Language and Gender

Exploring the interaction of language and gender raises many fundamental questions of cognitive science. What are the connections of LANGUAGE AND THOUGHT, of LANGUAGE AND CULTURE, of language and action? What role do LANGUAGE ACQUISITION and language processing play in forging these connections? Even research on language and gender that does not address such questions explicitly can usually be seen as implicitly relevant to them. Relatively few language and gender researchers have cast their work in primarily cognitive terms, more often emphasizing social or economic or political phenomena, but of course such phenomena can themselves be fruitfully approached from the perspective of cognitive science -- for example, in work on SOCIAL COGNITION.

Two basic families of questions have dominated language and gender research. First, does gender influence language and, if so, how? That is, how might gender identities and relations of interlocutors be connected to the form and content of what they say? There is considerable sociolinguistic research on how women and men use language in different situations (see, e.g., Coates 1992; Coates and Cameron 1988; Eckert 1990); there is some developmental research that looks at gender issues and a very little neurolinguistic work on sex differences in brain activity during language processing (along with sociolinguistic work, Philips, Steele, and Tanz 1987 include contributions addressing both language development and neurolinguistics). There is also a very little work on phonetic issues (e.g., Hanson 1996; Henton 1992). With the exception of some of the best sociolinguistic work (e.g., Brown 1990; Goodwin 1991; and a number of the articles in Coates 1998), most research on how gender affects language conflates gender with sex, focusing on overall sex differences while ignoring the intertwining of gender with other aspects of social identity and social relations (see Eckert and McConnell-Ginet 1992, 1996; Ochs 1992) and also ignoring other aspects of intrasex variation as well as complexities in sexual classification. Some work has addressed ways in which gender arrangements may affect the development of linguistic conventions (e.g., McConnell-Ginet 1989 discusses how changes in lexical meaning might be driven by certain features of gender arrangements, including, for example, practices that give greater voice in public contexts to men than to women). And much sociolinguistic work has addressed the question of how gender affects changes in patterns of pronunciation and other aspects of language use that ultimately can change language structure (e.g., Milroy et al. 1995).

Second, does language influence gender and, if so, how? That is, how might linguistic resources and conventions affect the shape of a culture's gender arrangements? There have been a number of psycholinguistic studies on such topics as masculine generics (see, e.g., Sniezek and Jazwinski 1986) and studies in PRAGMATICS and related fields on topics like METAPHOR and linguistic discrimination (see, e.g., papers in Vetterling-Braggin 1981). There is also considerable work on these topics from anthropologists and cultural theorists, who look at a culture's favored figures of speech (e.g., using the terminology of delectable edibles to talk about women) and other linguistic clues to cultural assumptions in order to map the gender terrain. There is some evidence that gender (and other) stereotypes help drive inferencing even in those who don't accept them, suggesting that linguistically triggered stereotyping may be consequential both in acculturating children and in helping to maintain the gender status quo. What should be seen as the direction of influence is certainly not clear, however, and many studies of gender biases evident in linguistic resources are positing the influence of gender arrangements on language as much as the other way around (McConnell-Ginet 1989 and others suggest that influences typically go in both directions). Some of the same sociolinguistic studies that explore how women and men speak also look at the social and political effects of different speech styles and interactional dynamics. Lakoff (1975) made popular the idea that women's language use is part of what contributes to men's dominance over them. Although Lakoff herself and others would frame matters somewhat differently now, looking also at men's language use and at attitudes toward different speech styles, there continues to be considerable research suggesting that ways of speaking often play a role in maintaining male dominance (see, e.g., Henley and Kramarae 1991). Much of this research, however, also emphasizes the advantages that can accrue to women who have developed certain kinds of interactionally useful speech skills that many men lack (Tannen 1994 makes this kind of point, as does Holmes 1995).

As the discussion of these questions suggests, the distinction between these two families of questions is not as clearcut as it might at first seem. To talk in this way is to suppose that gender and language are somehow quite separate phenomena and that our goal is to articulate their connections. While useful for certain purposes, this supposition can mislead us. In particular, it does not come to grips with the rooting of both language use and gender in situated social practices, which involve the jointly orchestrated actions of groups of cognitive agents. Gal (1991) and Eckert and McConnell-Ginet (1992) have argued that the real interaction of gender and language, their coevolution, can be best illumined by examining both language and gender as they are manifest in social practice.

