Language and Gender – Sociolinguistic Approaches

Language and Gender

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This is the third blog article of the small series about language and gender published on this blog. In earlier articles, we already established that men and women indeed speak differently, and that, in the past, researchers had started to write down the differences in speech they could find.

 

This month’s article will look at the findings of more recent studies than those taken into account in the previous article. Contrary to the studies of the Middle Ages and early 20th century, the studies by the sociolinguists dealt with here show less bias and more profound research.

Sociolinguistic Research

The early work of sociolinguists concentrated mainly on differences in social class like the “upper middle class” or “lower working class”. This so-called variable was set in correlation to linguistic variables which are linguistic units that can be realized differently by different speakers. An example would be the realization of the variable “t” that can be realized as [t] or [ʔ] (glottal stop) in words like butter.

However, the importance of other social variables became apparent soon. Among them: gender.

 

Generally, it was assumed across many speech communities that women actually use the more prestigious forms (aka the more “standardized” versions of linguistic variables) than men. Studies conducted by Peter Trudgill (Norwich, Britain), Ronald Macaulay (Glasgow, Britain), Mark Newbrook (West Wirral, Britain), and Edna Eisikovits (Sydney, Australia) show that this is true for female speakers even across social classes. Men tend to use the non-standard forms, both in the most and least formal test cases, a lot more frequently than female speakers.

 

All the studies mentioned also show that there is a clear preference for a variant among speakers of different gender. Women prefer one variant (the one closer or representing standard speech) while men prefer another (more colloquial and non-standard) variant.

Why is that so?

While sociolinguists have found out about the differences between male and female speakers, the reasons why women tend to favor the more standard variants have been discussed only rarely.

 

A self-awareness test by Trudgill showed that women reported to use the standard variant a lot more than they actually did in the study itself. This shows that the female speakers were a lot more aware of the standard variant than the male speakers. Contrary to men, this would suggest that women “aim” to use the less colloquial variants. On the other hand, men tended to report the usage of the non-standard variant a lot more than they actually used them in the study, thus showing that the variants far from the standard actually hold some prestige for them. This would mean that, contrary to the female speakers, male speakers “aim” to use the more colloquial variant. Other studies have been able to confirm these findings.

 

These findings can be closely related to overall prestige and status. Women, as has been mentioned in the previous articles, had to struggle to gain social status and bigger acceptance. By adapting a more standardized speech, the female speakers mentioned above seemed to strive for exactly this: a better social status.

The male speakers, on the other hand, do not have to “fight” for such socially accepted and higher ranked roles as women seem to feel the need to. Instead, it seems that they want to show and manifest their loyalty to a certain social group or class, using the less standardized variants to express said loyalty.


Trudgill, Peter: Sex, covert prestige and linguistic change in the urban British English of Norwich (1972)
Trudgill, Peter: The Social Differentiation of English in Norwich (1974)

Macaulay, Ronald: Variation and consistency in Glaswegian English (1978)

Newbrook, Mark: Sociolinguistic reflexes of dialect interference in West Wirral (1982)

Eisikovits, Edna: Sex difference in inter-group and intra-group interaction among adolescents (1987)

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