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7.8: Gender and Class Dialects

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    Gender and Class Dialects, from Sarah Harmon

    Video Script

    In the video above, I have a little bit of something called Cockney, which we'll get into that in a minute. Cockney is part of a gender or class dialect that first started off with the men of Eastern London, and then quickly spread throughout the East End of London. When we talk about gender dialects or class dialects, they tend to be well connected to one another in a variety of ways.

    Gender-based Dialects

    Let's first talk about gender-based dialects. We're not just talking about women being a little more polite than others, or men being a little bit more straightforward than others or anything along those lines. When we're talking about a gender-based dialect, we are specifically talking about how there are phonological, morphological and sometimes even syntactic differences between how an identified male talks versus and how an identified female talks. Many of these differences can be seen, not just within the gender itself, so if a man talks to a woman, there could be differences there too.

    I’m going to start with Muskogeean, a language in the Algonquin language family, and is spoken in the general northeast of the United States, a little bit closer to upstate New York. If we have these verb phrases

    Male Speaker Female Speaker Gloss
    kan ka 'he is playing
    molhís molhìl 'we are peeling it
    lakawhos lakawbol 'lift it!' (command)

    Notice that there is actually a difference between how a man says it versus how a woman says it, Notice, too, in these examples, the data that we have do not include anybody who is not such gendered. That is a hole, but sociolinguists are working to address these areas of need. It is really interesting to note that there is an actual difference in the inflection depending on whether the person identifies as male or female.

    Traditional Japanese has some of the same characteristics, although not with a verb phrase, but with personal pronouns: the term for ‘I’. If you have learned Japanese, probably you do not speak Traditional Japanese; you speak Modern Japanese or Mainstream Japanese, which is usually based out of Tokyo. Traditional Japanese is what the upper class used to speak up until about 40 years ago and it's based mostly out of Kyoto. Traditional Japanese basically was isolated as a class difference, but then within that there were also gender differences in certain cases.


    Traditional Japanese (not general population)

    • First-person singular pronoun 'I'
      • Female dialect: átashi
      • Male dialect: watákushi
    • Sentence particle, 'it's a matter of'
      • Female dialect: no-
      • Male dialect: n da
      • Neutral dialect: n desu.

    The first-person singular pronoun is an important pronoun, linguistically. Females tended to refer to themselves not as ‘I’, and if you know modern Japanese, then you know it's wátashi. Instead, they said átashi. Notice there's a difference between that and how an adult male almost always would say watákushi, not wátashi. In many ways the modern Japanese almost seems like a combination of the two: take the [w] sound from watákushi and put it to the front of átashi to get wátashi. This does not include the fact that in many dialects of Japanese, the first male of the family refers to himself as boku. This boku is used by many boys, although it can be continued on into adulthood, but boku is also different because others, especially the mother or grandmother of the family, will use that term with the first male child, instead of their name; there is more to this story, but it will be saved for another time. Much of the gender dialect distinction that existed in Traditional Japanese does not exist anymore in Mainstream Japanese, given that the regular use of Traditional Japanese mostly died out about 40 years ago and had been in decline for some time prior.

    There is a sentence particle when you want to say ‘it's a matter of’, as in ‘it's a matter of respect’; ‘it's a matter of pride’; ‘it's a matter of (something). There was a neutral version usually used in mixed gender groups, and there was a male version and a female version.

    By the way, this is not the same as Portuguese or any other language that uses grammatical gender on nouns and adjectives; for example, if you speak Portuguese, you know that the concept of saying ‘thank you’ is actually tied to the adjective for ‘obligated’, such that when you say ‘thank you’ to somebody you're saying ‘I’m obligated to do this for you’, but all wrapped up into one lexicon: obrigado or obrigada, depending on how the speaker identifies. There is a third option that's starting to come out and there's a couple different flavors of it, much like what is happening with Spanish. But this is a different thing; this is only with isolated cases in the case of like obrigado or obrigada. In the case of a gender dialect, we're actually seeing a systemic difference between how a cis-gendered female speaks and a cis-gendered male speaks. It has to do with syntax and morphology, not just phonology.

