The interrelationship between language and gender is not only complex, but also diverse. Feminists have been anxious as the term gender entails treating males and females as if they had the same political power, rights, upbringing, access to education and many others . Questions and criticisms of language have emerged due to the concern that language is a powerful medium, which both reflects and constructs the world. Language presents stereotypes of both males and females, sometimes to the disadvantage of males, but more often to the disadvantage of the females. Language has been historically man-made with the male forms reflecting the male’s position in the society and the female forms perceived as deviant. Various lexical markings have also prevented women from expressing and raising consciousness about their own experience as legitimately human by preventing women from speaking with their own voice .
One of the most common examples of gender bias in language is the use of pronouns, such as ‘he’ or ‘him’ to something related to both men and women. Another great example is that of master vs. mistress. There are unusual connotations surrounding the two terms and detriment to the female. While master has a strong and powerful connotation, mistress does not. Language limits the understanding of human experience by seeing the world through a gendered lens. According to feminist linguists, the attention given to language denaturalizes the assumed male privilege and the patriarchal system, thereby loosening the gender roles for both males and females . Language changes as a result of social, economic and political processes. It changes due to lifestyle changes and encounters with technology, media and migration. Language is also a vehicle for social change, but it reflects the present attitudes and views of humans.
While the most obvious function of language is to communicate information, the other two equally important functions are creation of social identity and maintenance of social relationships. The major tension related to language and gender is how the use of language reflects human attitudes concerning men and women and how it creates human attitudes towards gender roles and expectations . Female-based subcultures often use language to build personal relationships over the creation of hierarchical relationships. On the other hand, differences in language use between men and women result from the intent or purpose and not from the dominant position of men in the society. One of the strong views of language and gender suggests that the use of language creates gender distinctions rather than simply reflecting them . The study of language plays a big part in changing gender divisions, while it busies itself revealing them.
While women use more standard language as doing so grants them access to legitimacy, conversely, men are freer to be creative with language. The theory of deficit establishes a set of basic assumptions about the language of women. The socialization process of language begins very early as young children participate in gender specific subcultures with distinct gender styles. There are pressures on girls to be nice and boys to be competitive. It is likely that such attitudes connect with different interaction styles and personalities as well as linguistic choices made by individuals in particular groups. While girls seem collaborative in their use of language through playing with dolls and in paired groupings, boys are often more individual through sports. Girls use a conversational style of solidarity, while boys opt for and develop styles based on competitiveness . Both styles of speaking are beneficial to both the groups, as well as detrimental in certain circumstances. Since the patterns and tendencies are infinitely complex, generalizations are ultimately unhelpful.
Investigating and understanding language is crucial as it helps in eliminating disadvantages. It is through language that negotiations with others and construction of social identities take place. It is essential to emphasize that people do not interact as blank states; instead their prior experiences, expectations and assumptions influence the process of production as well as the process of interpretation of language . Analysis of metaphors provides a powerful means of understanding how the use of language shapes experience. The dominance approach retains a traditional, negative evaluation of women’s speech; however attributes women’s linguistic inadequacies to their political and cultural subordination to men. Under the interpretation of the dominance approach, men’s conversational dominance reflects their political and cultural domination of women . Conversely, the difference or dual-culture approach acknowledges that women use language differently but more positively, which is a reflection of women’s culture .
The major characteristics of women’s language are collaboration, cooperation, balance of speaking, symmetry and mutual support. Furthermore, women are fair, modest, honest and generous while using language, which concludes that women handle power differently from the way men do. Girls manifest elaborate interactive and linguistic skills. Most of the issues related to language and gender are relevant to broader issues of political economy. Therefore, placing a positive value on cooperative styles represents a challenge not only to gender stereotypes, but to many prevailing economic norms, which are disadvantageous to women in various ways . Explanations of men’s and women’s language use are dependent solely on the fact that they and men and women by gender. In situations of communicative breakdowns, each sex interprets the other’s actions in terms of gender stereotypes.
In egalitarian societies, as often described by anthropologists, men and women have their individual social spheres. Furthermore, in bilingual or multilingual societies, certain languages differentiate the speech of men and women. The effects of urbanization and globalization also impact the speech patterns of men and women. Relating gender to social attributes, such as race, class and sexuality suggests a focus on interactions between different aspects of identity . The gender system often mirrors the perceptions of social gender roles. When features of markedness occur in the area of grammatical gender, social implications tend to emerge. In societies where the masculine gender is in the unmarked form, it is typically the men on which certain social processes depend. Similarly, in societies where the feminine gender is in the unmarked form, the reverse seems to be true. In the recent years, there has been a shift in the use of language between genders. For example, a comparable word ‘guys’, is now in use by both males as well as females to refer to their gender peers equally. Another word, ‘dude’ began its rise in the everyday speech, which refers to both men and women irrespective of the gender. Hence, there is a hope that the world would very soon move towards a more equal use of language between the genders.
Bergvall, V. (2014). Rethinking Language and Gender Research: Theory and Practice. Routledge.
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Jule, A. (2008). A Beginner's Guide to Language and Gender. Tonawanda, NY: Multilingual Matters.
Mills, S. (2014). Language and Gender: Interdisciplinary Perspectives. New York, NY: Routledge.