MICHAEL TURNER weighs in on the fiery debate concerning the arguments surrounding genderlect
“F*ck, f*ck, f*ck!” bellowed Jane Doe. Now, Jane Doe here could be any known female in your life - your mum, auntie, grandma, sister...
However, in 1975, Robin Lakoff argued that females are very unlikely to use any form of taboo language. Hmmm, really? Well, let’s delve into the extensively researched, but also highly complex, topic of language and gender.
Gendered language lists and all that palaver
“But why?! I know many females who swear!” I hear you object, and you’d be correct in your doing so. However, Ms Lakoff - a pioneer in this field - proposed a series of speech features classifying what she labelled as “women’s language”. This list allegedly exposed female language to be not only different, but also deficient. Lakoff’s list of features included: empty adjectives such as cute; tag questions e.g., “pass me the salt, could you?”; hypercorrect linguistic forms (i.e., overcompensating towards prestige linguistic forms, see below); and a paucity of taboo language (no CU next Tuesday words for women!), (Bucholtz, 2004, pp. 78 – 81).
Cultural standards of language
One key hypercorrect form that Lakoff proposed is that men will often use the non-standard alveolar nasal form [n] at the end of words such as ‘singing’ (pronouncing it
‘singin’). This is in comparison to how women retain the ‘g’ in words ending in ‘ing’ and utilise the standard velar nasal [ŋ] (Bucholtz, 2004, p. 80). Lakoff claims this is due to societal pressures to be ‘correct’, such that if women use non-standard forms, their
projection of identity will be slovenly and people will not view them as an adequate human being (Bucholtz, 2004, p. 41). One word: stupefying!
Is there essentialist gender bias in language?
As absurd as this may seem in the present era, one must remember that the theory originated in the 70’s. Lakoff herself has proposed that her past findings contrast greatly to her more recent speculations (Lakoff, 1990). The early 20th Century Danish linguist, Otto Jespersen (1922) propounded similar statements to Lakoff and coined the term “women’s language”. He argued that women will always refrain from using vulgar (taboo) language, speak with more advanced pronunciation and use so-called ‘empty’ adjectives like “nice” that men would overtly avoid in order to not sound feminine (pp. 243 – 249). However, the context surrounding these statements is key, as at this time women still faced strong oppression and were expected to conform to the housewife job role.
Fast-forward to modern times and that “fucking car”
One scholar who heavily disputes these now archaic theories is Deborah Cameron, a
modern matriarch in language and gender studies. The never milquetoast Cameron fires back at difference theory scholars, stating: “[t]he idea that men and women differ fundamentally in the way they use language to communicate is a myth in the everyday sense: a widespread but false belief” (Cameron, 2007). “[A] false belief” - do you hear that, Jespersen?
Research performed by McEnery and Love (2018) also demonstrated how in a present society, the language of males and females is more in harmony. They refute Lakoff’s outlook that men swear much more than women because women don’t want to sound vulgar. They claim instead that taboo language is just as likely to be a proponent of a woman’s speech as a man’s (2018, p. 501). However, lexical choice is different for the swear words used by the two genders; females prefer taboo constructions such as “fuck all” whereas men prefer to use the ‘f-word’ as a vehement intensifying adjective e.g. “fucking car” (McEnery & Love, 2018, pp. 502 – 503). This shows how women can and do swear in the present day!
Is our education of language gendered?
Sauntson (2019) is another scholar who has a similar perspective to McEnery & Love (2018). She states that early gender schools of thought viewed language as being a reflection of pre-existing gender differences such as the ones mentioned by Jespersen (p. 16). Sauntson argues that her and other scholars’ current research “views gender as being discursively constructed through language”, meaning that language constructs gender in a non-authoritative manner (Sauntson, 2019, p. 16). The same finding is explored by Sunderland who also argues that gender can be constructed by language and provides the example of boys’ and girls’ classroom talk (2018, p. 475).
She states that some studies have found boys dominating conversation in the classroom through that of conversational interruption. Plainly put, boys purposely speak over another speaker (2018, p. 475). Sunderland states that this could be a way of them constructing their male gender roles rather than it being an inherent trait (2018, p. 475). My own experiences are similar to Sunderland as I remember in secondary school the boisterous boys who would interrupt and wail like a banshee for a second of the teacher’s attention!
Contrastingly, a famous effervescent neuroscientist Dr Louann Brizendine (2006) proposed in her famous publication The Female Brain (2006) that there are key differences in the language of men and women. For example: “[g]irls speak faster on average – 250 words per minute versus 125 for typical males” (Brizendine, 2006, p. 36). She links this to the neuroscientific programming of the two genders because men have increased testosterone levels, resulting in them feeling less of a need to speak more. Brizendine (2006) summarises the argument to an average daily word count output, suggesting that women speak 20,000 words a day in comparison to men speaking only 7,000 words. As I’m sure you can tell, the web of theorists in the domain of language and gender seems to become very tangled, very quickly.
With this in mind, I think it is best to finalise the debate with Talbot’s clear declaration that gender can be a “troublesome dichotomy” (2010, p. 12). I couldn’t agree more – yet, it is still a very interesting one!
What are your thoughts and experiences? Do men and women speak differently, or do you side more with Cameron in the belief that it’s simply a “myth”?
Brizendine, L. (2006). The female brain. New York, NY, United States of America: Broadway Books.
Bucholtz, M. (2004). Language and woman’s place: text and commentaries. New York, NY, United States of America: Oxford University Press.
Cameron, D. (2007, October 1). What language barrier? The Guardian. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2007/oct/01/gender.books
Jespersen, O. (1922). Language: its nature and development. New York, NY: Henry Holt & Company.
McEnery, T., & Love, R. (2018). Bad language. In J. Culpeper et al (Eds.), English Language: description, variation and context pp. 495 – 507. Basingstoke, United Kingdom: Palgrave Macmillan.
Lakoff, R. (1990). Talking power: the politics of language. New York, NY, United States of America: Basic Books.
Sauntson, H. (2019). Researching language gender and sexuality: a student guide. London, United Kingdom: Routledge.
Sunderland, J. (2018). Gender and language. In J. Culpeper et al (Eds.), English Language: description, variation and context pp. 469 – 481. Basingstoke, United Kingdom: Palgrave Macmillan.
Talbot, M. (2010). Language and gender (2nd ed.). Malden, MA, United States of America: Polity Press.
Written by Michael Turner