    Linguistic Behaviors of Men and Women

    We cannot leave this topic without talking about how men and women speak, and not just in English, but in all languages. Cis-gendered males and cis-gendered females definitely speak in different ways, both culturally as well as linguistically. It is interesting that this study really doesn't start until the early 1970s, in the US and actually specifically Berkeley. Robin Lakoff and Deborah Tannen are the two originators here, but there have been many others that have followed sense and have done studies, not just on American English, but throughout the world. There is a tendency, certainly in western cultures, to talk about women having certain linguistic characteristics and men tending to have certain other linguistic characteristics. Notice that I’m hedging a lot, using qualifiers like tending. Generally, we are not saying that every single woman uses more proper educated language, nor hedges to start an utterance, nor uses tag questions, nor uses more politeness techniques. We are not saying that no male does any, let alone, all of these. When Lakoff and Tannen were doing this evaluation this observation. They were not including the LGBT+ community at that time; that wasn't even on the radar at that era, although it has been interesting to see the evolution of area of sociolinguistics and the inclusion of various gender and sexuality groups. This is true both in the observation and the study of gender-linguistic tendencies, and in how all these different groups interact with one another and within themselves. It has been an interesting just observation lab for anybody who's a linguist. There are tendencies—not just with American speakers and not just with English speakers, but worldwide.

    There is a tendency for women, especially those who are mothers and those who live and work in male-dominated societies, to have the following linguistic characteristics:

    • use more prestigious language examples;
    • hedge a little bit more;
    • add tag questions—"You understand?” “Right?”—at the end of their statement; and
    • use more politeness techniques.

    Please note: this is not to say women can't be rude—we are very capable of being rude, we can very capable of being frank, speaking directly, using all sorts of jargon and slang and everything else in between.

    Men have a tendency, especially if their fathers to have the following linguistic characteristics:

    • use more colloquial speech;
    • take stronger positions in language, although that can change;
    • use fewer tools to check in with the audience like a tag question; and,
    • use more direct in their statements.

    It has been interesting to watch how empathy training in particular has made this change, or hasn't in some cases, and the reactions to it. This area of gender-based linguistic differences is evolving, and the data coming in now are fascinating. But in 1971 this was a pretty big revelation; in fact, Robin Lakoff and Deborah Tannen have both written extensively, not just on the subject, but on how their seminal work took off and let everybody explore this concept of what it is to use language in different ways, based off of your gender identity.

    Why would any of this happened in the first place? Why would women and men have different language patterns? Frequently, especially in male dominated societies, women frequently have to negotiate a little bit more, we have to be a little nicer, we have to be non-confrontational; we have to double-down on that if we're in male-dominated arenas. Some of the research lately has shown that these tendencies are true even if in an all-female environments, but if there's a really dominant female that shows a lot of male linguistic traits, many women will take the other side of that coin, as it were.

    Have these studies changed? Yes; we're starting to see quite a bit of change, especially in the last 10-15 years. Is this going to stay, or is that change going to entrench itself, or is it going to change further? We don't know is the answer, but that's what we're going to be doing as linguists: we observe language as it is used.

    One of the things that we have noticed is that this concept of face is important to women, and not just here in the United States or in English-speaking countries or communities. It is important, almost universally in almost every culture, in particular if a woman is a caretaker or mother of children. Face is the concept of wanting to put your best face forward. Women tend to put a lot of emphasis on face, although it's not to say that men don't; certainly, some men do and some men don't it, and emphasizing positive face doesn't make them more feminine. I will be going back to this topic and later point in time, but I made a point when I first started working on this topic, maybe about 15 years ago, to write observations and current research at the time in a little journal and I told myself in 20 years I wanted to come back to that. We're almost up on those 20 years and I’m starting to cultivate a little bit of that research now, both in journal articles and books, but also in my own observations. In my case, I’m not looking at English; I’m looking at Spanish and I’m looking at Italian, which are the two languages I most often work in. I’m looking at how this is changing, especially given that Italian culture is heavily macho with male dominance being very strong; certainly, you can say for most if not all Spanish speaking cultures machismo is an element as far as how male driven or male dominant varies from one culture to the next. Spain is fairly macho, for example, and that's where I’ve been doing a lot of this initial investigation, looking at the dialects of Spain. I’m also looking at what's happening in Latin America, because there is so much information there and, in many ways, Latin Americans are a little bit ahead of the curve with respect to the Spaniards on this topic; there seems to be a bit more equity in language there. It's an interesting discussion; come back in about five years and we'll talk more.

