[lg policy] blog: Language, Gender And Feminism

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Mon Jul 12 14:03:53 UTC 2010

Language, Gender And Feminism
By admin | July 11, 2010


Language is political in all aspects. According to Joseph (2006), all
animals are political, but some are more political than others, the
reason being language. Thus, man is the most political animal because
he is the only animal who has the gift of speech, which enables him to
disagree with others where “disagreement is as natural to human being
as speaking it” (p. 2).

In this paper, I will examine the relationship between language and
gender. I will discuss the differences between men and women in the
way both use language. I will also examine the role played by culture
along with how their society positioned them in terms of power.

Women tend to use more polite language than men.

Some linguists believe that women are aware of their low status in
society, thus, men who have the power. As a result, many differences
in language usage may occur clearly between men and women. According
to Thanasoulas (1999), women do not use strong expletives, such as
damn or shit, they might use less stronger words such as “oh dear
fudge” (paragraph. 7). What is interesting is the difference between
men and women using language in the internet through chat rooms and
electronic mails (emails). According to Hills (2000), women use
intensive adverbs, more references to emotions, more use of modals,
tag questions and complements, more use of minimal responses, personal
pronouns, oppositions subordinating conjunctions, and the frequency of
questions. On the other hand, men make more references to quantity,
provide more opinions and justifiers, use more active verbs and
judgmental phrases and use more informal language. Thus, such features
provide the reader with some clues to predict gender while he or she
chatting on the internet with anonymous person.

*Cartoon by Peter Steiner (1993), Published in the New Yorker magazine, Inc.

Why such differences exist?

Thanasoulas (1999) argues that women presenting themselves “unsure of
their opinions” (paragraph. 7) therefore, not having opinions that
count very much, thus they tend to use the frequency of asking
questions or tag questions as they lack confidence (e.g. this is not
right, isn’t’ it?).

Holmes (1997) illustrates that the result of a test on how men and
women use language in an English-speaking community were; men used
almost twice as many instance of the vernacular [?n] pronunciation as
the women. The fact that women use more polite and formal language
according to Thanasoulas relates to the ways in which the society
treats women. For example, “people are tolerant of boys’ behavior,
while little girls’ misconduct is very often frowned upon and punished
on the spot” (paragraph. 6). Therefore, “women are designated the role
of modeling correct behavior in the community” (Thanasoulas cited
Holmes, 1992: p.173). Moreover, by using standard or polite forms, a
woman is trying to protect her face, thus she avoids disagreement and
seeking agreement and rapport. Holmes (1997) demonstrates that women
use more standard forms in contexts “where they had the opportunity to
pay attention to their speech” (p. 198) in order to state higher
status than they were permitted to. Holmes (1997) cited Lakoff’s view
that women’s usage of items such as you know, sort of and I think has
been described as “hedges and as instances of women’s language forms”
(p.200). Thus, it can express either “tentativeness or conviction” (p.
201). Holmes also argues that because women are powerless hence, they
tend to use polite and standard language,

“Those who are out of power must be polite; they must avoid rocking
the boat. Because, as a group, women rather than men are more often
excluded from power, social meanings such as ‘tentative’, ‘conforming’
to mainstream values, conservatives, supportive” (Holmes, 1997 cited
Lakoff, 1989: p.257).

Moreover, what Eckert mentions that femininity is what defined as
disavowal of power, while masculinity is the confirmation of power.
For example: In 1979 Margret Thatcher, who was the first woman prime
minister in the united kingdom, “was obliged to submit to a linguistic
makeover, lowering her voice-pitch by almost half the normal range,
flattering out her prosodic contours and slowing her delivery to sound
more authoritative” (Cameron, 2005: p. 496), whereas it is clear that
serious power in institutions remains a male preserve.

Is language affected by society?

Another crucial point is the difference between sex and gender in
language. According to Cameron (2005) “gender is built on the
foundation of sex” (p. 484). She illustrates that sex has to do with
biology. However, gender is not something you acquire once and for all
at an early stage of life, but an “ongoing accomplishment produced by
your repeated actions” (p. 486). Holmes (1997) asserts that sex has
been substituted for the cultural category. Furthermore, the use of
gender rather than sex as basic variable emphasizes that a person’s
gender is “socially constructed from the roles, norms and expectations
of the community in which they participate” (p.203).  It is believed
that in western urban contexts women use a wider range of linguistics
variants than men, according to Holmes (1997). Other supportive
evidence is what Nichols (1983) documents the wider stylistic range of
working class Black women in South Carolina, reflecting their social
networks and the variety of people they encounter in their daily
interactions. Also what she explains that Japanese women use a wider
and more complex range of “honorifics than men and that they are very
responsive to contextual factors” (p. 198). Thus, the differences in
using language between men and women depend on the society and its
culture, where in some cultures, women are less than men or women
equal to men, and sometimes women are superior to men.

