Language and Gender


The difference between Sex and Gender

Sex refers to biological differences, whilst gender refers to behavioural characteristics that are a result of social and cultural influences.

Masculine and feminine behaviour are not necessarily a result of the person's sex, but of a socialisation process.

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Construction and Representation of Gender

Events in narratives are presented through the use of different verb processes, which help construction and characterisation. Three types of process provide a way of highlighting how actions in a text are represented and identifying whose those responsible and those affected by the actions.

A character whose behaviour is mostly represented through material processes as an actor (individual responsible for the action of a verb) may be said to have more control over his or her actions, and ability to make decisions than one who is represented largely through relational or mental processes.

Equally, those affectted by verb processes, those who act as objects rather than subjects, can be said to be less powerful in their ability to make decisions and therefore remain less powerful characters or pariticpants in the narrative.

Women are mainly portrayed as the 'objects' in literature, and there are many stereotypes around gender roles. For example, males could have more physical verb processes, and women more mental verb processes, enforcing women have emotional/ 'facinated' actions.

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Marked Expressions

Lexical items often used to describe females are often marked (that which stands out as different from the norm) forms to distinguish them from those used to describe males. The act of marking suggests a deviation or difference from a norm, the unmarked item. 

For example: 'a lady bus driver'

Covert marking is marking that is understood - An example of markings can be seen in antonyms. Here, a form of covert marking takes place, where one otem in a pair is ssen as the norm, and the other is somehow deviant. This is shown with 'young' and 'old.' It is usual to ask how 'old are you?' not how 'young are you?' Therefore, 'young' and 'old,' which sit on opposite ends of the continuum, has one marked and one unmarked item. 

In some contexts, there is a shift in markedness. Eg, 'hot' or 'cold,' it would be weird to ask 'how hot is it?' in England, where it is usually cold.

Overt marking takes place through affixation or modification. This often occurs through the addition of the suffix -ess, such as actrESS or managerESS

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Generic Terms

The use of masculine pronouns ('he'/'him'/'his') as generic pronouns when gender of the referent is unspecified is generally no longer considered acceptable, as for many people these terms are exmaples of EXCLUSIVE language, in that they represent a male-centred world. 

Replacing these exclusive terms with inclusive language is not as straightforward as it may appear.

This is why 'he/she' 'he or she' is now commonly used.

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Involves a basic set of characteristics to represent a group as a whole.

These may be positive or negative, and depending on how they are used to make judgements on or maintain ways in which we expect groups of individuals to behave, can lead to prejudice.

Stereotyping can also lead us to believe that certain roles are normal, and that group members ought to conform to thse roles and behavioural expectations.

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Semantic Derogation

It has been claimed that some terms in English that are reserved for use when referring to women, have strong negative connotations attached to them when compared to the corresponding term used to refer to men. Eg:

  • Courtier = Courtesan
  • Master = Mistress
  • Host = Hostess
  • Governor = Governess
  • Adventurer = Adventuress
  • Sir = Madam
  • Bachelor = Spinster
  • Lord = Lady
  • King = Queen
  • Preist = Priestess
  • God = Goddess

Mills points out many female equivalents are marked as an indicative of sexual promiscuity. Other pairings such as 'Lord' and Lady' - 'Lord' still suggests high status, while 'lady' is more widely used and has undergone semantic deteroiration, as used in things such as 'dinner lady'

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Male and Female Speech Styles

Much of this is what we now call folklinguistics (attitudes and assumptions about language that have no real evidence to support them, for example, that women are more 'chatty').

Trudgill studied how males and females pronounced the suffix 'ing', finding that, across social classes, men tended to use more non-standard pronunciations. Men also tended to under report, marking themselves as using non standard forms, even when they did not. Females over reported that they mark themselves as standard english. Trudgill concluded that male speakers attached a covert presige to non standard forms (a form of high status given to non-standard forms)

Cheshire supported this by, when analysing Teen's talk, found in nearly all cases, boys used non-standard forms more than girsl.

