People learn to index and project elements of their own identities (such as gender, social status, occupation, ethnicity, and group affiliation) through the use of linguistic forms. The relation between gender and language, in particular, functions as a lens through which scholars can view social, political, ethical, and occupational features, according to Shari Kendall and Deborah Tannen, both established professors of Linguistics with specialization in language and gender. The study of this relation is an interdisciplinary endeavor by researchers in anthropology, linguistics, speech communication, education, social psychology, and literature (Kendall & Tannen, 2006, p. 548). It provides an insight into the complex construction of gender identity, a descriptive account of male/female discourse, and also reveals how language functions as a symbolic resource to create and manage social, cultural, political, and personal identities. This article will explore the complexity of the relationship between gender and discourse and how gender identity is performed through discursive practices. Considerable attention will also be paid to the role of language in producing and maintaining social inequality between men and women.
It is important to start by clarifying the difference between the terms sex and gender. These two concepts are often used interchangeably, but they are, in fact, fundamentally separate. The concept of sex refers to the range of biological and anatomical differences between male and female bodies. An individual is typically assigned their sex at birth, based on an evaluation of these physiological features (such as the aspect of their reproductive organs, their chromosomes, hormonal level, etc.), and this is what is referred to as ‘natal sex’. On the other hand, gender has to do with how a person self-identifies, regardless of their physical appearance. Unlike sex, gender is not defined in binary terms. Rather, it is a broad spectrum within which (or even outside of which) a person is able to find the description that better suits them: from known identities such as cis- and transgender to lesser-known options like gender non-conforming and agender. Nowadays people have the opportunity to create multiple, and often contradictory, versions of gendered identities (e.g., drag queens) and are more able to challenge, subvert, and (re)produce societal norms. According to two of the world’s leading experts in the field of language and identity, Penelope Eckert and Sally McConnell-Ginet (2003), gender is an “ongoing work of everyday, mundane, social interaction”; that is, “the product of social practice” (p.19). Gender is not, then, an innate and inevitable consequence of one’s own biological sex. It is not a fixed attribute that just exists, but a continually produced and reproduced concept that alters through individuals’ performance of gendered acts.
Through the process of socialization, humans gradually learn to enact their gender. According to one of the most prominent and influential figures in the history of feminist existentialism and theory, Simone de Beauvoir, “one is not born, but rather becomes a woman” (emphasis added), and similarly, a man (1949, p. 283). Following her statement, from the moment a child is born and someone exclaims “It’s a girl!”, that child learns how to do being a girl in her culture and society, from the way she talks to the way she behaves, dresses, smiles, and interacts. These patterns of behavior are what Judith Butler defines in Gender Troubles (1990) as ‘Gender Performativity’ (p. 556). According to Butler, the woman who provided the motivation for the third wave of feminism, gender is constructed through a set of reiterated performative practices that naturalize the dominant gender order which is deeply asymmetrical and hierarchical (p. 557). How is this naturalization performed? Through people’s use of language. In particular, language choices are themselves enactments, meaning that in saying something people do or become it. For instance, a person learns from childhood how to ‘perform’ and ‘display’ being a woman in a specific social setting and class (Butler, 1990, p. 560). This person performs and indexes a particular identity, she presents herself as a particular kind of person enabling those who hear her speak to make inferences about her personality, her social and financial background, and her abilities. All of this is solely based on the linguistic forms that she chooses to use. Many lead characters of famous TV shows constitute obvious examples of gender identity through the use of language. Brian Richard Paltridge, an Applied Linguistics educator, observed that in Sex and the City (2002), the protagonists project a persona that is independent and successful, that of a professional New York City woman of a certain social class and age, not only through the way they dress and behave but mainly through the way they talk and converse with each other, their lovers and their friends (2006). In the following dialogue, for instance, Miranda wants to know why her friend Carrie accepted her fiancé’s proposal of marriage.
Miranda: I’m going to ask you an unpleasant question now. Why did you ever say yes?
Carrie: Because I love him . . . a man you love kneels in the street, and offers you a ring. You
say yes. That is what you do.
