Differences in Language and Gender?


Sungsoon: Mike, if it’s OK I have a question.
Michael: Sure…what is it?
Sungsoon: Well, um, this morning we talked about a bunch of words and one of them was prude. That made us talk about other words related to dating and stuff.
Michael: OK…?
Sungsoon: And we talked about how someone with two girlfriends is a two-timer. But we wanted to know what we can call someone with more than two girlfriends.
Michael: Ha, hah. OK. Umm. I think I would usually say dog. Like, “He is a dog.”
Sungsoon: Oh. OK…and what about a woman?
Michael: Hmm. The only word that I can think of is slut. But this is a bit different than dog.

From this (paraphrased) real-life interaction with a student we can see how issues of gender in linguistics might come up in and out of the EFL classroom. This is also a clear example of how language is used differently to describe women and men. In this section, I shall try to use personal experiences and examples to illustrate these differences.

In the conversation above, Sungsoon wanted more information about how a dog differed from a slut. I told her that a dog almost sounded respected or cool. I made a deep voice and pointed at the imaginary man across the room and said with awe that, “He is such a dog” placing stress on the final word as I punched her on the arm. She nodded furiously with understanding. I thought she caught my idea that for a man to be a dog it is something that society thinks is normal and natural. It is even something for other men to aspire to. I hoped that she knew this was not my opinion, but just an example of how the word was used.

After hearing my thoughts about the word dog in the context of a man who cheats or has multiple girls on the side Sungsoon wanted to know the meaning and connotations of the word slut. I told her that this word is used to pass judgment on a sexually active woman. She seemed to want more information. I told her that slut meant a girl that, “sleeps around” which might even have confused her more. I mentioned that slut is word used to look down on girls whose behavior is thought of as inappropriate by the person using the word. I stuttered and mumbled that slut is a word used for girls considered “easy.” She looked like she was basically satisfied with my answers but that she still wanted a little more clarification. I invented a story of a friend of mine that always wears short skirts and that many people think she is slutty because of this. By this point Sungsoon seemed to mostly understand what I was trying to say. I wonder if the Cambridge Learner’s definition of a slut as “a woman who has sexual relationships with a lot of men without any emotional involvement” would have been helpful. (Cambridge Learner’s Dictionary)

Later, when I thought about the conversation with Sungsoon I wondered to myself what I was trying to say. I wondered if I gave her accurate information about the words and situations that she asked about. I wondered if I gave her too much of my opinion. I wondered if I didn’t give her enough of my opinion. I wondered if I didn’t condemn the use of sexist language enough. I wondered if I treated a serious topic too lightly. I wondered if by choosing the example of the short skirt I was perpetuating stereotypes. I worried that my answer only acted to reinforce stereotypes. I worried that I would give her a negative feeling towards America,  Americans, and English. After thinking things through I started to think that I did my best to answer her questions as effectively as possible. While she didn’t really ask for my views on gender in linguistics these issues are central to answering questions like hers. I feel that if I didn’t tell her the connotations I would have done her a disservice. She needs and wants to know how English is used and the information that I gave her was valuable in that area. In retrospect, I feel that I did a reasonably good job of answering her questions in an honest and helpful way. I wonder how I will answer similar questions in the future. Perhaps a greater knowledge of gender in sociolinguistics will help me to feel more comfortable answering such questions.

Although not a sociolinguist, Tony Monchinsky makes a great point when he writes in Critical Pedagogy and the Everyday Classroom that, “We live in societies where the subjection of women is condoned, encouraged, or turned a blind eye. In the United States, boys who sleep with many girls are considered “playas,” “playboys,” or “studs”; girls who sleep with many boys are “sluts” and “whores.” (Monchinsky 8) All the words used for males can be seen as positive, like my description of the word dog. Stud sounds like an admirable and powerful male creature used for its sexual prowess. Like dog, stud takes the humanity away from human males and makes them seem like animals subjected to the power of their sexual desires. While not necessarily favorable, it is as though men have a built-in excuse for promiscuous behavior. Player and playa give respect to the men that are successful in the game of finding a sexual partner. The use of the word player also brings to mind metaphors related to “scoring” and “hitting a homerun” as euphemisms for having sex. (Eckert 214) Playboy is defined as, “a rich man who spends his time and money on luxuries and a life of pleasure.” (Cambridge Learner’s) We can imagine that the pleasures described are pleasures of the flesh but this definition does not convey a negative feeling for playboys. They seem like men that simply enjoy life. Through the use of terms like dog, playboy, player, and stud we can see that men’s sexual behavior is not something to be frowned upon but something to be understood, condoned, and even admired.