    Class-based Dialects

    While there is some connection between gender-based dialects and class-based dialects—a connection that we’ll talk about later—it’s time to focus now on class-based dialects. In this section I’ll showcase two very different examples.

    If you know anything about the cultures of South Asia, you know that, at least at one point and perhaps still, there was a caste system, which is a social stratification with different social levels. The highest caste was frequently called the Brahmin caste or the Brahmin group; they were usually priests, the royal families, the highest of the highest. That group frequently did not speak with lower caste members, which meant that there was isolation. In that way, the Brahmin dialect of many of the languages of South Asia, whether they are Indo-European or Dravidian, there are distinct differences. We see some examples from the Brahmin dialect of Tamil, which is spoken in Sri Lanka. It's a Dravidian language so it's not connected to Hindi, Gujarati, Urdu, or any of those languages, as they are all Indo-European. Dravidian languages actually dominated what is now considered India, and then got pushed south to the southern part of India, as well as Sri Lanka.

    We see differences of pronunciation, as well as morphological differences; while I don't have it here, but we do have some syntactic differences. Why is this important? These castes for the most part officially have gone away, although you could argue that unofficially they still exist. What is clear is the Brahmins that were of the upper echelon over the last several generations, they have mixed in more with many other of the general populace. As a result, many of these class-based dialects have started to neutralize and started to disappear, but others still exist. This is not just true of Tamil, but of most of the South Asian areas where there was a very distinct and very separate Brahmin caste or speech community.

    The class-based dialect that I think for most English speakers is really the perfect example of a caste-based dialect is Cockney. You may have heard of Cockney before this class, certainly if you are into British soap operas and British media in general, you know of Cockney. It is probably best explained as a rhyming word play, but in truth it's almost a dialect. It's a coding, much like Polari is was a coding for gay men in particular of the 19th and 20th centuries, but Cockney in this case is more for those who are Eastenders. The term ‘Eastenders’ refers to those who live in a very specific region of the eastern part of London and, specifically, it has to do with if you are within sounding distance of the chime of a very specific church in that part of London, I believe it's Westgate. If you are within the sound of that bell, you are an Eastender and you probably know Cockney. There are two long running dramas in the UK—one is called EastEnders and the other one is called Coronation Street, often called ‘Corie’. They were examples of Cockney in action, as almost every character talked using Cockney.

    The exact start of cockney is unknown, although we suspect that is probably somewhere in the late 18th-early 19th century; definitely by mid-19th century it is strongly entrenched into the East end of London, where we probably see its most with respect to the Irish laborers who lived in that part of the city. However, the roots of Cockney may go as far back to the Middle Ages. What we do know is that this concept of rhyming was used to code or not talk about certain things, as a way to get one on get one over on their landlords or their managers. It definitely has some distinct phonological and lexical aspects.

    The phonological aspect is just something that's very common to eastern London. Examples include:

    • Lenition, or weakening, of that r-sound at the end of a word; sometimes it goes to a [w] and sometimes it completely disappears;
    • Reduction of a [t] to [ʔ], especially when intervocalic; think of that neutralization rule that we saw where [t] and [d] would combine to use that little tap, as in that we do not say [lætɹͅ] and [lædɹͅ], instead saying [lætɹͅ]. For Cockney, that [ɾ] is going to change to a glottal stop more often than not;
    • deletion of an [h]; so this isn't a [haʷs], but [aʷs];
    • the velarized [L] changes to a vowel; and,
    • fronting of interdental [θ, ð] to labiodental sounds (something we saw in African American vernacular English)

    Again, this concept of changing sounds reducing them down, it's a really interesting comparison with what we hear in so many other dialects throughout the English-speaking world.

    Of course, if it's a rhyming slang, we clearly have to talk about lexical changes. Its seemingly random and yet not; it seemingly has some connection to mainstream media, but not always. It's a type of mental gymnastics you have to play. Instead of saying ‘a bottle’ of something, like a bottle of Scotch or a bottle of wine, you say ‘an Aristotle’, because ‘Aristotle’ and ‘bottle’ rhyme. Instead of saying something is in your ‘pocket’, you say something is in your ‘rocket’; again, the rhyme. You can also take a rhyme and then shrink it: if you want to say you're going ‘up the stairs’, you can say you're going ‘up the apples and pears’, or you can just say you're going ‘up the apples’ and just knock off the ‘pears’ part. If you are in trouble, you can say you're ‘in Barney Rubble’, or you can just say you're ‘in Barney’. Everybody knows what you mean. ‘Face’ as a ‘Chevy Chase’; ‘pub’ is a ‘nuclear sub’; ‘chest’ is a ‘bird's nest’; you get the point. There's a slew of these rhymes, and it's all as a way to code, so that the person you're talking to knows what you're saying while everybody else may not.

