Saturday, October 6, 2007

Language Differences Between Men & Women

We've all heard that men and women communicate very differently; there are multiple books that discuss this difference. The basic premise of most of these pseudo-scientific books (pseudo-scientific because the research, in general, does not follow the scientific method) contend that women talk more than men, that they are more verbally skilled, and that "men's way of using language is competitive...whereas women's use of language is cooperative."


The accuracy of these statements is questionable. We tend to accept these statements as true, because they fit in with a certain stereotype of the sexes. But most of the research studies investigating the language patterns of men and women are based on the presumption that there is a difference. Then "if a study finds a significant difference between male and female subjects, that is considered to be a "positive" finding, and has a good chance of being published. A study that finds no significant differences is less likely to be published."

In any case, I was more curious specifically about the language itself; that is, in learning whether men and women actually speak using different vocabularies. I found that the vocabularies do differ in certain areas. For example, women have larger color vocabularies than do men. An experiment conducted to test this point showed several results:
1. Women use fancier words than men.
2. Younger men use fancier words than older men.
3. All the women have similar size vocabularies except the nuns, who use fewer fancy words than the other women.

It seems very clear, then, that it is society which largely affects our language. If the women know and use more colors because they spend more time on colour-related activities (such as choosing clothes), the nuns who were more cloistered from societal pressures would naturally not know as many colors.

Other experiments reveal that men's and women's speech "differ with respect to the use of swear words and euphemisms."


This all seems pretty intuitive; it seems obvious that the society we live in gives men and women different roles, which consequently impacts how we speak. But in other societies, the reasons for the speech difference are less obvious. About one tenth of the vocabulary is different for women than for men in the language of the Caribbeans of the small Antilles; "the differences occur primarily in kinship terms, names for parts of the body, and also in isolated words such as friend, enemy, joy, work, war, house, garden, bed, poison, tree, sun, moon, sea, and earth."

There are also differences in phonetics between men and women. In a Mongoloid tribe in northeast Siberia, women "tend to substitue ts for ch and tsts for tk and chh" so that the same word may sound entirely different when said by a man and by a woman. And interestingly, there are also sometimes grammatical differences in the speech of men and women. In the speech of the Chiquito of Bolivia, there are certain gender distinctions in the language itself: men use feminine construction for feminine nouns and masculine construction for masculine nouns, while the women use feminine constructions in all cases regardless of gender.


Why do these differences exist? And does the fact that they exist most strikingly in the more "primitive" languages suggest that the differences between men and women have gradually decreased in modern society?

The language of the Chiquito, where men and supernatural beings are grouped in one category, while women and inanimate objects are classed in another, reveals conspicuous sexism. But does the fact that women did not use this form of classification through their grammar suggest that they did not accept this degradation?

...Which leads me to another question: did these languages exist with different variations for men and women because the culture lent itself to this divide? Or did the variations appear after the formation of "root" language, as a result of the contemporary culture?


Nikola said...

"the society we live in gives men and women different roles, which consequently impacts how we speak"

That's really true. Maybe this is a self-perpetuating cycle. The language we speak could identify certain words or concepts with specific genders (like housework with females or the business world with males), so language may predispose men and women to different positions in society, and this causes them to develop linguistic skills differently.

Steve said...

Very interesting post. I don’t think we can ever know for sure whether language or cultural was the CAUSE of the gender differences in those remote cultures you have identified, though it is probably a safe bet that the two factors are inextricably intertwined and are mutually causative. However, I wonder how different our own society and language really are from these non-industrial societies. While the English language makes no formal distinctions in language for males and females, do you think it’s possible that informal differences have emerged based on differential social activity? That is, might men and women in our culture actually use significantly different patterns of language (grammatically, lexically, semantically…)? If so, what might these different patterns look like? How could we test this hypothesis?

Adria said...
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