Both language and gender are of course also partly biological phenomena. In the view of most linguists and many other cognitive scientists, the possibilities for human language systems are very much constrained by the biologically given language capacity. There are, however, not only parameters along which language systems can vary; there are also many different ways that communities can (and do) use language in their activities. And gender is linked to sexual difference. Biological sex itself, however, is far less dichotomous than many assume (English speakers show little tolerance for gradations between "female" and "male," insisting on classifying intersexed people in one or the other category; see Bing and Bergvall 1996), and there is considerable intrasex variation on many dimensions (including cognitive functioning as well as physical and behavioral attributes), even among those whose classification seems biologically quite unproblematic. There is an extraordinary amount of sociocultural work done to elaborate femaleness and maleness, to construct gender identities (not limited to two in all cultures) and also gender relations. Most of this work is at the same time also shaping other aspects of social identities and relations (e.g., ethnicity, race, class). Because language use is an integral component of most social practices, language is necessarily a major instrument of the sociocultural construction of gender. Thus an emerging research goal is exploration of the linguistic practices through which sex and gender are elaborated in a wide range of different communities (see, e.g., Hall and Bucholtz 1996). Although rather little of this research has a cognitive orientation and some interesting work is not really empirical or scientific, it raises many important questions for cognitive scientists to address.

See also




Additional links

-- Sally McConnell-Ginet


Bing, J. M., and V. L. Bergvall. (1996). The question of questions: Beyond binary thinking. In V. L. Bergvall, J. M. Bing, and A. F. Freed, Eds., Rethinking Language and Gender Research: Theory and Practice. London: Longman.

Brown, P. (1990). Gender, politeness, and confrontation in Tenejapa. Discourse Processes 13:123-141.

Coates, J. (1992). Women, Men, and Language. 2nd ed. London: Longman.

Coates, J. (1993). Language and Gender: A Reader. Oxford: Blackwell.

Coates, J., and D. Cameron, Eds. (1988). Women in their Speech Communities: New Perspectives on Language and Sex. London: Longman.

Eckert, P. (1990). The whole woman: Sex and gender differences in variation. Language Variation and Change 1:245-267.

Eckert, P., and S. McConnell-Ginet. (1992). Think practically and look locally: Language and gender as community-based practice. Annual Review of Anthropology 21:461-490.

Eckert, P., and S. McConnell-Ginet. (1996). Constructing meaning, constructing selves: Snapshots of language, gender, and class from Belten High. In K. Hall and M. Bucholtz, Eds., Gender Articulated: Language and the Socially Constructed Self. London: Routledge, pp. 459-507.

Gal, S. (1991). Between speech and silence: The problematics of research on language and gender. In M. DiLeonardo, Ed., Gender at the Crossroads of Knowledge: Feminist Anthropology in the Postmodern Era. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, pp. 175-203.

Goodwin, M. H. (1991). He-Said-She-Said. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Hall, K., and M. Bucholtz, Eds. (1996). Gender Articulated: Language and the Socially Constructed Self. London: Routledge.

Hanson, H. (1996). Synthesis of female speech using the Klatt synthesizer. Speech Communication Group Working Papers, vol. 10. MIT Research Laboratory of Electronics, pp. 84-103.

Henley, N. M., and C. Kramarae. (1991). Gender, power, and miscommunication. In N. Coupland, H. Giles, and J. M. Wiemann, Eds., Miscommunication and Problematic Talk. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.

Henton, C. (1992). The abnormality of male speech. In G. Wolf, Ed., New Departures in Linguistics. New York: Garland, pp. 27-59.

Holmes, J. (1995). Women, Men, and Politeness. London: Longman.

Lakoff, R. (1975). Language and Woman's Place. New York: Harper and Row.

McConnell-Ginet, S. (1989). The sexual (re-)production of meaning: A discourse-based theory. In F. W. Frank and P. A. Treichler, Eds., Language, Gender, and Professional Writing: Theoretical Approaches and Guidelines for Nonsexist Usage. New York: Modern Language Association.

Milroy, J., L. Milroy, S. Hartley, and D. Walshaw. (1995). Glottal stops and Tyneside glottalization: Competing patterns of variation and change in British English. Language Variation and Change 6:327-357.

Ochs, E. (1992). Indexing gender. In A. Duranti and C. Goodwin, Eds., Rethinking Context: Language as an Interactive Phenomenon. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 335-358.

Philips, S. U., S. Steele, and C. Tanz, Eds. (1987). Language, Gender, and Sex in Comparative Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sniezek, J. A., and C. H. Jazwinski. (1986). Gender bias in English: In search of fair language. Journal of Applied Social Psychology 16:642-662.

Tannen, D. (1994). Talking from 9 to 5: How Women's and Men's Conversational Styles Affect Who Gets Heard, Who Gets Credit, and What Gets Done at Work. New York: William Morrow.

Vetterling-Braggin, M., Ed. (1981). Sexist Language: A Modern Philosophical Analysis. Totawa, NJ: Littlefield .