(Michael Patrick King, 2002)
In her reply, Carrie does not simply enact her gendered identity, she also affirms and asserts it: as a woman, she has to accept her boyfriend’s proposal, because she loves him, and she behaves accordingly. Based on heteronormative conventions, Carrie reasonably concludes that when a man follows a particular “set of repeated acts” (Butler, 1990, p.19) such as kneeling in the street and offering his girlfriend a ring, “[she] say[s] yes. This is what [she] do[es]”. What to some people, thus, seems natural in their interactions with other people, is a result of what Butler (1990) calls “repeated stylization of the body" (p. 19). In other words, acts that are repeatedly and publicly displayed and, in their turn, reaffirm gendered identities. In the dialogue, Carrie and Miranda index their gender and their unconscious desire for intimate connections with heterosexual men, an identity that they express through their use of language. Identities, then, are constructed moment by moment in linguistic and social interaction (Paltridge, 2006).
Different individuals will perform gender in different ways, often depending on the context surrounding them, and will sometimes behave in ways that are normally associated with a different gender identity. This is demonstrated in Kira Hall’s study of the use of language by telephone sex workers in the United States (1995), in which speakers created gendered identities through their use of language. Some of the sex workers in the professor's study were not heterosexual, although this was the persona they were projecting. Nor were they all female. One was a male Mexican American who was successfully ‘replicating’ Latina, Asian and Black women’s behavior by modifying his voice quality and accent, actively maintaining the interaction through comments, hedges, and supportive questions, by selecting more ‘feminine’ words (e.g., lacy) and color terms (e.g., charcoal), and by using more ‘dynamic’ intonation, characterized by a wide pitch range (Hall, 1995, p. 558). Ways of speaking index gender but, most importantly, they are associated with behaviors and stances that are inextricably connected to men or women in a given community. The evidence of this study demonstrated that, indeed, phone-sex workers draw on gendered discourse by using ‘women’s language’ as a resource to construct the gendered identity that is necessary for their occupation. But, this occurs in people’s daily interactions as well, as speakers choose linguistic options to accomplish pragmatic and interactional goals.
Penelope Brown (1980), an acclaimed anthropological linguist, views speakers as ‘rational actors’ who constantly make linguistic choices in order to achieve certain socially motivated goals in particular circumstances (p. 551). In other words, women’s and men’s linguistic choices constitute “communicative strategies” and the language system per se is not simply a system that one acquires during early childhood, but rather, “a set of strategies one develops to manage social interactions” (Brown, 1980, p. 551). However, the two ‘rational actors’, woman and man, seem to adopt different communicative strategies relevant to their community’s gender norms. Conversational rituals learned by girls and maintained by women focus more on intimacy, the connection dimension, and the avoidance of the loss of this connection. On the contrary, conversational rituals common among men tend to focus more on the status dimension and independence. Empirical differences between women’s and men’s speech are thoroughly documented in Robin Lakoff’s book, Language and Woman’s Place (1973), a work that is an invaluable tool and the point of departure for current studies of gender and discourse.
Language and Femininity
Lakoff’s influential work seeks to identify the role of language in creating and maintaining social inequality between men and women. In the first place, she observes the linguistic forms by which ‘women’s language’ weakens or mitigates the force of an utterance. These forms include: hedges (you know, sort of, well), tag questions (she's nice, isn't she?), ‘trivializing’ or ‘empty’ adjectives (divine, cute instead of great), intensifiers (so), precise color terms (caramel), use of standard forms, mitigated requests (Could you please close the door? instead of Close the door), and avoidance of ‘strong’ expletives (oh dear instead of damn) (p. 558). All these forms build social expectations on women’s behavior and any mismatch between gender and linguistic choice leads to negative evaluation. However, Lakoff’s account of ‘women’s language’ does not represent the way each individual woman speaks, but the norms by which women are expected to speak or “the precise hegemonic notions of gender-appropriate language use” (Hall, 1995, p. 21). So, when a female speaker chooses a ‘strong’ swear word, instead of a 'weak' one, her behavior will be interpreted as unladylike, indelicate, or even aggressive. While women who conform to expectations of femininity are seen as lacking in competence or confidence, those who act in ‘manly’ ways are seen as lacking in femininity. This way, the use of ‘women’s language’ denies women access to power and girls learn from early on to use “nonforceful" styles of speech that reinforce their inferior social position (Lakoff, 1973, p. 548). Unassertiveness has become a social norm of womanhood, given the male's role in establishing norms.