    There's also some metaphoric slang, especially with respect to certain bodily functions or fluids. For example, like blood is claret, which is a type of red wine blend that is really popular and has been for hundreds of years in in England.

    Below you have an example taken from the movie Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Guy Ritchie is a filmmaker from the UK. You may have seen some of his work before, and he has a love affair with Eastenders; he loves including at least one, if not most of this cast, having Cockney as part of the repertoire. In the clip below, you have an example where somebody is describing a fight that happened in the bar the other night. It is captioned and by captions I mean it's actually translated subtitles as to what the person is trying to say in more mainstream British English; the closed captioning should also take that into account.

    Have fun with it; Cockney is kind of fun.

    Pronouns, language change, and the grammar police

    Analogously to names, we also use pronouns to express things about our own identity and make guesses about other people’s identities. We’ll learn more about pronouns in Chapter 6, but for now here’s a simple explanation. In standardized varieties of English[1], first-person pronouns (I, me, we, us) refer to the person who is speaking, signing, or writing and second-person pronouns (you) are for the person being addressed. Third-person pronouns refer to someone else, and can often replace a noun phrase in a sentence. Here are some examples of English third-person pronouns.

    inanimate singular it Samnang really enjoyed the latest book by Ivan Coyote.
    Samnang really enjoyed it.
    animate singular masculine he, him Samnang invited Steve to a movie.
    Samnang invited him to a movie.
    animate singular feminine she, her Samnang thinks the woman who lives next door is a good gardener.
    Samnang thinks she is a good gardener.
    animate singular ungendered they, them The passenger in Seat 3A forgot their coat.
    They forgot their coat.

    In the sentence, “Samnang really enjoyed the latest book by Ivan Coyote”, we can replace that noun phrase, the latest book by Ivan Coyote with it. “Samnang invited Steve to a movie.” We can replace Steve with him: “Samnang invited him to a movie.” In the next sentence, “Samnang thinks the woman who lives next door is a good gardener”, we can replace that phrase with she: “Samnang thinks she is a good gardener”. In, “The passenger in Seat 3A forgot their coat”, we can replace that noun phrase with, “They forgot their coat.”

    Notice that third-person singular pronouns give some vague clues about their referent: we assume that it refers to a thing, he to a boy or a man, and she to a woman or girl. Those three categories — thing, human male, human female — are very broad, and yet, they can still be used to do harm and exclude people. In many cultures there’s a general expectation that we use appropriately-gendered pronouns when we’re referring to people. Even when we meet a tiny baby who can’t possibly be offended, we’re still careful to ask “boy or girl?” and to use the relevant pronoun. After infancy, getting misgendered with the wrong pronouns can range from embarrassing to outright dangerous. Furthermore, a two-way distinction between masculine and feminine is too simple to describe the rich variation among human genders. A person who’s neither male nor female (for example, non-binary, genderqueer, or gender-fluid) can experience both he/him and she/her as misgendering. Here’s where the pronouns they and them are useful.

    The pronoun they doesn’t offer many clues: it doesn’t specify whether the referents are animate or inanimate, masculine or feminine. Here are some examples of plural they:

    plural ungendered
    animacy unspecified
    they, them The pistachio cupcakes are delicious.
    They are delicious.The prof told the students that class was cancelled.
    The prof told them that class was cancelled.

    In fact, they doesn’t always even specify whether it’s singular or plural. Here are some more examples.

    number unspecified I don’t know who was in here but they left a big mess.
    singular, gender unspecified One of my students told me they needed an extension.

    In “I don’t know who was in here but they left a big mess”, we don’t know how many people left the big mess – it could be one, two, or twenty, and the pronoun they doesn’t give us any clues. In this next one, “One of my students told me they needed an extension”, it’s clearly only one student who asked for an extension, and either we don’t know their identity or it just isn’t relevant to the story, so they also does the job. This singular use of they has been common in English for about 600 years. These days, English is changing to include the use of they to refer to a single person whose identity we do know, as in, “Samnang told me they needed an extension.”

