Professional, political and social ramifications

men and women is a continually debated issue, which has significant personal, professional, political and social ramifications. Naturally, males and females do differ biologically. Less clear, however, are other possible differences. For example, the psychological variations between men and women are in a grey area and difficult to delineate. One of the areas that social scientists, especially sociolinguistics, study is how males and females communicate and how verbal and nonverbal messages are developed and sent. Some believe that men and women are members of a different culture, speaking different languages and having alternative meanings for terms not shared in common. Others feel that the opposite sexes act as if they are both from the same culture, behaving similarly almost all the time.

Ethnographers were the first to notice the distinct female and male varieties of language with clear differences between vocabulary. One of the reasons for this was to encourage marriage outside of the community: If there is a regular pattern of men from one village marrying and bringing home to their village women from another village, then it is possible that the speech of women in the first village would be similar in many ways to the second village’s dialect.

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Over the past 30 years or so, academics have been looking at a number of different areas of linguistics and gender, such as syntax, phonology or lexical uses of language, conversational structure, topical similarities/differences, male/female interactions and physical/linguistic linkages. Much of the earlier studies focused on male/female dominance. Lakoff (1975), who was one of the first to study this area of interest, supported the idea of different power levels for women than men. Women are socialized into a culture that stresses interdependence, cooperation and socioemotional concerns; men, instead, have a cultural focus on independence, competition, influence and direction toward shared activities.

Lakoff maintained that women are discriminated against, by having to learn to use language in ways that are seemingly deficient in comparison with the ways that men use language. Women’s speech normally has certain features such as tag questions, which mark it as inferior and weak. She argued that the form of inferior speech acquired by a female child “will later be an excuse others use to keep her in a demeaning position, to refuse to treat her seriously as a human being” (1975, p.5). Other research conducted during the 1970s indicated that men more often nominated subjects, interrupted others, and held the floor (Zimmerman & West, 1975).

Zimmerman and West (1975) believed that defined roles exist into adulthood and view the male communicative pattern as designed to assert and maintain power, especially in cross-sex interactions. In fact, Eckert and McConnell-Ginet (1992) noted that “power has been the engine driving most research on language and gender, motivated partly by the desire to understand dominance and partly by the desire to dismantle it (sometimes along with other inequalities)” (1992, p. 474).

In a worse case scenario, language is used as a means of demonstrating the power of violence. Gilmore (1995) showed through a videotaping ways that young men on a United States campus talked to each other about sex with women. The men portrayed their violent actions and language as if in jest by boasting: “I did her.” “The ***** needed it.” Similarly, Adams et. al (1995) demonstrated that the men denied their acts of violence through such linguistic vehicles as reference ambiguity, metaphors and other indirect assertions about their rational control. This gave them the ability to think of having natural entitlements to be abusive.

In discussions among intimate heterosexual couples, speaking time was related to the amount of power each held in relationship in terms of decision making. The more powerful person spoke up more in discussions. When men and women share similar power, a man does not speak significantly more than the woman (Kollock et. al, 1985).

Status is also designated in this power scheme. Many of the “women’s language” such as politeness and raising the ends of sentences is found more in low- versus high-status individuals. “Women’s language” seems to be more often used when individuals are unemployed, housewives or have lower jobs than well-educated people and professionals (O’Barr & Atkins, 1980). Subordinates share higher rates of speech associated with women than they do their managers. Single male parents use language more similar to single mothers than married fathers. It is recognized, then, that language is not just a matter of gender dominance, but goes hand-in-hand with status as well.

Whereas Lakoff is associated with the dominance language model, Tannen (1990) is linked to the difference language model. In this model, gender and cultural differences are treated similarly. They are seen as developing from pervasive segregation of boys and girls in the peer groups of childhood to adolescence. These groups are organized in different values and attributes that lead to different — or actually preferred — communicative practices.

For Lakoff, women’s language is seen as powerlessness. For Tannen, the speech of both men and women is oriented to a particular set of values — for men, it is status, and for women, it is connection or affiliation. “These differences in values stem out of the collective social experience of living in a particular group that is a considerable extent apart from others.”

Such knowledge has led to the suggestion by researchers such as Tannen that men and women have cultural differences. She covers these differences in her books You Just Don’t Understand (1990): Woman and Men in Conversation and Women and Men in the Workplace: Language, Sex and Power (1994). “American men and women come from different sociolinguistic subcultures, having learned to do different things with words in a conversation” (Maltz & Borker, 1982, p. 200).

Ironically, however, studies show that the language used by American men and women is very similar. It is so similar, in fact, that it was difficult for readers to recognize the difference between the written descriptions of a landscape that were written separately by men and women. Likewise, it is found that when mixed dyads of sex worked together, men only somewhat more often interrupted their partners and gave directives (“write it down”) than women. Meanwhile, women only used a few more questions and intensive adjectives such as “really.” However, the differences were slight between the two sex’s languages.

