Language and Gender
The language use of specific subgroups “signals people’s membership in particular communities or networks” (Bonvillain, Nancy. Language, Culture, and Communication. 7th ed., Pearson, 2014, p. 205).
We will be addressing several aspects of gender and language. When you hear “gender” when it comes to language, you may think of Romance languages or German, and how their words have grammatical gender (a table = une table [French, feminine] = ein Tisch [German, masculine], una mesa [Spanish, feminine]). We won’t devote too much time—just some—to grammatical gender in this part; we definitely will spend more time on it with guest speakers.
What we will discuss is differences in conversational styles (which may take us back into looking at how men/women use grammar differently—but it won’t involve grammatical gender of nouns).
Let’s start with an introduction by Anthony Pym:
Watch the video: Do Women and Men Use Language the Same Way? (Anthony Pym, 2019)
Do men and women use language in the same way? This is an interesting question for anybody who’s a man or a woman, or anything in between, and who uses language. It’s also interesting because there’s lots of false preconceptions about it, and a bit of research can perhaps challenge them.
First let’s get the question clarified. We’re talking here about language use. We’re not talking about language systems—language systems, like Catalan, Spanish, French, German, whatever. Our European language systems are undoubtedly sexist. They oblige me if I’m speaking Spanish, for example, if I say, “Estoy viejo—I’m old,” that’s viejo, and the woman has to say vieja, and we’re obliged to say if we’re a man or a woman by that language system. Which in that respect is quite fascist, as Roland Barthes put it.
That’s one question though. It’s a little different though when we look at what people do with the language system when they speak. Do men and women use the language system in the same way? For example, that viejo/vieja variation is systemic, but it’s not quite the same way as the observation, for example, that in Scotland schoolgirls tend to say water and got—they pronounce the /t/—whereas schoolboys tend to say wa’er and go’ depending on where they are in the social class. Both the men and women speakers there recognized that the system requires them to say water and got, but what they actually do is different, and it’s different according to ... or, the way they do it correlates with whether or not they’re men or women.
Okay. So that’s the kind of stuff that we’re interested in, in social linguistics of variation. There are all the cultural variables of gender that come on later. We know that with enculturation we become masculine/feminine, we mix these things, and that that studying of gender as a cultural phenomenon is quite different from the biological physical reality of sex—men or women. The problem for us with that though is that the gendering is itself linguistic; it’s already within the linguistic variables—not purely linguistic, there are many other things happening, but you can’t separate the language variables from that kind of gender. So it can be done; we just keep things simple at this level of social linguistics.
Classical studies of the way men speak and women speak, for example by Robin Lakoff looking at American English, find that there are quite patent differences. For example, men use fewer lexical hedges or fillers—quite, rather, a little bit—okay? All of these things would be said more by women than by men. Men tend to use fewer question tags in English. Question tags are these things at the end of the sentence, where you say, isn’t it? don’t you? do I? Okay? There’s a thing called rising intonation in English that can occur with declarative sentences, so I can say, “The sky is blue.” The man would tend to say, “The sky is blue.” A woman in a conversation might say something like, “And the sky is blue?” with rising intonation at the end as if it were a question. It’s not a question, but it’s a discursive strategy inviting the other person to comment on this—affirm it, deny it, add information, continue the conversation.
Men attempt to give fewer backchannels as well. Backchannels are the things in a conversation when you say mm, yeah, right, really, oh, right, mm-hmm and tell the other person—tell the speaker—that you’re following them and they’re invited to continue, that you’re supporting them. Men don’t do a lot of that. Women tend to do rather more. And so all of these variables tend to indicate that men and women are approaching a conversation in different ways. Men are there to exchange information and to affirm it or deny it. Women are there to enjoy a social activity, that is, to engage in a conversation or a chat. That is an act of mutually supporting each other; it’s a nice thing to do together. Completely different perspectives on what a conversation is and hence on how you use language.
