Language and Gender – In the Past

Language and Gender
Image by Eleni Papaioannou

In an earlier article, we have looked at language and gender already, stating the fact that women and men indeed talk differently. Before we look at the present state of these differences and state how exactly the speech of men and women differs, we will have a look at the past and what anthropologists, grammarians,  and dialectologists – among others – have found out throughout history.


The time period covered for this article spans from the Middle Ages up to the beginning of the 20th century.


Again, the focus will be of the usage of language by both male and female speakers, and not about the ways how language was used to discriminate a certain group of speakers.



Throughout the eighteenth and up to the early twentieth century, written evidence shows off the belief of the past-time population of women to be responsible for short-lived words that were lost over time. Furthermore, men were seen as being the ones introducing new words to the lexicon (or dictionaries) rather than woman, stating their minor status in former times.


The “excessive” use of adverbials like amazingly, has been subject to complaints by male writers in the early twentieth century as well. Also, words like frightful and flirtation were more associated with female speakers, as was the use of certain adjectives like pretty and nice. Overall, women’s vocabulary was seen as meaningless, restricted and not as rich as a man’s, and even as harmful to the language. Male speech and language was clearly the norm back in these days.



Contrary to today, grammars weren’t describing rules that occur in speech, but tried to create a set of rules for language usage that had to be followed. Written evidence from the eighteenth century show that women were said to not follow these rules and thus use grammar incorrectly very often. For example, it was seen as superior to adjoin sentences or clauses by ordering them in a way, using conjunction words like after and because. This was denoted as a male way of speaking. Women, however, were said to simply put one sentence after another, using either commas (written) or words like and and if.


Furthermore, the grammars of these days still look at things like ordering (“My father and my mother”, not the other way round) and using the pronoun he for instances when the gender of the subject is unknown.



Contrary to the sections before and following this point, the general tone was that women actually had a more refined and desirable pronunciation than men. The way women fared in spoken languages had a more “domestic” and thus polite touch.


Swear Words

When it comes to swear words or other “taboo” expressions, it is hard to differentiate between what was really encountered in women’s speech, and what was desirable. Altogether, women were said to use less swear words and rough language then men did, a polite and friendly way of speaking being a key value of a woman.



It was (and still is) a prejudice that women talk too much. This was the case in the fifteenth century, up to the eighteenth and nineteenth, as well as in the early twentieth century. But, just as today, these prejudices are made with much sexism and less real evidence. Yet, similar to the usage of swear words, silence in a woman had been seen as desirable and good-fashioned, whereas men were encouraged to state their opinions to some extend.



This point is closely related to the overall status of women in the eighteenth century and later. Only middle class women had the opportunity to gain a certain education, and it still differed from the one men could obtain. Thus, women were seen as far less literate as their male peers, even across social classes.


Women in linguistic research

Most statements mentioned above have been made by eighteenth and early twentieth century researchers considering mostly, sometimes even exclusively, written evidence. During the mid twentieth century, dialectologists started using women in their field of study as well, having to look at the spoken language rather than the written one because only in this form, the different dialects evidently occurred.


Suddenly, women became interesting for researchers and scholars investigating on the field, which lead to the inclusion of female speakers in research as informants and participants in questionnaire studies.