It’s no surprise that many topics in linguistics attract a lot of non-expert interest — language use is central to almost all areas of our lives, after all. Just such a topic is the idea that women and men use language differently. This idea has attracted much pop-science writing and discussion, often focused proposing that cross-gender conversation is fraught with miscommunication. One famous example is Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus (Gray 1992). The idea is also present in a more subtle way in much prescriptivist discourse as popular criticisms of styles of speech are very often gendered (‘Valley girl speech’, anyone?).
In one sense, the findings of sociolinguistic studies tend to confirm that male and female speakers do use language differently. In phonology and morphology in particular, wherever some linguistic element (‘linguistic variable’) changes from speaker to speaker or from utterance to utterance, it’s very common to discover that female speakers favour one variant while male speakers favour another. An example of this finding can be found in one of the very first studies that we might recognise as variationist sociolinguistics: Gauchat’s (1905) study of Charmey French. Gauchat found the /aw/ diphthong was sometimes pronounced by his speakers as a monophthong /oː/, but that this was more typical of women than of men. Another famous study to find such differences was Labov’s (1966) study of New York City English. Among many other findings, Labov showed that male speakers were more likely than female speakers to leave out an /r/ when it didn’t precede a vowel (in words like car, fourth, etc.).
However, difference is by no means the whole story. In a broad meta-meta-study (that’s a study which gathers together the results of many other studies each of which gathered together the results of many other studies), Hyde (2005; 2006) demonstrated that in most areas of psychology, communication and behaviour where women and men were believed to differ greatly, the differences were actually very small. Of the 124 features which she examined, 30% showed ‘close to zero’ difference between female and male test subjects and a further 48% showed only a ‘small’ difference. The figure below shows the sort of distribution of scores for male and female test subjects that would be classified as ‘small’ (in this case the two normal distributions are 0.21 standard deviations apart, roughly in the middle of the ‘small’ range 0.11<d<0.35).
As you can see, at such a level of difference, the distributions for women and men overlap almost entirely: the vast majority of men fall in the normal range for women and vice versa.
The sorts of phenomena examined by Hyde are not exactly the same as those examined by the sociolinguists mentioned above. Where they examined the use of particular pronunciations, grammatical features or words in particular languages, she looked instead at broader patterns of communicative behaviour such as interruptions, assertive and affiliative speech and self-disclosure. Nevertheless, such psychological research can help to inform us about how we should think about our sociolinguistic findings. If we can conclude that the psychological differences between women and men are relatively minimal, we must look elsewhere for an explanation for the linguistic differences we have found. In short, we must look to culture.
This means that we should assume that differences between male and female speech are arbitrary — that is, that the association between any particular feature of language and gender is arbitrary — and that we learn them during socialisation. This is an appealing viewpoint. It is closely in line with gender constructionism, a viewpoint central in much modern feminist thought which holds that gender as it is currently manifested is not an inevitable result of biology but a largely arbitrary set of cultural norms which must be learned and performed. It also seems to fit with the nature of language more generally. As languages can be so different to one another, why should differences in the ways particular languages are spoken by particular groups be anything but arbitrary?
However, all is not so simple. If gendered differences in speech are just culture, we might expect them to vary randomly, much as many other parts of culture can vary. However, researchers have long observed that in reality, two patterns re-occur again and again in studies of language variation and gender. These patterns were summarised in an influential paper by Labov (1990:205–206), and state that:
- where the variable in question is not undergoing any change across time, male speakers prefer the ‘non-standard’ form compared with female speakers;
- but where the variable in question is undergoing change over time, female speakers prefer the incoming, new (often non-standard) form compared with male speakers.
This description doesn’t fit absolutely every case, but it is remarkably reliable. And in many cases where it doesn’t fit, some specific explanation is readily available. For example, Daher’s (1998) study on Damascus Arabic showed that men preferred the standard pronunciation of Arabic /q/ while women preferred a non-standard pronunciation. However, this difference seemed clearly due to women and men’s differential access to education in this society.
So what are we to make of this? What could we propose to explain these patterns cropping up again and again in quite different societies? One possibility is that our earlier conclusion was wrong, and at least some linguistic differences are down to biology. Some researchers (such as Chambers (1992; 2003)) do indeed argue this, suggesting that women have an inherent ‘psychological advantage’ in language processing, and thus are better are picking up on changes early and better at learning a prestigious standard. However, most would argue that the explanation will instead lie in elements of gender which are common across many societies, such as women’s typically greater involvement in child-rearing or men’s typically greater access to power and prestige.
For the time being however, no settled answer to the question has yet been reached.
- Chambers, Jack K. 1992. Linguistic correlates of gender and sex. English World-Wide 13. 173–218. doi:10.1075/eww.13.2.02cha.
- Chambers, Jack K. 2003. Sociolinguistic Theory. Second Edition. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd.
- Daher, Jamil. 1998. Gender in linguistic variation: The variable (q) in Damascus Arabic. In Elabbas Benmamoun, Mushira Eid & Niloofar Haeri (eds.), Perspectives on Arabic Linguistics XI: Papers from the Annual Symposium on Arabic Linguistics, 183–206. Atlanta, Georgia: John Benjamins Publishing.
- Gauchat, Louis. 1905. L’unité phonétique dans le patois d’une commune. Aus Romanischen Sprachen und Literaturen: Festschrift Heinrich Morf zur Feier seiner fünfundzwanzigjährigen Lehrtätigkeit von zeinen Schülern dargebracht, 175–232.
- Hyde, Janet Shibley. 2005. The gender similarities hypothesis. American Psychologist 60(6). 581–592. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.60.6.581.
- Hyde, Janet Shibley. 2006. Gender similarities still rule. American Psychologist 61(6). 641–642. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.61.6.641b.
- Labov, William. 1966. The Social Stratification of English in New York City. Washington, D.C.: Centre for Applied Linguistics.
- Labov, William. 1990. The intersection of sex and social class in the course of linguistic change. Language Variation and Change 2(2). 205–254.