Scholarship on gender and discourse has a long, interdisciplinary history. Anthropologists in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries documented differences between women’s and men’s speech in non-European cultures. However, gender differences within cultures have never been sufficient to constitute separate women’s and men’s languages. Around the early twentieth century, academics’ attention also turned to the English language. Gender and language variation was an early research topic for linguists. One bold but inaccurate view was that a larger variability in articulateness among men than women was evidence of men’s greater intelligence. Psychological studies dating from the 1930s and 1940s charted the emergence of sex differences in language use. A longstanding but still controversial claim is that of an innate female superiority in verbal ability (Weatherall 2002).
A feminist concern with language and communication also has a long history. Publications from the first women’s movement in the late nineteenth century noted the use of diminutive terms to address women and not men. The significance of women changing their name on marriage was also criticized. However, it was the second women’s movement starting in the 1960s that generated research on the relationships between gender, language, and power. Feminists documented how language, in both structure and patterns of use, encoded dominant beliefs about women’s inferiority. Outside feminist and academic circles there has also been a sustained interest in the topic. Journalistic articles are regularly published that discuss gender related language issues such as the use of “Ms,” marital name-changing, and the use of gender-marked terms (e.g., “air hostess” vs “cabin attendant”). Some self-help books offering advice on how to communicate better across the so-called gender divide have reached bestseller status. It should be noted these books are largely targeted at a female audience and they suggest changes to the ways women should talk, but not men.
A landmark publication was Robin Lakoff ’s (1975) Language and woman’s place. She argued that women’s social place was reflected in their speech, which she described as ingratiating, hesitant, and weak. Women’s secondary status was also revealed in reference terms, which were more frequently negative and sexual than were terms for men. Pairs of terms that illustrated the kinds of bias she documented include mistress/master, bachelor/ spinster, and tomboy/sissy. The two topics identified by Lakoff – gender differences in speech and sex bias in language – dominated scholarship until the last decade of the twentieth century. An important and ongoing debate straddling those two topics was whether language merely reflected gender inequality or whether it also maintained and reproduced sex-based discrimination. Scientific studies have shown that language customs can perpetuate discrimination. For example, jobs advertised using male words tend to attract fewer female applicants than the same jobs advertised using genderneutral terms. Research on the significance of language bias has been used to support policies that prohibit sexist language practices such as the use of “man” to refer to people in general.
Over time there has been a diversification of subject matter in this area (e.g., Holmes & Meyerhoff 2003). For instance, women’s talk has been studied not just comparatively but for what it reveals about women’s lives – their relationships with each other and their unique gendered experiences as mothers, daughters, and so on. Likewise men’s talk has been examined in investigations of maleness and masculinities. The study of gender in language has also broadened. For instance, different contexts such as sports commentary and wildlife documentaries are now studied. There is a general consensus that changes in gender representation have occurred. For example, women are no longer as invisible as they once were. Less encouraging is that representations of women and men continue to be overwhelmingly consistent with sex stereotypes. A vital new area of research is gender and computermediated communication. A key issue is whether established trends in gender and language research are reproduced or transformed by the new technologies.
Another important way subject matter has expanded is a consideration of language in terms of “queer” or non-normative gender and sexual identities (e.g., Livia & Hall 1997). Gender is pervasively conceptualized as a binary, so there is a notable absence of ways of talking about those who are transgender or intersex. Furthermore, past research on gender and language has largely assumed heterosexuality. More recently consideration has been given to marginalized sexual orientations and language use. Some research on sexuality parallels that on gender and language by asking questions about what is distinctive about the speech of those who belong to gay communities and how homosexuality is marginalized as a topic in talk and texts. However, other queer-focused research is characterized by a new way of theorizing the relationship between language and social identities.
The new way of thinking about language and identity that is evident in some of the sexuality literature marks a fundamental theoretical shift in conceptual thinking (Cameron 1998). The change is part of a broader movement across the social sciences that has been referred to as the “discursive turn.” Here, “discourse” does not refer to the everyday sense of the term as conversation, nor does it carry with it the technical linguistic meaning of language structure above the level of the sentence. Rather, it alludes to a rejection of ideas regarding language as a simple system of representation. Instead, language as discourse produces meaning and knowledge. Furthermore, this new sense of “discourse” captures the idea of power as truth, manifest in cultural givens about, e.g., gender and sexuality.
Discursive research continues an earlier interest in the relationships between gender, language, and power but examines them in new and innovative ways. Instead of asking how language reveals and perpetuates gender-based inequality, a discourse analytic study might ask about the ways meaning systems produce and reproduce cultural values. For example, discourse analytic studies have examined how dominant cultural notions such as liberalism and individualism are mobilized to deny gender inequality in the workplace and to justify a lack of affirmative action. An ongoing concern for those following the discursive turn is a current rise in neo-Darwinian ideas, which reifies biology as the cause of complex gender-differentiated behaviors such as those relevant to communication. A critique of those neo-Darwinian ideas requires two types of expertise: a mastery of scientific discourse itself and an appreciation of a discursive critique of that same science.
