Language and Gender
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Language and Gender

Mary Talbot

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eBook - ePub

Language and Gender

Mary Talbot

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Since its first publication in 1998, Mary Talbot's Language and Gender has been a leading textbook, popular with students for its accessibility and with teachers for the range and depth it achieves in a single volume. This anticipated third edition has been thoroughly revised and updated for the era of #MeToo, genderqueer, Trump, and cyberhate. The book is organized into three parts. An introductory section provides grounding in early 'classic' studies in the field. In the second section, Talbot examines language used by women and men in a variety of speech situations and genres. The last section considers the construction and performance of gender in discourse, reflecting the interest in mass media and popular culture found in recent research, as well as the preoccupation with social change that is central to Critical Discourse Analysis. Maintaining an emphasis on recent research, Talbot covers a range of approaches at an introductory level, lucidly presenting sometimes difficult and complex issues. Each chapter concludes with a list of recommended readings, enabling students to further their interests in various topics. Language and Gender will continue to be an essential textbook for undergraduates and postgraduates in linguistics, sociolinguistics, cultural and media studies, gender studies and communication studies.

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Preliminaries: Airing Stereotypes and Early Models

Language and gender

Gender is an important division in all societies. It is of enormous significance to human beings. Being born male or female has far-reaching consequences for an individual. It affects how we act in the world and how the world treats us. This includes the language we use and the language used about us. I want this book to make you more conscious of the social category of gender, of the divisions made on the basis of it and, not least, of the part language plays in establishing and sustaining these divisions.

About this book

Politically, this book’s agenda is feminist. Feminism is a form of politics dedicated to bringing about social changes, and ultimately to arresting the reproduction of systematic inequalities between men and women. Feminist interest in language and gender resides in the complex part language plays, alongside other social practices and institutions, in reflecting, creating and sustaining gender divisions in society. It is this role played by language that is the subject of this book. Examining it will involve us in a wide range of issues, from expectations about how women and men ought to speak to restrictions on women’s access to public forms of talk, the division of conversational ‘labour’ among couples, representations of masculinity and femininity in the mass media, and much more besides.
Part I, ‘Preliminaries: Airing Stereotypes and Early Models’, looks at some early work on sex differences in language use and at stereotypes about women. Its three chapters provide a grounding in early work in the field and its central, but problematic, distinction between sex and gender.
Part II, ‘Interaction among Women and Men’, introduces a range of studies in the Anglo-American empirical tradition working within what is often called the difference-and-dominance framework. This second part covers research into specific aspects of spoken interaction, including claims that have been made about large-scale gender differences. Two of the chapters present research into men’s and women’s language grouped under a variety of speech situations and genres. These chapters take up some of the minor issues and problems arising from the various studies presented so far, for example the difficulties caused by accounting for gender differences in terms of dichotomies such as public versus private or informational versus affective. Part II finishes by considering more major problems, its concluding chapter examining some of the theoretical underpinnings of the research presented up to this point and the problems they pose for researchers in language and gender. This part focuses chiefly on the preoccupation with ‘difference’ and includes discussion of the reception among feminist linguists of Deborah Tannen’s popularizing work on male and female ‘interactional styles’ (1986, 1991, 1995).
Part III, ‘Discourse and Gender: Construction and Performance’, turns to critical perspectives on gender, language and sexuality. This concluding part introduces a contrasting approach to the study of language and gender, one that is grounded in a different theoretical background and asks different kinds of questions. It attempts (or begins to attempt) to explain how languages, individuals and social contexts ‘interact’ and how this interaction sustains unequal gender relations. In particular, it presents work in critical discourse analysis, an approach to the study of language in social context that is grounded in European theories of discourse and subjectivity. Looking at studies of the construction of a variety of feminine and masculine identities, the chapters in this final part of the book reflect both the high degree of interest in mass media and popular culture found in language and gender research within critical discourse analysis and the preoccupation with discourse and social change that is central to critical discourse analysis more generally.

