Developing ideas of Genderlect: The twentieth-century language debate began in terms of women’s speech being in ‘deficit’, shifted into the view it was ‘different’ then became talked about as one of many ‘diverse’ styles; in the Twenty-First Century, how do we describe the speech of a range of genders?
On 3rd April 2018 Forbes magazine, that symbol of American power, announced: “Of course, most women love to talk. On some days you might even hear us roar!”
This emotive view of women’s speech appears early in an article discussing how women should communicate if they are to be viewed as powerful.
As a reflection of female spoken language in 2018, it suggests stereotypes are alive and kicking - in the same year that #metoo is doing all it can to claim gender equality.
In an item filled with observation that women use what linguists call ‘mitigation’ (changing phrases to make them less powerful) such as “correct me if I’m wrong but…” or “I hope I can…” the view is expressed that women in commercial life should “consider asking a colleague or friend to listen… to let you know when you are using passive, imprecise or disempowering phrases that diminish how you show up.”
This echoes what Lakoff (1973) termed ‘women’s language’ - a variety associated with a ‘deficit’ below traditional, powerful, male speech with its statements of fact, low tone, fewer grammatical hedges ‘quite’ or intensifiers ‘so’. It was suggested typical female speech included a range of powerless features such as unfinished phrases, questions seeking consent, higher pitch, more hedging and fewer jokes.
As Lakoff put it, perceptions of women’s speech were based on the view: “that women are marginal to the serious concerns of life, which are pre-empted by men. The marginality and powerlessness of women is reflected in both the ways women are expected to speak, and the ways in which women are spoken of.”
With growing focus on equality during the next decade, a distinction began to arise between the view that women’s speech was ‘dominated’ by male language styles and a wider definition of ‘cultural’ language whereby women and men kept to the speech norms of their social groups, effectively being trained in different cultural expression.
More recent students of English language will recognise things have moved on. Tannen (1990), among others, advanced the debate by suggesting male and female language is more about ‘differences’ than domination. As Cameron (2012) defined it: “the difference approach: a body of research on male (and especially) female speech styles which emphasised that they were different but equal.”
And this view that female and male speech are varieties like any other form of dialect enables the next step – that other aspects of identity such as class, education, experience, ethnicity, wealth, age, confidence all play a role in speech style. Eckert (1990) suggested that styles of speech are not so much related to biological views of gender but rather to a greater variety of social contexts.
In the 21st century we seem to be more often asking the question: ‘What is gender?’ Shankar (2012) a gender activist from Madurai, India, wrote on queer language in Tamil, observing that, apart from male and female, there are more than 20 genders of which some are: transwoman, transman, androgynous, pangender, trigender, etc. Ancient Indian culture refers to these genders collectively as ‘tritiya prakriti’ (third gender) and considers gender to be an amalgam of body, mind and character. In 2018 UK law does not recognise gender terms other than male and female, though reforms that may potentially include other ‘non-binary’ gender are being consulted.
Shankar argued that, after English, Tamil is the only language that has names for all the genders identified so far. This is live territory for language change in English; a recent A-level English language student was able to trace the movement into (and failure to gain access to) the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) of a range of ‘new’ gender-related words that are in use.
Where does this leave the study of spoken language gender varieties? Anyone who observed the dialogue in recent Channel 4 programme ‘Genderquake’ will know that gender is increasingly personal these days.
If one is a woman, a barrister, perhaps in the Supreme Court (which, on the day of writing has a female majority for the first time in 600 years), is my spoken language closer to my inexperienced female witness, or to my male colleagues at the Bar? If I am a working class man, who grew up with sisters and a mother and works as a carer, is my speech style more ‘typically’ male or female? If I am a transsexual, a woman in a relationship with a man, and I am from an ethnic minority, what label best describes my style of speech?
Many of our blogs and tweets have demonstrated the flexibility, range and innovation of the English language as it weaves through many social situations in so many places across the globe. Often we use the OED, the world’s greatest record of the English language, to help us chart the way.
Around 1566 a new term for a regional variety of speech entered the language: ‘dialect’. Having been used for a generation as a term for ‘dialogue’ this new sense began to indicate a drop away from a standard style of speech: ‘dialect’ became ‘peculiar’ and provincial.
In 1948, reflecting a generation of massive social change, another new word, ‘idiolect’, was noted to mean the personal language style of a speaker.
And swinging into the OED in 1963 comes another new term ‘sociolect’ referring to the speech of a social group. Yet, despite the tendency for the English language to form variant words by analogy, the idea of ‘genderlect’ never made it as far as the OED.
Tempting though it may be to Forbes, perhaps lexicographers are giving us an important lesson with their reluctance to pigeon-hole speech by gender alone.
Lakoff, R., 1975 ‘Language and Woman's Place’, New York: Harper Collins
Tannen., D. 1990 You Just Don’t understand! New York: Morrow.
Eckert, P., The Whole Woman: sex and gender differences in variation. Language Variation and Change 1: 245-67
Cameron, D. Gender and Communication, Language, 2012 London: EMC
For the previous blogs on Women and the English Language, please go to http://www.englishproject.org/english-language-day/2018
For the full bibliography for Women and the English Language, please go to the English Project Website at http://www.englishproject.org/women-and-english-language-bibliography
For a ‘Word of the Week’ on our 2018 theme of Women and the English Language visit: https://twitter.com/theenglishproj
The English Project’s November Posting: The Naming of Parts - Sexually Charged Language. The English language has three ways of naming our body parts: clinically, euphemistically, grossly. We enter a linguistic minefield.
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