One possible manifestation of this—I’m citing here from the textbook by Wardhaugh—is what happens with the backchannel mm-hmm, okay? So Wardhaugh says, right, it’s Wardhaugh citing a study, okay, that when men—when a woman uses mm-hmm, it tends to mean I’m listening—“mm-hmm, mm-hmm, mm-hmm,” okay—whereas a man uses it—“mm-hmm, mm-hmm”—to mean I’m agreeing. So the same expression, more or less, has these two different ways of being interpreted. Consequently, men often believe that women are always agreeing with them and then conclude that it’s impossible to tell what a woman really thinks: mm-hmm. Whereas women get upset with men who never seem to be listening, okay, because they’re not getting the same feedbacks and they’re only getting an mm-hmm when there is actually agreement. Is this a law, does this happen all the time? Who knows? But it’s interesting to observe what’s going on in the backchannels that are occurring around you.
When we look at mixed-sex conversations, some of the data’s rather surprising. I mean, we sort of assume that women speak more than men or speak for longer. It tends not to be true. What you do find is that men tend to be the ones who take the initiative; they tend to be the ones who start the conversation. They tend to be the ones who change topic. They tend to be the ones who interrupt another speaker, often to ... to change the topic. So in all those things men are far more active in the conversation and assume positions of power, okay? Now, women who rise to positions of power sometimes imitate this, and as they do they tend to bring down their occupation for time the amount of time that they speak to be about the same as men.
But these are studies on American academic English in the 1990s, Lakoff in the United States in the 60s and 70s. I think it’s important to stress there is no fatality. Now, are men and women today what they were 20 years ago? I don’t think so. Are they— were— was it the situation 100 or 200 years ago? Certainly not. So, the way men and women use language, especially when they’re in mixed-sex conversations, could be quite different now. And I invite you to discover this by overhearing—paying attention to—the conversations that are happening all around you every day.
Read this open-access article about the speech of women in Japan:
“A New Perspective on Women’s Language in Japanese: An Interview with Sachiko Ide” https://escholarship.org/uc/item/71b7r2wm
Watch the video: What Is Diglossia? (Anthony Pym, 2019)
What is diglossia? It’s from Greek: di- means two; gloss, the tongue. Two languages. Not to be confused, however, with bilingualism, which is from Latin: bi-, two: lingua, the tongue. Two languages.
There is, however, in English social linguistics a systematic difference between the two terms, diglossia and bilingualism. Usually, bilingualism is the capacity of the individual, of a person, to speak one, two, or three—more than one—language, let’s say: bilingualism, okay? You could call them polyglots, that’s a nice term for describing people, and French and French-inspired social linguistics talks about plurilingualism for the capacity of the individual.
Now, diglossia is something quite different. Diglossia is a social situation; it’s not concerning individuals, it concerns a society in which there are two languages related in such a way that they have different social functions. Okay? That’s diglossia: a social situation; bilingualism, plurilingualism is concerned with the capacities of the individual.
Now, a standard definition of diglossia—this is [Charles] Ferguson, 1959—oh, it’s long and complicated, but anyway, diglossia is a relatively stable language situation. And that’s important; it’s not a transitory thing, it’s not a bad thing, it’s something that we observe occurring over centuries in many parts of the world. So, a situation in which, in addition to the primary dialects of the language, there is a very divergent, highly codified (often grammatically more complex) superposed variety. So we have these two kinds of varieties happening within the same language; one would be spoken—the dialects, etc.—and the other would be learned, standardized, the language of literature. Then he goes on of written literature either of an earlier period or in another speech community, which is learned largely by formal education—so you get to this other one by going to school—and is used for written and formal spoken purposes but is not used by any section of the community for ordinary conversation.
