Social Saturdays’ posts look at the social side of language. After all, language isn’t just a way to communicate, it is communication.
In the short history of sociolinguistics, many studies have been done on how sex and gender relate to the way in which we speak.
Many early findings included:
Women have smaller vocabulary than men, use simpler sentence structure than men, speak with little prior thought – Jespersen, 1922
Women use fewer interruptions, softer directives: would you mind, a different use of colour terms: mauve, ecru, lavender and of adjectives: adorable, divine, weaker expletives: oh fudge and a greater use of tags and hedges: it’s nice isn’t it?, I mean, you see…
Of course, these are now known to be unfounded.
However, many more modern studies have come up with results which initially did little for feminist movements.
In this graph, taking from Trudgill’s Norwich study, we see the use of a non-standard variant, h-dropping (‘ome instead of home, for instance) across classes.
It is also split into gender.
It’s easy to see from the graph that men use a much higher percentage of non-standard variants across every class.
This did little to prove that women and men are equal when the study was first conducted.
From the same study, here is a graph of what we call style shifting.
Style shifting is when people use more non-standard forms in casual speech – down the pub with their mates – and fewer in formal speech – like in a job interview.We all do it, and pretty much to the same extent.
To do a style shifting study, speakers are interviewed in a casual style, a formal style, and asked to read a passage. Sometimes a word list is added, which adds an even more formal style.
Here we can see that women, as well as using fewer non-standard variants, also style shift more than men.
Initially, these results were controversial. It seemed as though they were directly contradicting ideas equality champions had been trying to promote.
Linguists made some allusions to the reason:
It is more necessary for women to secure and signal their social status linguistically – Trudgill (1972:182)
… Among many others.
The first point here I must dispute. I think that it is not that women are more sensitive then men to the way language reflects their social status, but rather that it means different things to them.
Socially, men are expected to be “manly”. This means being rough and tough. They can show their “manly-ness” by using non-standard forms, which are attributed to the working class and show someone’s toughness.
Conversely, women are expected, socially, to be polite and proper, and in order to prove this they use fewer non-standard forms.
Notice that I said “socially” regularly in the above paragraphs.
The reason I think this view of the results does nothing to impede the view of feminists is because these differences are only socially influenced; they are not innate nor are they uniform over any section of society. They are simply a broad overview of how social influences change the way we speak.
The second point, however, is dead on.
Men have a head start in life. Even in today’s modern world of equality, men have more head starts and better chances than women.
While men have always found it relatively easy to find a job and rise within the ranks of a company, women have a lot to contend with. This was even more true in the past.
And so women, more so than men, use their language as an indicator of their intelligence, their social class, their education and their background. They need to, if they want to get ahead in life.
Maybe this isn’t quite so relevant today. but young girls learn to speak by copying their parents, and are incredibly receptive to gender differences and will follow them They go to school with their friends who have also picked up on these differences, which only emphasises them. They grow up using fewer non-standard forms than their male class-mates and so the cycle continues.
Again, this doesn’t disprove any feminist ideologies, but actually reinforces the position of women in society and the need for this to change.