Whore and slut are not the only words used to describe sexually available women. Thesaurus.com lists the synonyms of slut as bimbo, hooker, wench, floozy, harlot, hussy, slattern, tart, tramp, vamp and the aforementioned whore. (Thesaurus) These words all strike me as emotively powerful and decidedly negative. In An Introduction to Sociolinguistics, Janet Holmes writes about “a common evolutionary pattern in the meaning of words related to women.” She mentions that, “Terms which were originally neutral or affectionate eventually acquire negative connotations as they increasingly only refer to women and as their meanings focus on women as sexual objects.” (Holmes 318) Examples of this type of semantic derogation include the fact that “hussy” was once simply another word for housewife and that “mistress” was simply the feminine form for “master.” (Eckert 3) Thankfully, many of the words listed above sound outdated and old-fashioned. Perhaps some of these words are at the end of the revolutionary arc and will become extinct soon. We learned in “Language in Society” that there are over 200 words used to describe “sexually available” women but less than 20 to describe “sexually available” men. (Language in Society) The vast majority of the words used to describe women are negative. The distinction between the feelings conveyed by these words and the words used to describe men is a large one that points to the fact that the language used to describe men and women is vastly different even if the activities are the same.

It is interesting to note that the conversation about sluts and two timers started with the word prude. One of Sungsoon’s classmates told the class that she was a bit of a loner when she was young. She said was a bit arrogant and was not interested in making friends. Her classmates tried to find words that matched this situation in their dictionaries and one of the words they found was prude. I chuckled an said that this was probably not the right word for this situation. The first thought I had was a person that is not sexually active and is uneasy with sexual matters. The example that came to my mind was a high school boy telling a buddy, “Don’t go out with her, she is such a prude.” Prude and slut are both derogatory terms for the opposite meaning. While admitting that prude can be used to describe men, this is another good example of how language related to sexual activity is unfair to women.

Thinking about how opposite behaviors done by women can both be regarded and labeled as negative is useful when thinking about how language is used to describe different genders. It is also important to think about how the same behaviors done by both women and men can be described differently. This was illustrated above in regards to the differences between words like dog and playboy compared with words like slut and whore. Another example that comes to mind is the word aggressive. This was a word that was introduced in the textbook that I was using with my Korean students. They wanted to know if the word was positive or negative. I said that, to me as an American, it was a mixture of positive and negative. An aggressive salesperson or soccer player came to mind as examples of the word used with positive connotations. One student shared his feelings and mentioned that he could understand an aggressive soccer player being a good thing but the phrase “aggressive woman” sounded bad to him. His classmates laughed, but it was an interesting point. He was ready to admit that maybe it was a cultural difference and that maybe Americans think about things differently than Koreans and that maybe people in their 20’s and 30’s might have different views than those in their late 50’s. I thought about his insightful comments while his classmates laughed and I felt that many Americans of any age would agree with him that the phrase “aggressive woman” sounds bad, or at least worse than an aggressive man. A woman that is overly aggressive could be seen as “bitchy” but an aggressive man could be seen as forceful, powerful and assertive. Differences in perceptions about the roles and expected behaviors of women and men are shown through the way that people who perform in the same ways are described. The use of the same word to describe men positively and women negatively is a striking example of how language is used differently to describe women and men.

In this section we have seen how similar sexual behavior done by men and women will be perceived negatively when done by women. We have seen how even opposite behaviors will be perceived negatively when done by women. We have seen how the same exact word will carry different meanings when applied to women and men. These examples, all stemming from my teaching experience, act to show that language is used differently to describe men and women. This brings up the question of why this is the case.

One reason negative words are used to describe certain behaviors is because these behaviors might not mesh with how people are expected to act. The idea is that women are not supposed to be aggressive so when they are the words used to describe their behavior will be negative. Women are not supposed to be “easy” and if they are they will be viewed and described negatively. Even the negativity of the word prude can be seen in this light. Those that would use this word to describe women might expect women to be sexually available and the women will be negatively labeled for not meeting these expectations. This type of labeling applies to men as well. Men are expected to be promiscuous and aggressive so, when and if they are the description given will be a neutral or positive one. Expectations play a very large role in the different ways that language is used to describe men and women.

Section B–Differences in use?

Men are from Mars. Women are from Venus. Women talk more than men. Men discuss more serious topics than women. Women gossip more. Men don’t listen as well as women. It is easier for women to talk about feelings. Men interrupt more. Men never ask for directions. These are all truisms that attract attention and sell books and magazines. They are certainly interesting to think and talk about. Jennifer Coates writes that, “Gender – and gender differences – are topics which engage the public imagination. Tabloid newspapers and television chat shows, for example, raise questions such as ‘Do women and men talk differently?” (Llamas 62) It is generally thought of as an accepted fact that women and men use language differently. It was certainly much easier for me to answer affirmatively that language is used differently to describe men and women than it is to say that women and men use language differently. This question takes more research and analysis because it is extremely complicated.

