In Chapter 13 of An Introduction to Linguistics, Ronald Wardhaugh concedes that the concept of gender is largely based on personal identity and cultural norms, rather than the standard, traditional definition of biological sex, and also notes that this self-identification may vary depending on the roles a person must fill in his or her life, as parent, sibling, professional partner, etc. He begins by stating that “gender is a key component of identity,” and therefore shapes who we are; it is inextricable from our selves and our natural mannerisms. Despite this acknowledgement, however, the chapter focuses on studies dividing men and women across societies and in different cultures, and raises the question of sexism in language; is any language in and of itself inherently sexist, or do cultural and societal norms shape the way different users of a language communicate? This question has occupied researchers in a variety of disciplines for years, and while some studies, mostly anthropological, have provided strict grammatical and dialectal evidence for linguistic differences between the men and women of certain cultures, many others, almost exclusively performed among English-speakers, focus on differences in vocabulary use, intonation, and meta-linguistic or paralinguistic communication and gestural habits.
Wardhaugh mentions several examples of the former, including studies by Sapir (1929) of the Yana people of California; by Dixon (1971) of the Dyirbal people of northern Queensland in Australia, and by Bradley (1998) of the Yanyuwa people of Australia. In this latter example the men and women speak different dialects characterized by the system of affixation used with root words shared by the two groups. Wardhaugh also mentions a 1998 paper by Reynolds which discusses the use of boku or ore and watasi or asi in Japanese when referring to the self for men and women, respectively. (The study mentions a modern trend here, of teenage girls using boku in order to be taken more seriously by their male peers – Wardhaugh makes several references to shifting language in this chapter, mentioning that women are on the societal move, and in seeking equalization often make an effort to adopt a more traditionally “masculine” way of speaking, in order to gain respect from a male-dominated society. He mentions Margaret Thatcher being advised to lower her voice and alter her intonation at the outset of her political career as a good example.)
In English, these sorts of grammatical differences are absent; the differences in men’s and women’s speech is evident in other ways, however. In conversations involving men and women, men speak more than women. In male-only conversations men tend to focus on dominance and speak with more aggression; speech is goal-oriented and focused on achieving, whereas in female-only conversations the speech is focused on feelings, relationships, and analysis of information. Often, however, studies and claims about the differences in men’s and women’s speech is difficult to substantiate; for example there is a widely-accepted view that men interrupt women more than women interrupt men. However, James and Clarke (1993) reviewed 54 studies that found no appreciable difference in the rate of interruptions between male and female participants. Likewise the belief that women are more polite than men in conversation is contested by Mills (2003). Wardhaugh cites Cameron (1998a) as saying that these sorts of studies provide little more than anecdotal evidence that men and women use language differently, provide little in terms of analysis, and lack a theory to be tested or applied. Holmes (1998) does just this, outlining five “sociolinguistic universal tendencies” that can be tested in male vs. female speech, found on page 322 of the fifth edition of this text.
There are two widely-circulated views of the reasons for these inequalities: the dominance view supported by Lakoff (1975) and DeFrancisco (1997) states that men are dominant in society and women submissive, and that language use reflects men’s and women’s relation to and perceived ability to wield power within a relationship. The difference or deficit view focuses on these linguistic differences as learned behaviors, ingrained by society and passed on through generations. Maltz and Borker (1982) posit that men and women belong to different “sub-cultures,” and therefore learn to utilize language in different ways; in this view miscommunication results from different interpretations of learned behaviors in communities of men versus communities of women. Further evidence of gender-based inequalities in language use being determined by societal rather than linguistic norms is offered by Keenan’s 1974 study of the Malagasy people; in this culture men are soft-spoken and diplomatic, and women are the hardlining, goal-oriented members of the society; women use language in a more blunt, powerful, and aggressive manner, whereas men are valued for the opposite linguistic tendencies.
Wardhaugh states at the end of this chapter, “My own view is that men’s and women’s speech differ because boys and girls are brought up differently and men and women often fill different roles in society. Moreover, most men and women know this and behave accordingly (333).” He has therefore rejected the idea that a language itself can be sexist, and states that only individuals who speak a language – any language – can be sexist. It is the use of language that creates and projects inequality, rather than the language itself. Also, as a final note, it should be mentioned that many of the studies cited in this chapter are decades old and therefore do not necessarily reflect the state of society and communication habits of today’s world. Nor can they be said to be completely characteristic of any individual or group of men or women – as Wardhaugh mentions at the beginning of the chapter, gender identity is not black-and-white and fluctuates according to the myriad sociological groups of which an individual may be a part. Therefore while gender is a possible dividing line for the use of language, it must be viewed in conjunction with other societal factors such as race, income, high school clique, etc., and any study or test must be controlled accordingly.