Does the man occupying the woman’s job?

What is really of interest to me is that if the man takes or occupies
woman’s position in the market place in the west? Holmes (1997)
asserts that women are often “the family brokers in interaction with
outsiders” (p. 199) it is more often woman than man interacting with
others in shops, with neighbors through phones, as well as in
communication with schools. In other words, women are more capable of
expressing social roles than men. Cameron (2007) in her article about
language and sex defines that women are better than men in
communication and verbal skills because of the way their brains are
wired. “The female brain excels in verbal tasks whereas the male brain
is better adapted to visual-spatial and mathematical tasks. Women like
to talk; men prefer action to words” (paragraph. 2). Also the fact
that, as what Cameron pointed out, people with female brains make the
most wonderful nurses, therapists, social workers, or personnel staff.
On the other hand, people with male brains make the most wonderful
scientists, engineers, electricians, programmers or even lawyers.
Thus, when a manager of a call centre in North-East England, according
to Cameron was asked by an interviewer why women occupy all the
positions in his centre, he replies ‘we are looking for people who can
chat to people, interact, and build rapport. What we find is that
women can do this more… women are naturally good at that sort of
thing’. Not because all employees in that calling centre were women
meant discrimination toward men, but, men fit in places women cannot
even bear, and women can fit in positions men see them as exhausting
or so hard to apply. So, we find each gender in the place where he or
she belongs to. In a place where both can fit perfectly, benefit their

Did the woman succeed in her war against the man?

It is very strange how women, although of their ‘weakness’ in the
society they could have the power to change terminologies were used
before thousands of years in language (particularly in English
language). Their power forced universities and institutions to change
their policies toward how to use the language in that context. For
example, The Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) has issued
in 1992 a policy called ‘Gender Inclusive Language’, which states
that: “Gender Inclusive Language, or gender-neutral language, is
language that is as non-sexist as possible. This means using words
that are inclusive of other genders – for example, chairperson in the
place of chairman, flight attendant rather than stewardess” (RMIT
official web site, 2008). Let us do not go too far, the official web
site of University of Technology Sydney, under Policies & Legislation
section provides guides and advices about how to avoid using “any
language that discriminates against women by not adequately reflecting
their role, status and presence in society”(UTS official web site,
2008). Moreover, providing tables of alternatives for ‘man’ in
language and in occupation terms (See
http://www.equity.uts.edu.au/policy/language/sexist.html). However,
Cameron (2005) mentions that young men and women growing up in the
west today ” are more similar to each other than their grandfathers
and grandmothers were, in everything from the clothes they wear to the
education they receive, from the jobs they might aspire to do to their
attitudes to sex, or sport” (p. 490). In simple words, such
discrimination maybe more focused on the man who finds him self as a
victim of being the culprit in our present time.


 No doubt that, women had suffered from language discrimination, as
well as, other types of discrimination. However, I wonder if women are
still suffering from this discrimination anymore? Especially after the
sensitive positions some of them occupy these days, where these
positions involve using the language as the basic thing in their jobs.
For example: Condoleezza Rice, the United States Secretary of State,
and the second in the administration of the U.S President , Angela
Dorothea Merkel who is the Chancellor of Germany , and Oprah Gail
Winfrey who has the highest-rated talk show in the history of


Cameron, D., 2007, ?what language barrier?, the Guardian. Available
from: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2007/oct/01/gender.books
[Accessed 20 Sep 2008]

Cameron, D., 2005, ?Language, gender and sexuality: current issues and
new directions?, Applied Linguistics, vol. 26, no.4, pp. 482-502

Holmes, J., 2997, ?Women, language and identity?, Journal of
Sociolinguistics, Oxford: Blackwell, p.195-223. Available from:
[Accessed 18 Sep 2008]

Hills, M., 2000, ?you are what you type: language and gender deception
on the internet?, university of Otago. Available from:
[Accessed 19 Sep 2008]

Joseph, J., 2006, ?How politics permeates language (and vice versa)?.
language and Politics Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press p.1-21

The Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, 2008, ?Gender Inclusive
Language?, available from:
http://www.su.rmit.edu.au/rights/downloads/2008/gender inclusive
language/genderinclusivelanguage0801.pdf. [Accessed in 20 Sep 2008]

Thanasoulas, D., 1999, ?why can?t a woman be more like a man?,
Language and Sex. Available from:
[Accessed 19 Sep 2008]

University of technology Sydney, 2008, ?language, Sex and Gender?,
available from:
http://www.equity.uts.edu.au/policy/language/sexist.html. [Accessed 20
Sep 2008]

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