A natural starting point for a discussion on the different ways that men and women use language is Robin Lakoff’s theories. She argued, much like I did in the first section of this paper, that different language is used to describe women and men. She also wrote that language was used differently by men and women. As part of the “Deficit Model” Lakoff suggested that features like lexical hedges, tag questions, rising intonation on declarative sentences, ‘empty’ adjectives, precise color terms, intensifiers, ‘hypercorrect’ grammar, ‘superpolite’ forms, emphatic stress and the avoidance of strong swear words were typical of “women’s language.” (Holmes 298) She was coming from the standpoint that ‘speaking like a woman’ was based upon speaking tentatively and powerlessly. (Eckert 158)

When I first saw the above list I must admit that it seemed quite reasonable to me. I felt like women would be more likely to use “empty adjectives,” intensifiers, and lexical hedges than men. I believed that women would also be more likely to use these linguistic devices based on both my perceptions of how women talk and perhaps my perceptions of the place of women in society. Things are again not as simple as they might first appear.

One of the reasons  Lakoff’s theory is no longer academically viable is that it was extremely difficult to effectively measure the use of these categories. Many of the early studies were based on forms alone and did not place enough importance on the functions of the linguistic devices. (Holmes 299) The “discourse turn” in language and gender studies placed a greater emphasis on interactiveaspects of language as well as on the dynamic and historical character of language. Linguistic units are viewed in terms of the functions that they perform. (Eckert 4) Lakoff’s list was a start but things are much more complicated than simply delineating words and phrases for women and words and phrases for men.

Rather than focus on how all men and all women use the above linguistic resources it might be interesting and helpful share my perceptions on how I personally use the above list of linguistic resources. My findings are simply based on rough estimates in the three months since I became familiar with Lakoff’s list. I would have to say that I swear more than most, but not all, women that I know. With that said, I have been teased in the past for saying, “Oh my gosh” because it sounded too pure to the person that I was speaking to. I feel like I use more hypercorrect and superpolite forms that most people I know. I also think that I use emphatic stress more than most people. While realizing that I am just one person it is important to also realize that Lakoff’s list was simply a starting point. The relationship between language and gender is much more complicated than “men say this and women say that.”

Keeping the above paragraph in mind, I am 100% certain that I use precise color terms less than most women. I do not know them! There are many areas where my vocabulary and knowledge are limited. I do not really know much about flowers, fashion, baking, American football, or musicals. Some people might think that the reason for my lack of knowledge in flowers, fashion, baking and musicals is because I am male. Maybe the fact that I am a heterosexual male might be considered important information to this discussion. In this light, I wonder how my lack of knowledge about football would be explained. People are often surprised that a large “masculine” man like myself that is interested in sports is not at all interested in football. One possible explanation is that I grew up in a small town in the Northeast and there was no football team. We played soccer instead. My personal history affects who I am and what topics I talk about.

I must seem more masculine talking at length about basketball than I do ordering a veggie burger. I also deploy linguistic resources differently at different times. I probably use tag questions more when talking with my nieces than I do talking with my male friends at the bar. It is likely that I use more emphatic stress in class than on the street. I might opt to use more “hypercorrect” forms in formal writing. I am sure that I compliment female students more than I do female friends. I, like everyone else, “do” gender differently at different times. Gender is not something that we “have” but is rather something that we “do.” This type of thinking is consistent with the “performance turn” in sociolinguistics. (Eckert 316)

Sometimes I speak as a teacher, sometimes as a learner, sometimes as a colleague, sometimes as a manager, sometimes as an employee, sometimes as a son, sometimes as boyfriend, sometimes as a foreigner, sometimes as an American and sometimes as a New Englander. When I perform these identities I surely use different linguistic devices. Some of the devices that I use at certain times would be considered more feminine or masculine than others. This again shows how complicated these issues can be. It also might show how “masculinity” is not a static concept.

As I looked at Lakoff’s list, I was reminded of a male colleague who said, “I don’t use tag questions often, do I?” just before teaching a lesson on tag questions. Tag questions are especially problematic for sociolinguistic research because they can perform a variety of functions including facilitating conversations, softening critiques, expressing uncertainty, and strengthening negative force of an utterance. (Holmes 301-302) When my colleague asked the question about tag questions he was not talking about sociolinguistic differences between men and women but it leads to the important point that it is truly difficult to know exactly what we say. The fact remains that evidence is hard to come by.