She explains this by drawing on the type of social network which boys and girls belonged. Boys had much denser networks, where their language converged towards the vernacular as a shared show of linguistic and social solidarity.

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The defict approach = Robin Lakoff claimed much o women's language lacked real authority when compared to that used by men, and proposed a set of features that characterised women's language as deficient when compared to men's:

  • Use of specialised vocabularly when centred around domestic chores
  • Precise colour terms (ie, 'magenta')
  • Weak expletive terms (ie, 'oh dear')
  • 'empty' adjectives (eg 'sweet,'  'charming')
  • Tag questions to show uncertainty (eg, 'isn't it?' 'doesn't she?)
  • More polite forms than men use (eg, euphemisms such as 'spend a penny,' 'powder my nose')
  • The use of hedges (eg, 'sort of' )
  • Intensifers (eg, 'so')

Lakoff suggested this was down to socialisation, ensuring that female language remained less assertive and more insecure when compared to that of men, so differences were more socially constructed than biologically baesd. In an academic climate that was still dominated by men, much of Lakoff's work was glossed over, and stated women's language was innate.

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Alternative Explanations

Tag Questions as politeness and boosting devices = Holmes suggests that tag questions, rather than being a sign of uncertainty, may also function as a device to help maintain discussion or be polite. She suggests that rather than being mere signs of weakness, tag questions are multi-functional.

Holmes also suggests that many othre features of so-called 'women's language' such as lexical hedges and fillers, are used for a variety of functions.

Dubois and Crouch found that men used more tag questions than women, although it was not suggested they were less confident speakers.

O'Barr and Atkins, following their research into the language of the courtroom, discovered that many of Lakoff's suggested features did actually occur in women's speech, although their findings that lower-class men tended to use similar features, led them to believe that feautres of uncertain speech were more dependent on power relations, rather than gender.

They suggested the term 'powerless language' was a more useful one than 'women's language.' This pays more attention to social status than gender as a key variable in establishing dominance.

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The Dominance Approach

This focuses on the ways in which men were seen as controlling and dominating mixed-sex interactions.

Zimmerman and West found 96% of interruptions were made by men. They saw this as a sign that women had restricted linguistic freedom and men sought to impose their dominant status through applying explicit contraints in conversational practise.

Much subsequent research concluded women and men do not hold equal conversational rights . In fact, Zimmerman and West later concluded that parents interrupted and assumed power in those interactions in the same way men had done in mixed talk.

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The Difference Approach

This takes an alternative stance. Variation in the ways males and females use language can be examined with this model, as being evidence of men and women belonging to different sub-cultures with different attitudes to, and preferences for, types of talk as a result of cultural differences and pressures. Many have highlighted the positive features of female speech.

  • Coates suggested all-female talk is essentially cooperative in the way that speakers help to negotiate discussions and support each other's rights as speakers. She argues that as these patterns aren't found in mixed talk, they are evidence of differing socio-cultural expectations and a key insight into differences in sub-cultures.
  • Pilkington also found women in same-sex talk were more collaborative than men were in all-male talk. She concluded that, whereas women aimed for more positive politeness strategies in conversation with other women, men tended to be less complimentary and supportive in all-male talk
  • Kuiper found that in all-male talk, men were likely to pay less attention to the need to save face, and instead used insults as a way of expressing solidarity.
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Gender or Power?

More recet work has led researchers to consider talk in a wider social context, and in particular, the ways in which speakers 'do gender' in the same way as they 'do power.'

This approach throws doubt on the polrisation of male and female talk, and on the status of male and female. It emphasises how the notion of gender is a social construct. 

Indeed, some of the more interesting questions of how gender is constructured have centred on how gender is performed in communication that isn't fce to face, ie, email and instant messaging

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Paul Dutton


An excellent revisiion guide containing lots of information with great examples.

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