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Language and Gender  
 
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While the most obvious function of language is to communicate information, language also contributes to at least two other equally important, but less often recognized, functions: (1) to establish and maintain social relationships, and (2) to express and create the social identity of the speaker.

These functions may be recognized less often because information such as class or race is conveyed not as much through what we say, as through how we say it. In other words, information is conveyed as much by how we compose our utterances as through the precise character of our thought. This is certainly true of gender.

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Early Studies

People have long known that gender and language use are connected. Early anthropological studies on gendered language focused on non-Western cultures, for which it was reported that men and women spoke different languages, although these reports were ultimately discovered to be exaggerated.

Gendered language in industrial societies was not taken as a serious topic of study until the 1960s, and did not explode as a subfield in its own right until the publication of Robin Lakoff's book Language and Woman's Place in 1975.

A programmatic, feminist piece, Lakoff's book presents impressionistic conclusions regarding the speech of (heterosexual, white, middle class, American) women. Some of the features of what Lakoff calls "women's language" include specialized color terms (for example, mauve), words to "hedge" the strength of a statement (such as sort of, maybe), expressive so (as in It is so cute), tag questions (such as This room is quite hot, isn't it?, which is "softer" than This room is quite hot.), rising pitch in declarative statements (so that they sound like questions), and avoidance of swearing and other taboo words. Lakoff argues that women use these features because they are denied means of strong expression within a male-dominated society.

Lakoff's book, while groundbreaking in the field, is also problematic. First, it largely confounds the notions of sex (as an inborn, essentially binary opposition) with gender (as a learned, socially-constructed continuum). For example, the work ignores the fact that women in high status positions (such as corporate CEOs) may portray a very different image of femininity than, for example, a sex worker.

Second, Lakoff implicitly views female language as deviant from a male norm. Finally, distinctions other than heterosexual-male and heterosexual-female (or even variability within these categories!) are not discussed beyond stereotyped statements such as that gay men use some of the characteristics of "women's language" (for example, a wider range of color terms).

Cross-gender Communication as Cross-cultural Communication

Many later studies recapitulated this focus on heterosexual, white, middle class women, and many accepted Lakoff's observations about language use. At the same time, however, explanations for "women's language" have changed.

For example, Tannen's best-selling book You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation (1990) argues that gender differences are parallel to cross-cultural differences. She claims that when interpreting the cultural information encoded by language, men and women rely on different subcultural norms. Female subculture uses language to build equal relationships, while male subculture uses language to build hierarchical relationships.

Thus, when a man says "I didn't sleep well last night," a woman will interpret the man's original statement as a request to build an equal relationship by showing that both people are the same, and she may respond with a similar complaint: "I didn't sleep well either." The man, however, would interpret the woman's response as an attempt to deny his uniqueness, putting him in a subordinate position in the conversation.

In other words, Tannen argues that differences in language between women and men result from a misunderstanding of the intent of the other sex, and not (necessarily) from the dominant position of men in society. While Tannen's book was harshly criticized by many feminists for denying societal inequality, a theoretical shift ultimately demonstrated that these two explanations--subcultural difference vs. social dominance--are not necessarily contradictory.

"Performing" Gender through Language

In the late 1980s, study of the relationship between language and gender moved towards viewing language as performative of gender and not simply reflective of it. In short, people create gender through speech (and other actions). If people perform gender roles, it is expected that the performance will vary from one context to the next, and different theories may explain different situations.

Gender may be performed through language in a variety of ways. As a single example, Penelope Eckert investigated the speech of Detroit high school students who could be categorized as either "jocks" or "burnouts." She found that girls pronounced three vowels differently from boys, but did not themselves constitute a uniform group. Instead, the girls were using language in order to polarize themselves as either jocks or burnouts. In other words, the girls were using language to perform both a gender and a jock or burnout identity.

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