Lack of compelling data is a major factor in the work of Deborah Cameron, professor at Oxford and the author of The Myth of Mars and Venus. When Cameron looks at the data from over 30 years of research on language, communication and the sexes she does not see clear evidence that there are major differences between the way that women and men use language. She sees a much more complicated picture. (Cameron) Cameron cites research from the psychologist Janet S Hyde’s surprisingly titled article, “Gender Similarities Hypothesis.” Hyde used meta-analysis to find that gender differences related to verbal behavior and verbal abilities were not statistically relevant.

Furthermore,  Jack Chambers, a linguist, found that women and men overlap 99.75% when it comes to linguistic abilities. (Cameron) These studies, coupled with the lack of reliable and data to prove commonly held beliefs lead Cameron to believe that there are not measurable and fundamental differences between how women and men use language. Cameron feels that status, context, topic and individual taste and personalities are more important factors than gender when it comes to determining linguistic choices. In fact, she feels that, “The idea that men and women differ fundamentally in the way that they use language is a myth in the everyday sense: a widespread but false belief.” Cameron calls the notion that women and men use language to communicate in fundamentally different ways, “the myth of Mars and Venus.”

Cameron tries to explain the persistence of the myth, even though it lacks evidence. She writes, “In relation to women and men, our most basic stereotypical expectation is simply that they will be different rather than the same. We actively look for differences, and seek out sources that discuss them.” (Cameron) People might not be as interested to watch a TV show or read a magazine article about how similar women and men are. As a result, most studies are centered around trying to find differences. Studies that don’t find significant differences between men and women are not as likely to be published. It seems that people are more interested in hearing how we different we are rather than hearing that we are just .25% different.

It is very easy for us to notice events, patterns and people that fit into our previously held ideas. For example if we hear about a man, like myself, that talks a lot and likes to gossip he will be seen as an easily explained aberration. A woman that gossips will be seen as proving the truism that women gossip. When faced with the question of differences in how women and men use language I cannot rely on folk linguistic theories that tell me that there are major differences. I have to admit that I have been among the many people whose stereotypes of how men and women use language inform their perception of the world. If posed the question, “Do you believe that there are differences in the ways women and men use language?” my answer would be “It’s complicated.” I am forced to say that yes, there are probably differences but they are not as important as the followers of the cult of “Mars and Venus” might believe. I feel that individual, situational, and status differences are extremely important factors in the use of language and these must be factored into any discussion about the differences in language use. When discussing gender differences in language use we should bear in mind that they are complicated and multi-layered.


I strongly feel that the language used to describe men and women is different. I am not so sure about the extent to which men and women use language differently. I am more convinced of Cameron’s powerful ideas than by previous perceptions. I realize that am very much a work in progress on these issues. I feel that I am one or a few steps ahead of other teachers because at least I am thinking about these issues and how they affect my teaching, learning, thinking and living. While I have found it interesting and useful to explore the questions detailed in this paper I would like to echo Eckert’s assertion that there are more valuable questions to be asked. Instead of asking “How do women speak?” we might be better served by asking, “How do people use linguistic resources to present themselves as different types of men and women?” Similarly we might ask, “What kinds of linguistic practices support specific gender norms and ideologies?” rather than asking, “How are women spoken of?” (Eckert 5) It is also useful to consider how new ideas about language and gender come to be thought of as facts and how practices can change. These are the types of questions that I will consider as I continue learning, thinking, growing and living.


Cameron, D. (2007, October 1). What Language Barrier?. The Guardian.  Retrieved May 17, 2009 from http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2007/oct/01/gender.books

Coates, J (2007). Gender. In Llamas, C., & et. al.,(Eds.), Routledge Guide to Sociolinguistics (62-68). New York: Routledge.

Eckert, P. & McConnell G. (2003). Language and Gender. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Harrington, K. Language in Society, Gender [BB lecture notes]. Retrieved from Language in Society from http://my.newschool.edu Holmes, Janet (2008) An Introduction to Sociolinguistics. London: Longman.

Monchinsky, T. (2008). Critical Pedagogy and the Everyday Classroom. New York: Springer. Slut. (n.d.) In Cambridge Learner’s Dictionary online . Retrieved May 16, 2009, from http://dictionary.cambridge.org/ Slut. (n.d.) In Thesaurus.com. Retrieved May 16, 2009, from http://thesaurus.reference.com/


One comment

  1. Pingback: follow up on the #waronsuggestions | ELT Rants, Reviews, and Reflections

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s