G is for Gender

Vivian Cook 
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Do women and men speak different languages?

It is obvious that men’s voices are deeper than women’s because their longer vocal cords vibrate against each other less frequently. Yet even this pitch difference varies slightly from place to place; American men on average have deeper voices than Polish men.

Lower pitch sets up other associations in our minds. Compare the deep tones of the aliens in Close Encounters, with the frenzied squeaking of the mogwais in Gremlins. Deeper pitch gives an impression of power and authority rather than frivolity and hysteria, for example an Alsatian’s growl versus a Pekinese’s yelp. After all Mrs Thatcher is said to have lowered her voice in order to compete with male politicians. The deeper pitch of men’s voices in itself makes a difference to the listener.

But is the actual language of men and women different? The title of Absolutely Fabulous! caricatures women’s alleged over-use of exclamations and emotive expressions such as absolutely. Yet, if you don’t hear the voice of the speaker, as in writing, it is often hard to tell the sexes apart in English, as George Eliot, James Tiptree Jr, or indeed Bel Littlejohn, bear witness.

The differences between men and women’s speech are sometimes clear-cut. In some Australian aboriginal languages a married woman must not say a word that is the same as her husband’s name. So Hillary Clinton would have to find another word for a fifty dollar bill or a Bill of Congress. In another aboriginal language, women use a sign language of their own when they are not allowed to speak, say, during periods of mourning. Sometimes the differences between men’s and women’s speech extend to grammar. In Dholuo, a language spoken in Kenya, the verb for ‘marry’ must be used in the active when a man is involved, John married Yoko, but in the passive for a woman, Yoko was married by John.

The stereotype about women’s speech played out in Bob Hoskins’ BT commercials is that they talk far more than men. Concrete evidence for this belief is hard to find. A day’s listening to speech soon demonstrates that men actually speak more in many everyday situations. Women’s alleged talkativeness seems to be a matter of people’s expectations rather than of what they really do. After all, if men expect women to say nothing, anything they say will be regarded as talkative.

In English, most of the differences between the sexes are a matter of degree rather than either/or. Everywhere in the world English-speaking women pronounce the ‘-ing’ ending in verbs like speaking as ‘-ing’ more often than men, who have a greater fondness for the ‘’in’’ pronunciation; the slogan Notre Dame Fightin’ Irish on an American T-shirt sounds tougher than a mere Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Women are supposedly drawn upwards towards the standard ‘educated’ form, men pulled downwards towards the non-standard form in many languages as well as English. Algerian women use more of the standard French back of the mouth ‘r’ sound than men, who have more of the provincial tongue-tip pronunciation. Arab women in Jordan use the local standard forms more than the men, even if they are less expert at classical Arabic.

In so far as there are differences between men and women in language that go beyond the physical, they reflect their relationships in society not intrinsic differences between the sexes, and so can be very different in different languages. In English the glottal stop as in bu’er for butter is thought tough and working class. In Jordanian Arabic, the same sound is thought soft and feminine. What you consider women’s speech depends on where you come from.

612 words