The discursive turn brings with it a landmark change in the way gender is conceptualized. Early work on gender and language rested on essentialist ideas whereas discursive work embraces constructionist ones. To oversimplify, gender essentialism posits that relatively stable biological and/or social factors cause differences between women and men. Questions asking about gender differences in speech are typically essentialist because they assume some biological or social origin of gender differentiation. In contrast, constructionism views gender differences as a product of cultural meaning systems. So knowledge and beliefs about gender are produced by historical and social practices organized by a two-sex system. According to a constructionist perspective a gender identity is accomplished, at least in part, by talking and behaving in ways that are consistent with the sex label one has been assigned.
An important source of support for constructionist ideas is transgender studies. That a person can successfully pass as a different gender is, at least, evidence that gender is not entirely something that one is. Rather it is a social accomplishment requiring cultural knowledge about gender and a high level of skill and competence at enacting that knowledge. In cases of individuals who are born intersex, Kessler (1998) considered medical practices for what they revealed about the power of cultural beliefs to “make sex.” For example, social norms regarding penis functionality (i.e., ability to penetrate a vagina) are used to guide surgical decisions to feminize babies born with ambiguous genitalia. So the study of non-normative gender identities has launched challenges to long-held assumptions about the naturalness and inevitability of sex. The theoretical concept of language as discourse helps highlight the power of culture to shape understandings of natural phenomena such as biological sex.
Methodological changes in research on gender, language, and discourse also cut across theoretical distinctions. Put roughly, there have been trends toward naturalistic data and an increasing use of qualitative analyses. Also there has been a move away from treating gender as a feature of individuals and toward analyzing it as a social identity that may be more or less relevant in different interactional contexts. Overall, a complex array of research approaches exists. An advantage of the theoretical and methodological diversity is that it characterizes a vibrant and exciting field of research. However, a disadvantage is a lack of common ground upon which to base discussion and debate. For example, a lack of definitive answers to questions about gender differences in speech motivates some researchers to pursue studies of difference, but it is used by others to reject the legitimacy of the questions. Such fundamentally incompatible positions are seemingly irreconcilable.
Compatibility issues aside, a range of contemporary approaches found in the literature are worth briefly mentioning. One is a Communities of Practice (CofP) perspective. Typically associated with sociolinguistics, a CoP approach investigates how speech patterns develop in relation to gender-differentiated membership of social groups. For example, specific workplaces have different gender divisions of labor. Detailed qualitative and quantitative analyses can reveal how gender-differentiated speech patterns are linked to particular job-related activities. The ways that gender, alongside other social identities such as age and ethnicity, influence speech styles in interaction is also a chief concern of research grounded in Communication Accommodation Theory (CAT), which is motivated by social psychological concerns. Another distinctive methodological approach evident in the published research literature is Conversation Analysis (CA), which attends to micro-features of talk-in-interaction. A CA study might examine when speakers observably orient to gender as relevant to the interaction, and might consider what those orientations accomplish in terms of social actions such as complimenting or complaining.
The richness and diversity of theory and methods in research on gender, language, and discourse belie simple predictions about possible directions future research might take. Currently, there is a substantive rift between language research based on essentialist ideas about gender and that based on constructionist ones. The establishment of Gender and Language in 2007, a journal devoted to publishing work on the topic, may help close that rift. Alternatively, approaches such as conversation analysis might gain ascendancy, approaches that side-step theoretical commitments about the nature of gender. Certainly, lay understandings of gender and its relationship to language largely rest on essentialist notions. Thus it behooves those endorsing constructionist ideas to make them more widely available and relevant to the concerns of contemporary society.
- Cameron, D. (1998). Gender, language and discourse: A review essay. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 23(4), 945 – 967.
- Coates, J. (2003). Men talk: Stories in the making of masculinities. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
- Eckert, P., & McConnell-Ginet, S. (2003). Language and gender. New York: Cambridge University Press.
- Holmes, J., & Meyerhoff, M. (eds.) (2003). Blackwell handbook for language and gender. Oxford: Blackwell.
- Kessler, S. J. (1998). Lessons from the intersexed. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
- Lakoff, R. (1975). Language and woman’s place. New York: Harper and Row.
- Livia, A., & Hall, K. (1997). Queerly phrased: language, gender and sexuality. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Tannen, D. (2003). You’re wearing that? Understanding mothers and daughters in conversation. New York: Random House.
- Weatherall, A. (2002). Gender, language and discourse. London: Routledge.