Language and Masculinity
The study of men’s use of language reached a milestone in 1997, with Sally Johnson and Ulrike Hanna Meinhof’s pivotal work Language and Masculinity. The study of the two discourse analysis specialists observed that men are inclined to take up roles of authority and expertise, whereas women tend to avoid these roles. Based on conversations between male friends, the study demonstrated that men prefer to talk extensively about subjects in which they are experts (e.g., logistics) and they avoid using subjectivized such as think, believe, and suppose (p. 555). Men’s dominant position in society is therefore reflected and reproduced in many aspects of a conversation. In particular, the early study of the two academics that established the term 'doing gender', Don H. Zimmerman and Candace West (1975), disclosed that men interrupt more, challenge more, and try to control what topics are discussed. By observing two-party interactions in the university community of the University of California, the researchers noticed that interruption was rare in conversations involving two men or two women, but more common in interactions involving a woman and a man (p. 549). These asymmetries in everyday conversational practices undoubtedly reflect asymmetries found in the broader social environment. But interruptions are not always displays of conversational dominance and control. On the contrary, in many cases interruption signifies an act of cooperation or implements a helpful action such as in the following case:
Female: How’r you:.
Male: Fine’ow’r you Emma yih wan’talk tih Lottie
Female: Uh ya:h WELL ↑LI[:STEN sh]e’s busy I’ll [call’er ]
Male: [He:re. ] [No: she]’s
right he:re waitaminit.
Female: Wayamin’ hol’ it.
(Wilkinson & Kitzinger 2014)
In this interaction, the man interrupts the female speaker, but this does not constitute a display of male dominance and usurpation of speaking rights. Overlapping, which the founders of Conversation Analysis, Gail Jefferson and Emanuel Schegloff define as "an error in projecting where a speaker is planning to end their turn" (1974, p. 336), shows enthusiastic participation rather than a dominating or hostile approach to steal the floor and is frequently mistaken for interruption even from researchers. Nevertheless, if one interlocutor expects one person to speak at a time without violating turn-taking rules, and the other expects cooperative overlapping, the former most probably will perceive overlapping as an interruption and, thus, will stop talking, as in the following case:
Female: so you really can’t bitch when you’ve got all those on
the same day (4.2) but I uh asked my physics professor
if I couldn’t chan[ge that]
Male: [don’t tou]ch that
(West & Zimmerman 1977)
Despite the fact that people have different conversational habits, like in the instance above, speakers should strive to find a balance between seeking a connection with their conversational partner and negotiating relative status. This can be achieved by carefully considering who is saying what to whom, where, from what position, and for what particular purpose. Additionally, it is important to keep in mind the setting and the community of practice the interaction occurs in, that is to say, the specific social and local conditions in which men and women communicate. A person's identity is a socially and culturally constructed image that is constantly produced, reproduced, and maintained in constant communication and interaction with others. Gender is a part of this image and, similarly, it is not a fixed and stable attribute, but the result of what people do and, most importantly, of what people say. Every person performs their gendered identity by making specific linguistic choices within a number of informal –yet substantial– socio-cultural constraints. Their subsequent relations with others depend on whether they adhere to or depart from their community’s norms. It is therefore essential to acknowledge and sustain the agency of the individual in creating their own gendered identity, including acts of conforming, resisting, and violating sociocultural norms for linguistic behavior.
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Cover Image: Kilman, Carrie. (2013). The Gender Spectrum. Retrieved from: https://www.learningforjustice.org/magazine/summer-2013/the-gender-spectrum
Figure 1: Morimura, Yasumasa. (2013, March 4). “Performativity of Gender” on Show. Retrieved from: https://studiomatters.com/performativity-of-gender-on-show
Figure 2: MargÓ. (2019, June 18). 6 Artists that Broke Gender Norms. Retrieved from: https://www.kazoart.com/blog/en/6-artists-that-broke-gender-norms/
Figure 3: Gender is dead, long live gender: just what is ‘performativity’? (2018, January 24). Retrieved from: https://aeon.co/ideas/gender-is-dead-long-live-gender-just-what-is-performativity
Figure 4: Xu, Nicole. (2021, September 25). In Real Life, Not All Interruptions Are Rude. Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/25/opinion/interrupting-cooperative-overlapping.html