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social sciences

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Language and Gender  
page: 1  2  

Eckert argued that language was used to create social identity specifically because self-definition through action (such as by being a star athlete) was unavailable for girls. Studies such as Eckert's have been important for understanding the ways that gender is performed within context, and the degree to which both gender and its linguistic expression can vary from one situation to the next.

The Place of Glbtq Language Studies

The idea that gender is performed opened the door for studies on the speech of non-heterosexual groups, although the importance of glbtq language studies for language and gender studies generally is not yet clear.

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The speech of gay males has, to date, received the most attention. There is a growing literature on lesbian language use, and a few studies each on drag queens and people, but by comparison with other areas of research on language and society, evidence for a gay language has been lacking.

Don Kulick, currently one of the most outspoken critics of existing research on gay and lesbian language, goes so far as to say that previous research "has failed to come up with any structural, morphological, or phonological features that are unique to gay men or lesbians."

He argues that the lack of concrete results, among other reasons, suggests that sexuality should be studied as an example of desire, not an example of gender. In short, he (implicitly) denies that sexuality is a social identity of the same sort as "woman" or "African American," subject to expression through language. Kulick argues that research should instead focus on "the role that fantasy, repression, and unconscious motivations play in linguistic interactions."

Not all researchers would state the condition of the field in such bleak terms, and even fewer would accept the position that sexuality (either as a subcategory of gender or as a distinct phenomenon) is not a social identity that is expressed through language.

However, if we allow that the linguistic creation of glbtq identities exists, this phenomenon is less well understood than, for example, the linguistic creation of a heterosexual African-American urban male identity. In short, the study of the speech of glbtq people has great promise within a performative framework, but that promise has yet to be fulfilled.


Language and gender studies were historically concerned with the study of heterosexual, white, middle class women. Early studies focused on how the oppression of women in society is manifested through language (especially in America), while some later work conceptualized gender difference as being parallel to cross-cultural difference. However, as linguistic research in the 1990s shifted towards investigating the ways in which people use language to "perform" gender, studies of men, non-heterosexual, and other gender identities have become of increasing interest, and those topics promise to be more central to the field in the future.

Andrea D. Sims

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social sciences >> Overview:  Gayspeak

If glbtq identities are expressed through language at the level of sentences, words, or sounds, that expression is either so subtle or so various as to not be easily pinpointed.


Barrett, Rusty. "Markedness and Styleswitching in Performances by Drag Queens." Codes and Consequences: Choosing Linguistic Varieties. Carol Myers-Scotton, ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. 139-61.

Eckert, Penelope. "The Whole Woman: Sex and Gender Differences in Variation." Language Variation and Change 1 (1989): 245-67.

Gelfer, Marylou Pausewang, and Kevin J. Schofield. "Comparison of Acoustic and Perceptual Measures of Voice in Male-to-Female Transsexuals Perceived as Female Versus Those Perceived as Male." Journal of Voice 14.1(2000): 22-33.

Kulick, Don. "Gay and Lesbian Language." Annual Review of Anthropology 29 (2000): 243-85.

Lakoff, Robin. Language and Woman's Place. New York: Harper and Row. 1975.

Tannen, Deborah. You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation. New York: Morrow, 1990.


    Citation Information
    Author: Sims, Andrea D.  
    Entry Title: Language and Gender  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2004  
    Date Last Updated December 29, 2004  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2004, glbtq, inc.  


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