So it’s easier to understand if you go to Zurich, for example, where you’ve got people speaking Swiss German in the street and on television, on local television, and then going and studying in standard German and learning to write standard German, and they wouldn’t write down their spoken language. These two varieties of the language with different social functions, and they are highly separate. Another classic example would be Arabic in Morocco, where we do have classical Arabic for religious functions, certainly for the King, and then spoken Moroccan Arabic in the street, although Moroccan Arabic does get into the press in that case, okay, So those are cases where the one language has varieties with different social functions. The functions are traditionally called H and L in English. H stands for high, but you don’t say high; H stands for the written, official social functions. L stands for the spoken, non-official, vernacular social functions; low, okay. We try to avoid high and low because that was Charles Darwin’s mistake, when he talked about the higher species, that led to all sorts of racism and misunderstandings. H and L are there not in the sense of H being superior but of them simply being different. That’s why the decision has been made to use H and L as letters rather than as descriptors.
Now that’s a strict definition of diglossia. There’s a more relaxed definition, and that would be when the two varieties in question don’t have to belong to the same language, okay? So in parts of the complex society around us here, we find Spanish being used for official functions. Certainly, here, 50 years ago, Spanish would be absolutely the H variety and Catalan would be the L variety. They are different languages—cognate, but different—and yet they would satisfy most non-demanding definitions of diglossia. So that would be the relaxed definition, or the loose definition: the two varieties, two different functions. The varieties don’t have to belong to the same language; they can, but they don’t have to, okay.
I’ll point out that now with the standardization of Catalan—so it’s become very much the H variety around us here—we find situations where Catalan occupies H functions in official society, certainly Barcelona. Spanish can move to L for many of the immigrant groups and occupy those functions, and then we have another Catalan, which is that of the farmers and the traditional working class, with its many regional varieties, and that’s becoming an L as well. So it needn’t be just H and L. There can be other languages, or the same language can move into those two positions if, uh, if the society takes on that sort of form.
Um, when we ... when we use ... Catalan linguists don’t like the theory of diglossia and the basic reason is this: diglossia sort of accepts asymmetries; it accepts that language is going to have different power relations, and that this is a stable and normal thing. Whereas their fight has long been for Catalan to assume full H functions, and the official language policy in Spain is for all co-official languages to have full H functions. So they want a situation that they call bilingüisme, which is H and H full capacity in everything. Why not? That can happen; there’s no law against it. The simple observation in English-language social linguistics is that it needn’t happen, that we have long-term stable asymmetries in language functions. So, if you find that you haven’t got it, it’s not because you’re an aberration, it’s just because your societies tend to suggest that we can have asymmetric language functions without any disaster befalling anybody.
The other thing that, um, that my students will say is that “we don’t want our language to have an L function—L means powerless; H means power. Give me power, empower me, make my language big and strong and written and standardized.” Which, of course, is what any linguist would do because linguists are the people who do that sort of work. Great work for ourselves, yeah.
All right, but be careful. Over history, the languages that die are often those that are in the H position. Look no further than classical Greek or Latin. All the romance languages that we speak had an L function in relation to H-variety Latin. Which one won out over history? The L varieties, not the H. English itself is the result of a diglossic situation where we had Old French in H we had Anglo-Saxon varieties in L. And did H repress L and kill L over time? Quite the opposite. The result, the English that we have is a merger of the two but with a rising influence, I suspect over time, of the L. The L came up and absorbed the H. So it’s not true that it’s bad, historically, to be in an L position. An L position is close to where the people are and economic activity is and where people vote, after all.
In our course we look, of course, at certain things that depend on diglossia. Diglossia is like the basic social situation that sets up the possibility of, for example, a lot of code-switching that we find. And then if you think of the example of Oberwart where, uh, Hungarian and German were in contact we found that the language shift that we saw there was a classic case of what we now know and would call diglossia, where German had the official function, the H functions, Hungarian had the social life, the association with territory over time. And in that particular case, because of the political shift of the village, the H took over and displaced L in that particular situation.
There are no fatalities. It’s not always bad to be in the L position, and H and L relations in diglossia can continue and be stable for many centuries. That’s the lesson, at least, of English social linguistics. You’re welcome to find counter-examples.
Revitalizing Indigenous Languages
Supplemental video: Revitalizing Indigenous Languages, GPA Interactive 2016