I created this node as a repository for information about gender differences in language use. My sources include readings and discussions from a semester class of the same title as this node, as well as a psychology class on topics in gender and sexuality, but my focus is language use. That said, the following is adapted primarily from an essay I wrote for a midterm in the aforementioned Language and Gender class, but will expand as I find (and create) more links to such topics in the nodegel.

The essay question, which sums up much linguistic theory and discussion in the area of gender, was: What models have been proposed to account for male/female differences in language? What are some possible pluses and minuses of each model? In your discussion, mention examples from our readings that show the use of these different approaches/models.

13 November 2000 Essay, edited 10 December 2001

There are three major categories of models for male/female differences in language use: deficiency, dominance, and two-cultures models. All of these fail to address the fact that limiting discussion to two genders is, well, limiting. However, as our class did not discuss in depth the theory that sex is biologically determined, gender is socially constructed, I'll limit my discussion to the three mentioned (pun intended).

  • Deficiency models involve studying the ways in which women's language use differs from the (male) standard. Examples include Danish linguist Otto Jespersen's classic "The Woman", cited by Pitzer College's Ronald Macaulay as a good example of what not to write about language and gender. The advantages of this way of thinking about language differences include the fact that you need only study the language of the "deficient" gender, which essentially halves your work (or at least the size of the population you're studying). Disadvantages include the fact that it's arbitrary, sexist, and just plain wrong to assume that differences imply deficiencies, much less to interpret every detectable difference between the two genders as a deficiency in the same gender every time.

  • Dominance models are based on the idea that one gender (in most cases, the male) dominates society, and as a result its members use "powerful" language reflective of this larger and more well-established social rule. Members of the other gender (usually the female) use "powerless" language, which reflects their diminished role in society. Robin Lakoff's rampantly speculative writings reflect this kind of thinking, as does Candace West and Don H. Zimmerman's work on conversational interruptions (which, say whatever else you will about it, at least involved some research). What's nice about these models is that they take both genders into account. Their disadvantages, however, include the fact that these models tend to make gender differences seem hopeless---they are interpreted as being caused by an all-powerful, unchanging "society" that leaves little room for individuals to grow and change.

  • Cultural or two-cultures models, such as that introduced by Daniel N. Maltz and Ruth A. Borker's classic 1982 paper, "A cultural approach to male-female communication", explain language differences across genders as the result of different "genderlects" spoken by members of male and female subcultures. (What follows is a brief summary; for a more extensive introduction, please see Siobhan's Two Cultures Model of Gender Differences in Language Use.) Models such as these, inspired by theories of interethnic miscommunication, seem appealing at first (especially to those of us who failed to correctly conform to either gender's social standards as youngsters) but pose several troubling problems upon closer inspection. For example, although these models at first seem to provide a solution to male-female misunderstandings (better communication), they fail to convince me that every problem that arises between members of opposite sexes can be reduced to the fact that the two parties involved speak slightly different dialects as a result of their differing genitals. Furthermore, they fail to explain the origins of the gendered subcultures, which brings us back to the all-powerful, inescapable society again, and certainly seem to imply that homosexual pairings should be all about pure bliss and perfect understanding, which in my (albeit limited) experience certainly isn't the case. Finally, and perhaps worst of all, these models provided the inspiration for such mind-numbing and soul-sucking pop psychology self-help bestsellers as Deborah Tannen's You Just Don't Understand and John Gray's Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus. (See Pop Psychology is from Uranus for my rant on these charlatans.)

To summarize briefly, a major flaw of most linguistic analysis of gender differences in language use is that they tend to at once exaggerate the differences between the two genders and oversimplify these differences as well (i.e. "all men do this, all women do this"). Furthermore, few analyses take race or ethnicity as well as gender of speakers into account, despite the fact that much recent discussion of language and gender differences is based on models of interethnic miscommunication. Other important sociolinguistic factors that are often overlooked in studies of language and gender include age and socioeconomic status of speakers: both of these can create power differentials whose impact on language use is equal if not greater than the effect of gender differences.


But enough about me. What does Everything2 have to say about language and gender?

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