If language use by men and women is so similar, they why is there so much “talk” about differences in linguistic performance between the genders? Do men and women use language differently? This is definitely the case. Meaningful differences in language behavior do exist, as seen by a substantial number of empirical investigations and actual male-female language use conducted in a number of varied contexts with communicators from a range of ages.

In 1993, Canary and Dindia summarized the results of over 30 studies, where 21 linguistic features were found to distinguish gender in two or more investigations. For example, the researchers found four studies that reported references to quantity used more by males and six that showed intensive adverbs employed more by females. They also found six features that were usually used more by male communicators, including references to quantity (“…an 81% loss in vision”), judgmental adjectives (“Reading can be a drag”), and elliptical sentences (“Nice photo”). Men were also more likely to use directives (“Think of some more”), locatives (“The sun is off to the left side”), and “I” references (“I have a lot of meetings”).

The researchers (Canary & Dindia, 1993) found ten language factors that were usually used more by females. These included: intensive adverbs (“He’s really interested”), references to emotions (“If he really loved you”), and dependent clauses (“which is the type that produces slightly more fuel than it uses”). Women were also more likely to use sentence-initial adverbials (“When the material is too difficult, studying with someone can be beneficial”), uncertainty verbs (“It seems to be…”), oppositions (“The tone of its is very peaceful, yet full of movement.”), and negations (“Preparation will make you not sound like a fool”). In addition, this analysis showed that women and girls were more apt to use hedges (“We’re kind of set in our ways”), questions (“Do you think so?”), and longer mean length sentences.

The remaining five features were found to be equivocal predictors of gender. That is, some studies show these to be used more by men, and others more by women. These were: personal pronouns (“Before we go on, do you?…”), tag questions (“That’s right, isn’t it?), fillers (“…It’s, you know,…”), progressive verbs (“watching him”) and justifiers (“…because that’s what I saw”).

The Canary and Dindia review showed that 16 language features distinguish communicator gender with a high degree of reliability across a substantial number of studies. These results demonstrate that clear differences exist and must be recognized. However, it must be understood that no specific markers of genders exist (Giles, Scherer, & Taylor, 1979) that point exactly to one gender over another. Instead, as Smith (1985) noted, there are only gender-linked tendencies to favor certain linguistic features over others.

Such results of studies clearly show a paradox: similarities yet differences between language use by gender. Far from one coming from Mars and the other from Venus, men and women seem to come from different states in the same country. It is obvious that they grew up in different groups, which have subtle style differences. Yet, although subtle, the language differences have judgmental consequences. Observers perceive the female and male speakers differently based on their language use. For example, female speakers are rated higher on Socio-Intellectual Status (high social status and literate) and Aesthetic Quality (nice and beautiful), while males are rated higher on Dynamism (strong and aggressive). Major language differences may not occur between genders, but they are recognized as such anyway.


Adams, P. et. al. (1995). “Dominance and entitlement: the rhetoric men use to discuss t heir violence towards women.” Discourse and Society. 6(3): 387-406.

Canary, D.J., & Dindia, K. (eds.). (1997). Sex differences and similarities in communication. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum

Lakoff, R. (1975) Language and Woman’s Place. New York: Harper and Row.

Eckert, P. & McConnell-Ginet, S. (1992) “Communities of practice: where language, gender, and power all live” in Kira Hall, Mary Bucholtz and Birch Moonwomon (eds), Locating Power: proceedings of the second Berkeley Women and Language Conference. Berkeley, CA: Berkeley Woman and Language Group, University of California-Berkeley, pp. 89-99.

Giles, H., Scherer, K.R., & Taylor, D.M. (1979). “Speech markers in social interaction. In K.R. Scherer & H. Giles (eds.), Social markers in speech. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, pp. 343-381.

Gilmore, S. (1995). “Behind closed doors: men’s conquest sex talk.” PhD dissertation, University of Illinois, Urbana/Champaign, IL.

Kollack, P. et. al (1985). “Sex and power in interaction: conversational privileges and duties.” American Sociological Review. 50, 34-36.

Maltz, D., & Borker, R. (1982). A cultural approach to male-female miscommunication. In J.J. Gumpertz (ed.), Language and social identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 196-216.

O’Barr, W., & Atkins, B. (1980). “Women’s language” or “powerless language”? In S. McConnell-Ginet, R. Borker, & N. Furman, (eds), Women and language in literature and society. New York: Praeger, pp. 93-110.

Smith, P.M. (1985). Language, the sexes and society. Oxford, England: Basil Blackwell.

Tannen, D. (1990). You just don’t understand: Women and men in conversation. New York: William Morrow.

Zimmerman, DH & West, C. (1975). Sex roles, interruptions, and silences in conversations. In B. Thorne & N. Henley (eds.), Language and sex: Difference and dominance. Rowley, MA: Newbury House, pp. 105-129.

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