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language and sex

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language and sex

Language and Sex

A major issue in the sociolinguistics of speech is the relationship between sex and language. Since the mid-1970s research on language and sex has concentrated on the role language plays in the location and maintenance of women in a disadvantageous position in society.

Before this, linguists had taken an interest in sex and language in two other respects. The earlier of these was the presence in a few languages of lexical, phonological, morphological forms that are used only or ppredominantly by speakers of one sex or the other. More recently, in earlier research in sociolinguistics, sex was investigated as an independent variable related to linguistic variables, along with social status, style, age and ethnicity.

At the time most of the studies were done, linguists were most interested in sex-related linguistic features as purely linguistic phenomenon, and secondarily as a possible cause and effect of the relation between men and women in a social and political sense was not to develop uuntil sixties.

Do women and men speak differently? English speakers are often aware that the answer to this question is almost “yes” for all speech communities.

The linguistic forms used by women and men contrast – to different degrees – in all sspeech communities. There are other ways too in when the linguistic behaviour of women and men differ. It is claimed women are more linguistically polite than men, for instance, and that women and men emphasize different speech functions.

Sex differences in language are often just one aspect of more pervasive linguistic differences in the society reflecting social status or power differences. If a community is very hierarchical, for instance, and within each level of the hierarchy men are more powerful than women, then linguistic differences between the speech of women and men just one dimension of more extensive differences reflecting the social hierarchy as a whole.

I can give you one particular example of an experience I had during my several journeys tto the Indian subcontinent:

In Bengali society, for instance, a younger person should not address a superior by first name. Similarly wife, being subordinate to her husband, is not permitted to use her husband’s name. She addresses him with a term such as s u n c h o ‘do you hear?’ When she refers to him she uses a circumlocution. One nice example of this practice is provides by the Bengali wife whose husband’s name was t a r a ,, which also

means ‘star’. Since she could not call him t a r a, his wife used the term n o k k h o t r o or ‘heavenly body’ to refer to him. This point – the inter-relationship of sex with other factors – is illustrated even more clearly later.

The fact that there are clearly identifiable differences between women’s and men’s speech in the communities discussed here reflects the clearly demarcated sex roles in these communities. Sex-exclusive speech forms (i.e. some forms are used only by women and others are used only by men) reflect sex-exclusive social roles. The responsibilities of woman and men are different in such communities, and everyone

knows that, and knows what they are. There are no arguments over who prepares the dinner and who puts children to bed.

Not surprisingly in western communities where women’s and men’s social roles overlap, the speech forms they use also overlap. In other words women and men do not use completely different forms. They use different quantities or frequencies of the same forms.

Across all social groups women use more standard forms then men and so, correspondingly, men use more vernacular forms than women. In Detroit, for

Instance, multiple nnegation (e.g. I don’t know nothing about it), a vernacular feature of speech, is more frequent in men’s speech than in women’s. this is true in every social group but the difference is most dramatic in the second highest social group (the lower middle class) where the men’s multiple negation score is 32 per cent compared to only 1 per cent for women.

This pattern is a typical one for many grammatical features. In many speech communities, when women use more of a linguistic form than men, it is generally the standard form – the overtly prestigious form – that women favour. When men use a form more often than women, it is usually a vernacular form, one which is not admired overtly by the society as a whole, and which is not cited as the ‘correct’ form. What is the explanation for it? Why does female and male speech differ in this way?

Some explanations of women’s linguistic behaviour

When this pattern first emerged, social dialectologists asked: ‘why do women use more standard form then men?’ At least four different (thought not mutually exclusive) explanations were suggested. The first appeals to social class and its related status for an explanation, the second rrefers women’s role in society, the third to women’s status as subordinate group, and the fourth to the function of speech in expressing masculinity.

I Social status

Some linguistics have suggested that women use more standard speech forms then men because they are more status-conscious than men. The claim is that women are more aware of the fact that the way they speak signals their social class background or social status in the community. Standard speech forms are generally associated with high social status, and so, according to this explanation, women use more standard speech forms as a way of claiming such status. It is suggested that this is especially true for women who do not have paid employment, since they cannot use their occupations as a basis for signaling social status.

The fact that women interviewed in New York and in Norwich reported that they used more standard forms then they actually did, has also been used to support this explanation. Women generally lack status in the society, and so, its is suggested, some try to acquire it by using standard speech forms, and by reporting that they use even more of these forms than they actually do.

II Women as guardian of

society’s values

A second explanation for the fact that women use more standard forms than men points to the way society tends to expect ‘better’ behaviour from women than from men. Little boys are generally allowed more freedom than little girls. Misbehaviour from boys is tolerated where girls are more quickly corrected. Similarly, rule-breaking of any kind by woman is frowned on more severely than rule-breaking by men.

Women are designated the role of modelling correct behaviour in the community. Predictably then, ffollowing this argument, society expects women to speak more correctly and standardly than men, especially when they are serving as models for children’s speech.

This explanation of why women use more standard forms than men may be relevant in some social groups, but it is certainly not rude for all. Interaction between a mother and her child are likely to be very relaxed and informal and it is in relaxed and informal and it is in relaxed informal contexts, that vernacular fforms occur most often in everyone’s speech. Standard forms typically associated with more formal, and

less personal interactions. It seems odd to explain women’s greater use of more standard speech forms (collected in formal tape-recorded interviews) by referring to a women’s rrole as a speech model in her very intimate and mainly unobserved interactions with her child.

III Subordinates behave politely!

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