    In many ways, this shift from unspecified-singular-they to specific-singular-they feels like a tiny change to the grammar of English. But since this change is related to a change in patriarchal gender norms, people who benefit from those norms tend to get prescriptive, insisting that singular they is always ungrammatical in every circumstance. The Chicago Manual of Style tells people “it is still considered ungrammatical”, and the AP Stylebook tells you it’s “acceptable in limited cases” but they’d really prefer if you didn’t use it. And then there are the extremely crabby folks like Jen Doll, who complains, “The singular they is ear-hurting, eye-burning, soul-ravaging, mind-numbing syntactic folly. Stop the singular they. Stop it now.” (Doll 2013). But no matter how much the prescriptivists complain, specific-singular-they is getting used more and more widely. In 2015 the American Dialect Society voted it the Word of the Year and the Merriam-Webster Dictionary did the same in 2019.

    The funny thing is, the English pronoun system went through a very similar change hundreds of years ago. In the 16th century, English used to have both a singular and a plural second-person pronoun. If you were talking to a group of people, you’d say you just like we do now. But if you were talking to just one person, you’d address them as thou or thee, like, “What classes art thou taking this term?” or “Can I buy thee a drink?”. By the 17th century, thou and thee had all but disappeared and were only reserved for conversations with people you’re very close to. So the pronoun you became both singular and plural. In modern English, we don’t have thou or thee at all unless we’re trying to be funny or old-fashioned. But it can be pretty useful to have a way of distinguishing between singular and plural, so some varieties of spoken English have other plural forms, like y’all or you guys or youse. Maybe your variety of English has one of these.

    Linguists are conducting systematic research on how the change to English they is unfolding. Bjorkman (2017) found that English speakers with a conservative grammar didn’t use they in this way, but those with an “innovative” grammar did. Ackerman (2019) has proposed that the more trans and non-binary friends you have, the likelier your grammar is to have specific-singular-they. Conrod (2019) showed in their dissertation that older people were less likely to use it and younger people were more likely, and Konnelly & Cowper (2020) tracked the three stages of grammatical change that are in progress.

    No one can stop language from changing. But language users can speed up language change. Misgendering people does real harm. One way to make it less likely that non-binary people will be misgendered is for English to make this small change to include specific-singular-they. And the way that language changes is for people to change how they use it. If you already have specific-singular-they in your grammar, use it as much as you can! And if you’d like to change your own mental grammar, Kirby Conrod (2017) gives some good advice — slow down, listen to people who use it in their own language, and practice! The more you use it, the more natural it will feel.

    Check your understanding

    Query \(\PageIndex{1}\)


    2015 Word of the Year is singular “they.” (2016, January 9). American Dialect Society.

    Ackerman, L. (2019). Syntactic and cognitive issues in investigating gendered coreference. Glossa: A Journal of General Linguistics, 4(1).

    Bjorkman, B. M. (2017). Singular they and the syntactic representation of gender in English. Glossa: A Journal of General Linguistics, 2(1), 80.

    Conrod, K. (2017, December 4). How to do the absolute minimum (with pronouns). Medium.

    Conrod, K. (2019). Pronouns Raising and Emerging [PhD Thesis]. University of Washington.

    Doll, J. (2013, January 17). The Singular “They” Must Be Stopped. The Atlantic.

    Konnelly, L., & Cowper, E. (2020). Gender diversity and morphosyntax: An account of singular they. Glossa: A Journal of General Linguistics, 5(1).

    Merriam-Webster’s Words of the Year 2019. (2019). Retrieved April 28, 2022.

    1. Many languages have more subtle distinctions than these in their pronoun systems but all languages encode at least a three-way difference between first-, second- and third-person pronouns.

    Do women and men use language the same way?, from Anthony Pym (optional)

    Anthony Pym is a professor of sociolinguistics and translation at Rovira i Virgili University in Tarragona, Spain. He has a series of lectures on his YouTube channel on language. This is one of his talks on how women and men use language. (There is no video script associated with the video, but it is captioned via YouTube's autogenerated captioning.)

    7.8: Gender and Class Dialects is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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