In modern language sociolinguistics we are often interested in investigating the speech of specific social groups. We might compare the speech of people from different ethnic groups, or different socio-economic classes or genders. Alternatively, we might investigate differences in language use in different contexts. How do people use language differently in formal contexts like job interviews as compared with informal contexts, like chatting with friends in the pub?

In either case, the first step is to collect data: to record language use by the different groups of people we’re interested in, or in the different contexts we’re interested in. But what can we do when that’s impossible? When we’re investigating historical languages, we’re limited to whatever language happens to have been written down and whichever bits of writing happen to have survived until the present. That’s normally quite a skewed sample in lots of ways. In many historical periods only certain social groups (typically wealthy, powerful men, often particularly those associated with the church) learned to read and write, and so only those social groups leave a written record of their language. Furthermore, language was only written down in certain contexts: records of laws and legal proceedings, religious writings, financial transactions and perhaps narrative literature and poetry. Unlike with today’s social media, casual everyday interactions did not take place in writing. So how can we investigate the language of other social groups, or language use in informal contexts?

One possible answer is by investigating reported speech in fiction. Unlike scribes and the authors of texts, characters in fiction may come from a wide range of social groups and fiction may describe everyday interactions, providing us with data to investigate.

Obviously we can’t assume that the language used by characters in fiction was identical to the language of similar real people in society at the time—authors will undoubtedly have been best at representing their own language and the language of the social groups with whom they normally interacted. However, represented speech in fiction is often used as an expressive tool to represent the very social phenomena that we’re interested in, which encouragingly suggests that we should find interesting variation to research (Kiełkiewicz-Janowiak 1999:59; Culpeper 2009:81, 307). Better still, parallel research on language in modern fiction does suggest that language use by characters from particular social groups can reflect the language used by those social groups in reality. Work on language use by male and female characters in Japanese sitcoms has found that language use by female characters has many of the same features which typify spontaneous speech by female speakers. Features which people are quite well aware of and make use of for stereotyping can be even more pronounced in the fictional speech than in real speech (Shibamoto 1987:48; Shibamoto Smith 2004:126). Similar findings have been reported for male speech (Occhi, SturtzSreetharan & Shibamoto Smith 2010) and for Japanese novels rather than sitcoms (Shibamoto Smith 2004).

So if this works for modern languages, we should also be able to do it for historical languages, right? And some researchers have done just this. Research on Latin texts seems to show that male and female characters make slightly different choices of words (Adams 1984). Work on Classical Greek drama has shown differences between the speech of male and female characters in terms of choices of words (Bain 1984; Sommerstein 1995), choice of conversation topics, rhetorical structures (Mossman 2001), and choices of pronouns (Meluzzi 2010). Willi’s work on differences in grammar and choice of words in the speech of female and male characters in Classical Greek comedy goes further still, showing that what differences there are were understood in similar ways to gendered differences in modern languages: female characters used more politeness features and more innovative features (Willi 2003:176–195), and speech had more such characteristics in single-gender groups than in mixed groups (Meluzzi 2010:96–98; Willi 2003:196).

This stuff is really exciting. Classical Greece and Rome were incredibly sexist societies: very few women learned to read and write and vanishingly little written material by women survives. So, language use by fictional characters may be our only possible window on the language of Greek and Roman women in this period.

In my own work, I’ve tried to go one step further. The studies cited above all looked language in fiction in just one time period. Studying language in Old Icelandic fiction, I’ve taken represented speech from texts spanning almost three centuries to try and find out whether the way that female and male characters were involved in changing language over time is similar to the way we know that people of different genders are involved in language change in modern societies. As I mentioned in an older blog post, a common pattern in modern societies is that women are found to lead in language change, using more of a newer form earlier than men. And the results of my study do seem to show a similar pattern for one change which was taking place in Old Icelandic. As an older form is replaced by a newer one over several centuries, the represented language of female characters seems to stay about 15-20% ahead of the language of male characters.

Unlike with modern language studies, we’ve no way of then going and confirming that this language use in fiction really did reflect the use by real people. Nevertheless, it’s exciting to get a hint of patterns like this which would otherwise be lost! If you’re interested to read more about my study, you can find the paper on my page.


  • Adams, J. N. 1984. Female Speech in Latin Comedy. Antichthon 18. 43–77.
  • Bain, David. 1984. Female Speech in Menander. Antichthon 18. 24–42.
  • Culpeper, Jonathan. 2009. Historical sociopragmatics: An introduction. Journal of Historical Pragmatics 10(2). 179–186.
  • Kiełkiewicz-Janowiak, Agnieszka. 1999. Child-to-parent address change in Polish. In Ernst Håkon Jahr (ed.), Language change: advances in historical sociolinguistics, 45–63. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
  • Meluzzi, Chiara. 2010. “You” and “me” in Ancient Greek: the case of three “female” comedies. In Eugen Hill & Stefan Schumacher (eds.), Greek and Latin from an Indo-European Perspective 3 (GLIEP 3): Proceedings of the Conference held at the Comenius University Bratislava July 8th–10th 2010, vol. 2, 81–100. Wien: International Journal of Diachronic Linguistics and Linguistic Reconstruction.
  • Mossman, Judith. 2001. Women’s Speech in Greek Tragedy: The Case of Electra and Clytemnestra in Euripedes’ “Electra.” The Classical Quarterly 51(2). 374–384. doi:10.1093/cq/51.2.374.
  • Occhi, Deborah J., Cindi L. SturtzSreetharan & Janet S. Shibamoto Smith. 2010. Finding Mr Right: New Looks at Gendered Modernity in Japanese Televised Romances. Japanese Studies 30(3). 409–425. doi:10.1080/10371397.2010.518605.
  • Shibamoto, Janet S. 1987. The womanly woman: Manipulation of stereotypical and non-stereotypical features of Japanese female speech. In Susan U. Philips, Susan Steele & Christine Tanz (eds.), Comparative Perspectives on Gender, Sex and Language, 26–49. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Shibamoto Smith, Janet S. 2004. Language and gender in the (hetero)romance: “Reading” the ideal hero/ine through lover’s dialogue in Japanese romance fiction. In Shigeko Okamoto & Janet S. Shibamoto Smith (eds.), Japanese Language, Gender, and Ideology, 113–130. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Sommerstein, Alan H. 1995. The Language of Athenian Women. In Francesco de Martino & Alan H. Sommerstein (eds.), Lo spettacolo delle voci, 61–85. Bari: Levante.
  • Willi, Andreas. 2003. The Languages of Aristophanes: Aspects of Linguistic Variation in Classical Attic Greek. Oxford: Oxford University Press.