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Language and Sex

Why can't a woman be more like a man?

Dimitrios Thanasoulas, B.A.

A major and besetting issue in sociolinguistics has been the close affinity between language and sex. More specifically, a question germane to our discussion is, "Why does women's speech differ from men's speech?" In other words, we will be concerned with some of the factors that induce women to use standard language more often than men do, thus appearing more linguistically polite. Our focus will be on sex differences in Western societies, as the situation in non-Western countries is markedly different, with men and women often speaking totally different languages within the same community.

In order to attempt an answer to our question, we should treat language as social, value-loaded practice, which reflects an intricate network of social, political, cultural, and age relationships within a society. For instance, in a community where men are socially superior to women, linguistic differences between men and women are only one example of more extensive differences having to do with the social structure of the community itself. There is no denying that linguistic behaviour is not to be kept separate from society and its values. The slightest difference in the language of the two sexes reveals that women are not on the same footing as men. In this article, we will try to shed some light on this issue that has sparked a considerable controversy.

Some linguists believe that women are aware of their low status in society and, as a result, use more standard speech forms, in their attempt to claim equality or achieve high social status. In a sense, they are up in arms against men's society. "It would appear, then, that women have not universally accepted the position in the lower ranks, and that, out-of-awareness, and in a socially acceptable and non-punishable way, women are rebelling" (Key, 1975: 103, cited in Fasold, 1990: 95). Furthermore, as Trudgill (1983a: 167-168, cited in Fasold, 1990: 95) suggests:

Women are more closely involved with child-rearing and the transmission of culture, and are therefore more aware of the importance, for their children, of the acquisition of (prestige) norms...Men in our society have traditionally been rated socially by their occupation, their earning power, and perhaps by their abilities - in other words, by what they do...It may be, therefore, that they [women] have had to be rated instead, to a greater extent than men, on how they appear.

This line of thinking implies that women in paid employment should have the tendency to use fewer standard forms than unemployed women, in so far as the former have, to a greater or lesser extent, achieved some kind of status. Nevertheless, this is hardly the case. In fact, it is the other way around. An American study revealed that women in paid employment used more standard forms than those working in the home. This stands to reason as the first group spent most of their time talking to people they were unfamiliar with, while the second group interacted with members of their own families. Obviously, this evidence throws some doubt on the contention that women are more formal with a view to achieving high social status or appearing smart and polite.

A second plausible explanation for the fact that women use more standard forms than men relates to the ways in which society treats women. For example, people are tolerant of boys' behaviour, while little girls' misconduct is very often frowned upon and punished on the spot. According to Janet Holmes (1992: 173), women "are designated the role of modelling correct behaviour in the community." In view of this, women are expected to speak more correctly. However, this is not always true. We are well aware that interactions between a mother and her child or a husband and wife are usually informal, interspersed with colloquial or vernacular speech forms.

Moreover, it is inconceivable for a woman to use "strong" expletives, such as damn or shit; she can only say oh dear or fudge. A syntactic feature that Robin Lakoff believes is more widely used by women is the tag question, as in You'd never do that, would you? As Fasold (1990: 104) comments, "greater use of this form by women could mean that women, more often than men, are presenting themselves as unsure of their opinions and thereby as not really having opinions that count very much."

A third explanation is that, by using standard or polite forms, a woman is trying to protect her face (a term often used in sociolinguistics to denote a person's needs and wants in relation to others - for further details, see Brown and Levinson, 1978). In other words, a woman claims more status in society. Her greater use of standard forms may also imply that she does not attend solely to her own face needs but also to those of the people she is interacting with, thus avoiding disagreement and seeking agreement and rapport.

Early in her article entitled "Language and women's place," Lakoff (1973a: 46, cited in Fasold, 1990: 107) insightfully remarks: "We will find, I think, that women experience linguistic discrimination in two ways: in the way they are taught to use language, and in the general way language use treats them" (my emphasis). Apparently, she refers to various lexical items such as generic subjects, which have the effect of excluding women. Let us have a look at some examples:

Man has unfortunately made inroads into his environment.
The spaceship was manned by experienced scientists.
This discovery will benefit all mankind. (This example is taken from Fasold, 1990: 111).

Apart from the problem regarding generic use of masculine forms, there are various sex-paired words that carry negative overtones with respect to women, while the corresponding man's term has considerably positive connotations. An oft-quoted example is the pair bachelor-spinster, whereby a bachelor is seen as a happy man "sowing his wild oats", while a spinster always evokes an image of an ugly, scrawny woman plunging into self-pity in consequence of her being "on the shelf"! In addition, language use seems to impute a degree of sexual immorality and promiscuity to women. For example, a Madam might refer to the manager of a brothel, but one is unlikely to call a pimp a Sir.

In conclusion, we could say that examining language use may lead to significant "discoveries" as to the structure of society or a specific community and the values - and the concomitant expectations - that permeate it and determine the ways in which individuals are viewed and treated. Interestingly, language always implies more than what is literally meant. All we have done is to call our attention to some of the factors responsible for the differences in women's linguistic behaviour. Not a word was said about men's linguistic behaviour, though. We should concede that we have been carried away by the general tendency to view men's behaviour, in general, and linguistic behaviour, in particular, as a yardstick against which women's actions are to be assessed. The present article is far from comprehensive, of course. In fact, it has only "skimmed the surface" of the whole matter. For all its deficiencies and shortcomings, it is hoped that it will not fall short of its main goal: to make people think, as Bertolt Brecht would exclaim.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

  • Fasold, R. W. (1990) The Sociolinguistics of Language. Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Holmes, J. (1992) An Introduction to Sociolinguistics. London: Longman.

© Dimitrios Thanasoulas 1999

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