Linguistic sex differentiation

The earliest work on men, women and language attended to sex differentiation. Studies of the differences involved were carried out by Europeans and other ‘westerners’ with an interest in anthropology. Such studies have tended to concentrate on ‘exotica’ of a phonological and lexicogrammatical nature (sound patterns, words and structures). A great deal of this kind of research has focused on the existence of different pronouns or affixes specific to men and women, whether as speakers or as persons spoken to or spoken about. Sex differentiation of this sort is uncommon in languages of European origin. The pronoun systems of Germanic languages – such as English and Danish – only distinguish sex in the third-person singular form (he/him, she/her – or it). That is, when one individual is speaking to a second one about a third, the sex of the third person is specified. The pronoun systems of Romance languages – for example French, Italian, Spanish and Romanian – are similar, except that they mark sex in the third person plural (ils/elles, etc.) as well. Colloquial Arabic also has sexmarking forms in the second person singular (you) so that, in addressing a person as ‘you’, the pronoun you use will depend on whether that person is male (ʔinta) or female (ʔinti). (The symbol ʔ represents a glottal stop.)
Other languages have very different pronoun systems. The Japanese one is complicated by the existence of distinct levels of formality and the need to take into account the status of the person you are talking to in deciding which level to use. There is a range of different words for the first-person pronoun, I, for instance. There are formal pronouns that can be used by both women and men: watashi and the highly formal watakushi. Less formally, atashi is used only by women, boku traditionally only by men (there is also another form, ore, available to men if they want to play up their masculinity). The choice of pronoun depends here on the sex of the speaker, not of the addressee. That is, if you are a woman you must use the ‘female’ pronoun form and if you are a man you must choose from the ‘male’ forms. Japan does appear to be undergoing change. Girls in Japanese high schools say that they use the first-person pronoun boku, because if they use atashi they cannot compete with the boys (Jugaku 1979, cited in Okamoto 1995: 314). Feminists have been reported using another form, boke, to refer to themselves (Romaine 1994: 111).
In some traditional, tribal societies, men and women have a whole range of different vocabularies that they use (while presumably understanding ‘male’ and ‘female’ forms but not using both). An extreme example of this phenomenon was in the language used by the Carib Indians (who inhabited what is now Dominica, in the Lesser Antilles). When explorers from Europe first encountered these people, they thought the women and the men were speaking distinct languages. A European writer-traveller in the seventeenth century had this to say about them:
the men have a great many expressions peculiar to them, which the women understand but never pronounce themselves. On the other hand, the women have words and phrases which the men never use, or they would be laughed to scorn. Thus it happens that in their conversations it often seems as if the women had another language than the men. (Rochefort, cited in Jespersen 1922: 237)
This linguistic situation is more likely to occur in stable, conservative cultures, where male and female social roles are not flexible. However, a contemporary tribal people in Brazil, the Karajá – whose language has more differences between male and female speech than any other – is currently coping with rapid and profound cultural changes that affect every aspect of its society. In Karajá speech, sex of speaker is marked phonologically. There are systematic sound differences between male and female forms of words, and they occur even in loan words from Portuguese. There are some examples in Table 1.1. Notice the absence of /k/ and /ku/ in male speech.
Table 1.1 Differences in male and female speech in Karajá
Source: Fortune and Fortune 1987: 476
Traditionally, Karajá speakers have very clearly defined social roles for women and men. The distinct male and female forms contribute to marking these two domains, which are a central aspect of Karajá tribal identity. Since young people are now learning to read and write in their mother tongue of Karajá, these distinct forms will be retained. As a consequence, they will be less likely to lose their sense of cultural identity in the process of assimilation into the larger, Portuguese-speaking Brazilian society than if they had to acquire literacy through Portuguese.
Sex differences in language of the kind I have been considering here were grouped together as sex-exclusive differentiation in the 1970s. A distinction between sex-exclusive and sex-preferential differentiation – first suggested by an American linguist, Ann Bodine – became popular for labelling two different kinds of feature under investigation. Unlike sex-exclusive differences, sex-preferential differences are not absolute; they are a matter of degree. While sex-exclusive differentiation is fairly uncommon in languages of European origin, the same cannot be said of sex-preferential differentiation. In later chapters I will be concentrating on sex-preferential patterns of language use rather than on sex-exclusive ones of the kind I have been talking about so far. This will involve, among other things, examining claims that women use forms of language that are closer to the prestige ‘standard’ than those used by men (that is, they speak more ‘correctly’) and claims that women use a cooperative style in conversation while men use a style based on competitiveness.
Both sex-exclusive and sex-preferential differences are highly culturespecific. Acquiring them is an important part of learning how to behave as ‘proper’ men and women in a particular culture. Failure to acquire appropriate forms and their usage can have serious, even devastating consequences for the individual concerned. Gretchen Fortune, an American linguist in Brazil who co-produced the original writing system that is still used by the Karajá, has told the story of a young Karajá speaker whose use of women’s forms was not corrected by his parents (Fortune 1995). This individual’s collision with the linguistic norms of his community meant that he became a type of misfit and a source of ridicule within his social world. For him as a misfit, Portuguese provided a new identity and a kind of liberation.
Linguistic sex differentiation can become a location of social struggle for a whole society, not just...

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