, and the way each individual speaks depends on different, intersecting variables on top of gender, incl. race, socio-economic status, education, family situation, (dis)ability, etc.

Of course, these stages are not perfectly separate – the difference theory did not completely substitute the dominance theory, for instance. In a way, we can still see all these approaches at work. For example, the belief associated with the deficit theory – that the norms, rules, conventions of correct or proper speaking are objective and neutral, and that men simply happen to be better at observing them – still holds strong. This belief conceals the fact that for centuries, only men were present in the public sphere – the sphere of education, literature, media, business, religion and politics – and so it was their language to be adopted as the objective norm. Masculinity came to define “essential humanity” (Gardiner 2004: 36).

The fact that the male perspective masks itself as “universal” and sets the “objective” standards, measures and norms for all humans serves a gate-keeping function. Women are first prevented from learning these (apparently universal) standards, and then they are denied access to the public domains (earlier citizenship, then higher education, high positions in politics/business, etc.) on the account of not meeting them.

In this light, the first three “Ds” – deficit, dominance and difference – vary only in terms of the explanation as to how women are prevented from acquiring the standards: it is the fault of their own intellectual inadequacy (deficit), the crude force of their subjugation (dominance) or the more elusive yet irrefutable effect of separate socialization (difference). They do not challenge the very belief that male speaking styles are better or more prestigious than female ones.

As long as we associate more prestige with men’s speech, we effectively force women who wish to be taken seriously to learn it – or to “unlearn” their socialization. This is a waste of energy that could be spent on “creative work”, and it “hinders women from expressing themselves as well, as fully, or as freely as they might otherwise” (Lakoff 2004: 42). Another problem is that whether a woman “speaks like a man” or not, she will always be the loser:

 If she refuses to talk like a lady, she is ridiculed and subjected to criticism as unfeminine; if she does (…), she is ridiculed as unable to think clearly, unable to take part in a serious discussion: in some sense, as less than fully human. These two choices which a woman has – to be less than a woman or less than a person – are highly painful (Lakoff 2004: 41).

It is increasingly recognized that socializing boys and girls differently harms them both (e.g. raising boys to be strong and tough quenches their sensitivity and empathy for others, makes them unable to express their emotions, prevents them from fully engaging in and benefitting from their relationships, increases their risk of conflict, violence, substance abuse, etc.). Gender-neutral socialization that appreciates the diversity and individuality of all children must be the solution.

It is not, however, the only claim of diversity theory. It also invites us to challenge the belief that the male language should continue to function as the objective norm, and that features and properties of speaking stereotypically associated with masculinity should be evaluated unequivocally positively in relation to their feminine counterparts. The diversity theory recognizes that, among others:

  • it is simply not possible to talk about one men’s and one women’s language – there is immense diversity in the way men and women talk, not only across cultures but also within a culture. The “big five” social categories that affect conversational style are: geographic or regional background, ethnicity, age, class, and gender (Tannen 2004: 162);
  • the fact that we perceive “masculine” speech as positive and “feminine” as negative has more to do with societal power relations than with their “objective” value (e.g. prioritization of competition over cooperation, coercive over supportive leadership, etc.);
  • such positive/negative evaluation fulfils gate-keeping functions, is discriminatory and unfair – and so should be checked even if only for the purpose of facilitating social equality;
  • also the very mechanism of associating women with cooperative and supportive, and men with competitive and coercive speaking styles, is a cultural and social construct, rather than an outcome of objective observation of innate, essential male and female characteristics: these styles are not somehow biologically bound with sex of the speaker, but are rather resources that speakers employ or reject when performing their gender and other interpersonal identities (Hall 2004);
  • women’s/men’s languages are perceived as if they excluded each other (is it really impossible for a person to be both supportive and oppositional, in various situations?) or as if they were the only possible options without anything in between or other alternatives.

But perhaps the most central problem in thinking about men’s and women’s language in binary terms is that the distinction between the original pair of concepts, ‘man’ and ‘woman’, is taken for granted (Derrida 1973, in Hepburn 2002). Binary thinking reproduces the “heterosexual matrix” (Butler 1990) where masculine men desire women and feminine women desire men, diminishing the amazing diversity of human behaviours, identities and lifestyles. Additionally, it is ethnocentric in that it universalizes the “western” understanding of gender and gender roles and norms (e.g. McClintock, Mufti & Shohat (eds.) 1997, Murray & Roscoe (eds.) 1998).


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