Do women and men use language the same way?

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A talk by Anthony Pym in a course on variation in English - Transcript below:

Do men and women use language in the same way? This is an interesting question for anybody who’s a man or a woman, or anything in between, and who uses language. It’s also interesting because there’s lots of false preconceptions about it, and a bit of research can perhaps challenge them. First let’s get the question clarified. We’re talking here about language use. We’re not talking about language systems—language systems, like Catalan, Spanish, French, German, whatever. Our European language systems are undoubtedly sexist. They oblige me if I’m speaking Spanish, for example, if I say, “Estoy viejo—I’m old,” that’s viejo, and the woman has to say vieja, and we’re obliged to say if we’re a man or a woman by that language system. Which in that respect is quite fascist, as Roland Barthes put it. That’s one question though. It’s a little different though when we look at what people do with the language system when they speak. Do men and women use the language system in the same way? For example, that viejo/vieja variation is systemic, but it’s not quite the same way as the observation, for example, that in Scotland schoolgirls tend to say water and got—they pronounce the /t/—whereas schoolboys tend to say wa’er and go’ depending on where they are in the social class. Both the men and women speakers there recognized that the system

requires them to say water and got, but what they actually do is different, and it’s different according to . . . or, the way they do it correlates with whether or not they’re men or women. Okay. So that’s the kind of stuff that we’re interested in, in social linguistics of variation. There are all the cultural variables of gender that come on later. We know that with enculturation we become masculine/feminine, we mix these things, and that that studying of gender as a cultural phenomenon is quite different from the biological physical reality of sex—men or women. The problem for us with that though is that the gendering is itself linguistic; it’s already within the linguistic variables—not purely linguistic, there are many other things happening, but you can’t separate the language variables from that kind of gender. So it can be done; we just keep things simple at this level of social linguistics. Classical studies of the way men speak and women speak, for example by Robin Lakoff looking at American English, find that there are quite patent differences. For example, men use fewer lexical hedges or fillers—quite, rather, a little bit—okay? All of these things would be said more by women than by men. Men tend to use fewer question tags in English. Question tags are these things at the end of the sentence, where you say, isn’t it? don’t you? do I? Okay? There’s a thing called rising intonation in English that can occur with declarative sentences, so I can say, “The sky is blue.” The man would tend to say, “The sky is blue.”

A woman in a conversation might say something like, “And the sky is blue?” with rising intonation at the end as if it were a question. It’s not a question, but it’s a discursive strategy inviting the other person to comment on this—affirm it, deny it, add information, continue the conversation. Men attempt to give fewer backchannels as well. Backchannels are the things in a conversation when you say mm, yeah, right, really, oh, right, mm-hmm and tell the other person—tell the speaker—that you’re following them and they’re invited to continue, that you’re supporting them. Men don’t do a lot of that. Women tend to do rather more. And so all of these variables tend to indicate that men and women are approaching a conversation in different ways. Men are there to exchange information and to affirm it or deny it. Women are there to enjoy a social activity, that is, to engage in a conversation or a chat. That is an act of mutually supporting each other; it’s a nice thing to do together. Completely different perspectives on what a conversation is and hence on how you use language.

One possible manifestation of this—I’m citing here from the textbook by Wardhaugh—is what happens with the backchannel mm-hmm, okay? So Wardhaugh says, right, it’s Wardhaugh citing a study, okay, that when men—when a woman uses mm-hmm, it tends to mean I’m listening—“mm-hmm, mm-hmm, mm-hmm,” okay—whereas a man uses it—“mm‑hmm, mm‑hmm”—to mean I’m agreeing. So the same expression, more or less, has these two different ways of being interpreted. Consequently, men often believe that women are always agreeing with them and then conclude that it’s impossible to tell what a woman really thinks:

mm-hmm. Whereas women get upset with men who never seem to be listening, okay, because they’re not getting the same feedbacks and they’re only getting an mm-hmm when there is actually agreement. Is this a law, does this happen all the time? Who knows? But it’s interesting to observe what’s going on in the backchannels that are occurring around you. When we look at mixed-sex conversations, some of the data’s rather surprising. I mean, we sort of assume that women speak more than men or speak for longer. It tends not to be true. What you do find is that men tend to be the ones who take the initiative; they tend to be the ones who start the conversation. They tend to be the ones who change topic. They tend to be the ones who interrupt another speaker, often to, to change the topic. So in all those things men are far more active in the conversation and assume positions of power, okay? Now, women who rise to positions of power sometimes imitate this, and as they do they tend to bring down their occupation for time the amount of time that they speak to be about the same as men. But these are studies on American academic English in the 1990s, Lakoff in the United States in the 60s and 70s. I think it’s important to stress there is no fatality. Now, are men and women today what they were 20 years ago? I don’t think so. Are they— were— was it the situation 100 or 200 years ago? Certainly not. So, the way men and women use language, especially when they’re in mixed-sex conversations, could be quite different now. And I invite you to discover this by overhearing—paying attention to—the conversations that are happening all around you every day.

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