As an A-Level English Language student, I’ve been really enjoying the topic of language and gender. Unlike my other subjects, Biology and Chemistry, I find there’s much more freedom and opportunity for discussion. We’ve looked at theories and theorists, newspapers articles and considered real life situations and interactions all to help us develop our own thoughts and opinions.
So, as the common question goes, do men and women talk differently?
Read More: Toys R Not Gender Specific
This is a complicated question and one I have given much thought to. Yet all my ponderings remain inconclusive. The only real thing I do know is that the English Language is biased against women.
A clear example of this can be seen in Julie Stanley’s findings that there are 220 words to describe women as promiscuous, but for a promiscuous man there were just 20, and many of these had a positive connotation. And to think there are also more words to describe men in the English Language than there are for women!
Another bias we find in the English Language against women is in the marking of certain terms. For example, ‘actor’ which should suggest either a man or a woman, has become marked and thus predominantly suggests a man. Therefore, a female actor is referred to as an ‘actress’. This ‘ess’ ending is phonologically similar to the word ‘less’, subtly implying the female equivalent is often less talented, important or respected. The fact we have two words to describe the same job, one for a man and one for a woman, suggests that there are differences between the genders.
Yet it could be argued there is a bias against both men and women. For example, the noun ‘nurse’ suggests a woman, and would often have to be modified by the noun ‘male’ to make it clear that the nurse was a man. Similarly, the same would have to be done with the noun ‘builder’. These stereotypes lead to a lack of flexibility within society, with people unable to recognise that certain jobs are not gender-specific. These assumptions extend to other aspects of life. For example, ‘a family man’ sounds reasonable, whereas a ‘family woman’ sounds odd. This is because there is an assumption that not all men are ‘family men’, but all women are ‘family women’. These feed into the harmful stereotype that men are meant to work, and women care for the family.
One essay I had to write as part of my course was to explore the idea that a person’s language might reveal their gender. This essentially is another form of the question I asked at the start: do men and women talk differently?
There are theories and studies to suggest that the answer to this question may indeed be yes. For example, Deborah Tannen identified six main contrasts in communication between men and women. An example of this is the desire for independence (men) vs the desire for intimacy (women). Theorists Zimmerman and West found that 96% of the interruptions in mixed-sex conversations were carried out by men.
Yet there are many arguments that oppose such theorists and studies. Geoffrey Beattie was critical of Zimmerman and West’s findings. He claimed that having ‘one voluble’ man in the study would have a very disproportionate effect on the total. He also questioned why interruptions had to reflect dominance rather than interest or involvement. Conducting his own study, he found that while men did interrupt more, it was by an insignificant margin.
Therefore, it is difficult to state clearly whether there is in fact a difference between men’s and women’s language, as all the evidence and theories we currently have are contradictory.
What is clear is that the English Language is full of biases, and this can reinforce harmful stereotypes.
There is hope, however. As previously mentioned, there are 220 words that describe women as promiscuous. Some of these words are in the process of being reclaimed by those they are used against – semantic reclamation. An example of this being ‘bitch’.
Whilst language has the power to divide, it is the linguistic choices we make that determine whether stereotypes and inequalities will be reinforced.