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Gender Roles in Language

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Examine the language in relation to gender, and observe its changing role in society.

"A businessman is aggressive; a businesswoman is pushy. A businessman is good on details; she is picky.... He follows through; she doesn't know when to quit. He stands firm; she is hard.... His judgements are her prejudices. He is a man of the world; she's been around. He isn't afraid to say what is on his mind; she is mouthy. He excersises authority diligently; she's power mad. He's closemouthed; she's secretive. He climbed the ladder of success; she slept her way to the top."

From "How to Tell a Businessman from a Businesswoman," Graduate School of management UCLA.

From the first moment a child begins to understand the spoken word, they begin to receive messages about society view of the different sexes.

Language itself can not be deemed good or bad, but it does reflect individual or societal values. The above example displays the way in which language can be used to stereotype gender. Both sexes in the example are behaving in the same way but the language used has separated them, praising the male whilst disparaging the female. In order to explore the differences between males and females regarding language we must look at whether or not language is sexist, whether it is used differently by different genders and how language has changed, if at all, in relation to these points.

Women's roles in society have changed considerably over time, and they are now valued more than ever in society. Chafetz (1990) has claimed that this has largely arisen due to the media. She says that newspapers and magazines now largely avoid sexist language, and even advertisers have changed their depiction of both genders to some degree. Universities have expanded their curricula to include courses for women, even hospitals have changed their policies pertaining to childbirth in directions originally propounded by women's movement activities; i.e. developing birthing centres etc. These examples are merely a few of the multitudes of changes that have occurred.

Trask (1995) has pointed out that the utilisation of language differs with gender. For instance, women have more of a tendency to use finer discriminations than men do in some areas such as colour terms. Women would be more at ease using the labels 'crimson', 'ecru', or 'beige', than men and men would be found to use the simpler version: "It's blue, not cornflower; what the hell is cornflower" (my dad when looking at paint.) Trask also noted that men have a tendency to drop more expletives into a conversation than women, although some women do swear, especially younger females (just sit in a student common lounge for a while to back this up); which is becoming worringly commonplace.

Jeperson,an early linguist, included a chapter on 'The woman' in his book "Language: Its Nature, Development and Origin" (1922). He claims that the women's contribution to the language is to maintain its purity, caused by the way they shrink from coarseness and vulgarity. ( A totally outmoded theory.):

There can be no doubt that women excersise a great and universal

influence on linguistic development through their instinctive

shrinking from coarse and vulgar expressions and their preference

for refined, and (in certain spheres) veiled and indirect expression.

Jespersen 1922.

He does maintain, however, that it is men's language which is endowed with vigour, imagination and creativity. Without it, he states, 'there is a danger of the language becoming languid and insipid. He goes on to claim that women have a smaller vocabulary than men and that which they do have they tend to misuse. As examples he quotes that women use intensifying adverbs 'with disregard of their proper meaning, as in the German 'riesig klein' (gigantically small), the English 'awfully pretty', and 'terribly nice'..... Danish 'raedsimt morosom' (awfully funny)'. (1922) He claims that women also suffer from an inability to finish sentences and while there is more talk from women there is less substance.

Talbot assures us that none of these claims were based on evidence but were mere conjecture on Jespersen's part. She goes on to add that the women that he encountered may well have ahd smaller vocabulary than the men, but that women then were often denied the education permitted to most men. She also says that the statement that women talk more is a familiar folklinguistic claim and that there is not a substantuial bodyof evidence to the contrary. She adds that it has been suggested (by Spender 1985, for instance) that the volume of women's talk has not been measured against men's but against silence.

Perhaps a more controversial issue raised by Trask, is the likelihood for women to drop more tag questions into the conversation; ending statements with "isn't it?", "aren't I?" or "haven't you?". This gives the impression that a women wants or needs some sort of reassurance from whoever she is talking to. Women also tend to start sentences with "I might be wrong" or "It's just an idea but..", apologising in advance for their existence or showing a lack of confidence. Although this may not be picked up on by many women, it shows a subordinate side to women, surely they shouldn't need to have reassurance from a man, as they are or should just as confident and capable of judging for themselves.

It is also claimed by Trask that men interrupt a conversation more often than women do; which may come as a surprise to many men who seem to think it is the other way round. Another interesting piece of research by Trask has shown that a woman's discourse tends to be co-operative whereas a man's, on the other hand, tends to be competitive. Trask argues that this is due to women's capacity to sympathise with others and to support the contribution of others. Conversely, men are seen to compete with one another in conversation, trying to outshine one another and scoring points off each other; arguably a typical masculine characteristic.

From as long ago as 1974, Fromkin and Rodman have argued that language does reflect sexism in society, although they point out that language alone is not sexist, but it can promote sexist attitudes as well as attitudes about social taboos or racism.

Fromkin and Rodman



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