Simone de Beauvoir said “one is not born, but rather becomes a woman”. Gender is not something we are born with, it is something we perform. Gender, as opposed to sex, is a social construct and it is constructed by various cultural practices or societal customs. Language is a communicative practice which influences and is influenced by cultures. The linguistic competence of a speaker is their knowledge/ability to produce or recognise meaning. However, linguistic competence is not enough to make sense. One needs the knowledge of social conventions of a particular culture to make meaning. Since language is highly dependent on the culture around it, it is in many senses a performative act as well. The genders are thus affected by the language they speak.
I would like to analyse the inter-relation between gender and language and how the two interchangeably affect each other.
Robin Lakoff was the first linguist to start the discourse of the relationship between gender and language in his article called ‘‘Language And Woman’s Place” (1972). He argued that women generally use linguistic forms which are lower/subordinate to that of men with the use of tag questions (isn’t it?, am I?), questioning expressions or mitigators (sort of, I think). This suggests that there is a need to be acknowledged or a presumption that they can be wrong. Post Lackoff’s claim, a debate started as to why women’s language has such a subordinate form. There were two answers, difference and dominance.
The approach of difference suggested that women and men have been brought up differently and so naturally there is bound to be a difference in their linguistic forms. The dominance approach stated that this difference in speech styles was a result of structured discrimation between men and women. This resulted in male supremacy which led to the dominance of men over language as well. Women never had a ‘room of their own’ to formulate a language of their own and hence it was perceived lower, and men’s language was always the benchmark. So in that sense, the issue of difference was embedded in the domination framework.
However, many critics have disagreed with both these approaches. Deborah Cameron, a feminist linguist argues that most languages are usually male-centric and words for female usage usually deviate from words which were ‘originally’ made for men. For instance, words like author and manager usually take their feminine form by adding the suffix -ess. The lack of this vocabulary suggests how female language is usually seen in comparison with the male one and is always defined through power dynamics.
Women’s language is also expected to be more polite and empathetic, often accompanied by a smile or minimal responses. One example of this can be observed in children’s cartoons where the female characters of the cartoon usually smile a lot, apologise more for their actions and often have a very passive role to play. They use a lot of questions while conversing, almost doubting themselves and often need confirmation from the opposite gender.
A famous children’s cartoon Dexter’s Laboratory and its two characters, Dexter and Dee Dee who are siblings are represented in very stereotypical ways. Dexter, is the logical voice who presumes how his sister Dee Dee would not understand his scientific endeavours. Dee Dee is depicted as a hysterical, childish character who constantly asks, “Ooooh what does this button do?” Such representation usually impacts the language usage by male and female children from a very early age.
Men and women also converse differently. Bruce Dorval in his study of same-sex interaction suggests that men tend to change the topic of conversation more quickly than females. In addition to that, women tend to develop/ build-up on topics that were previously being spoken of. Other than that, when men talk, women usually listen and agree using terms like ‘mm’ and ‘yeah’ in order to develop a sense of connection. This agreement could be read as a sign of submission, but it is just a reflective practice. Another observation about the difference is how men tend to give logical solutions if and when someone tells them their problem, whereas women tend to give more empathetic responses. These observations however tend to be at the risk of essentialising gender norms. But it could be argued that such behaviour is depicted because genders are usually conditioned and hence expected to respond in a particular way.
In a paper titled, “Gender in Twitter: Styles, Stances and Social Networks”, a few linguists observed how people from different genders interacted differently on social media and left different gender markers while conversing. For instance, women tend to be more expressive with their texts, using more emoticons and multiple exclamation marks, often lengthening their words (Hiii, nooooo). The difference in the way the genders interact shows how differently the genders articulate themselves.
Differences in women’s language could also be seen in women-led protests. Since women articulate differently from men, their methods of protest are less violent and more empathetic which has a strong sense of a collective and community. They often use their body to express, mostly due to the fact that sometimes the language which is offered to them (male-dominated), is not enough to articulate their message. For instance, the Chipko Movement (1973) saw a group of peasant women hugging trees and the protests against armed forces led by naked Manipuri women against Manorama’s custodial rape (2004). The methods of women’s protests are highly influenced by the linguistic agency or the lack of it.
Charlotte Gilman’s short story The Yellow Wallpaper, gives a new discourse to the debate of Gender and language. The unnamed female protagonist continuously begins conversation with a similar phrase, “John says this” suggesting how she lacks a way to articulate her thoughts. Male to female conversation in the story is aggressive, dominant and sometimes dangerous whereas female to male conversation is soft, understanding and always agreeing with the male perspective. The female character is denied a language (she is not allowed to write, converse or even think) to an extent that it drove her into madness only to discover an alternate form of language. This alternate form of language was depicted through the patterns on the yellow wallpaper which could only be understood by the female protagonist.
Women are often denied a linguistic agency and their language is always seen in deficit to that of men. This can be seen through multiple social customs and practices. Thus, it can be concluded that languages have a huge impact in constructing gender. In addition to that since language is dynamic, it can also reform many gender practices.
Beauvoir, Simone de. The Second Sex. Vintage Classic, 2015.
Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2015.
Eckert, Penelope, and Sally McConnell-Ginet. Language and Gender. Cambridge University Press, 2018.
“Language And Communication In The Yellow Wallpaper.” Bartleby, www.bartleby.com/essay/Language-And-Communication-In-The-Yellow-Wallpaper-FKS2B3MZS4FP.
Aditi Behl is pursuing her post graduation in English Literature from St. Stephen’s College, University of Delhi. She is interested in refugee narratives and citizenship identity. She additionally is interested in the role of language as a performative act in molding identities and ideas of nationality. She likes to play her ukulele and sing random songs in her free time. She can be found on Twitter and Instagram.
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