Women: A Linguistically Different Species?

Indisputably, sex differences constitute a fundamental fact of our lives and, as such, it stands to reason that they should be reflected in language.

Inasmuch as language is a value-laden practice, reflecting, and at the same time shaping, a vast array of social, political, and economic relationships, it would be nothing short of ludicrous to assert that it is to be held in a vacuum, its sole concern lying in communicating factual information or reflecting upon “aesthetic values.” Rather, language is to be viewed as a powerful tool that not only communicates information and expresses the speakers’ emotions and beliefs, but also inherently rewards, passes judgment, and punishes. Moreover, it is a cultural construct, ‘a human product’, to quote Spender (1985: 3), which is tailored to the needs of the socially potent. Consequently, in a patriarchal society, where men are endowed with power and status, revelling in their supremacy and authority, it is not surprising that women come up against a hostile language, which insidiously ostracises them, inescapably leading to their subjugation, perpetuating instead men’s primacy and its concomitant values. In light of this, an attempt will be made to investigate some of the ways in which language is used by and of women, as well as to make a probe of the different roles assigned to the male and female, which are cloaked in language itself. It could be asserted that there is nothing  “innocuous” about language. As Lakoff (1975: 3) insightfully remarks, ‘language uses us as much as we use language’. 

Beyond the shadow of a doubt, western societies have undergone tremendous changes since the turn of the century, with more women going up the “social ladder.” As Key (1996: xii) notes,  

...[the] Rhodes Scholarship Trust reports that 50 percent of the awards in the United States now go to women. Before 1976, the honor to study at Oxford University went only to men. Many countries are recognizing female leadership; this was almost un-heard of when I grew up. 

As a matter of fact, women nowadays enjoy the rights they were formerly deprived of by the so-called “organized societies”: they vote, they are awarded degrees, they are ordained as deacons, they can work, they “come into their own” [...] People have, to some extent, disabused themselves of many a preposterous belief as to women’s equality, yet there still seem to be some deeply ingrained notions that put the woman on a pedestal and, in so doing, diminish and ‘pejorate’ her. In a ruthless struggle for power, it seems that the cards are stacked against women: men are not only socially superior; they have also created a language that promulgates their own values and helps them appear superior. 

Nevertheless, it is a moot point whether these values, which are tantamount to ultimate virtues and rules to which women are called on to pay obeisance, have any relevance to reality, whatsoever. Dale Spender, in her groundbreaking book, Man Made Language, casts doubt on the power structure of “men’s society”:  

Males, as the dominant sex, have only a partial view of the world and yet they are in a position to insist that their views and values are the ‘real’ and only values; and they are in a position to impose their version on other human beings who do not share this experience (Spender, 1985: 1-2). 

But unfortunately, the more women have rebelled against this flagrantly iniquitous system, the more they have been dismissed as being recalcitrant, trite, and even failures. Trapped in a world where the ‘male-as-norm syndrome’ reigns supreme, and restricted by a faculty, language, that creates space only for men, women find themselves grossly denigrated and severely “handicapped.”  

...it is ironic that this faculty which helps to create our world also has the capacity to restrict our world. For having learnt a particular language and had access to being ‘humanized' we have also been 'socialized' in the process, we have also learnt to confine our way of looking at the world to a particular cultural world view (Spender, 1985: 3). 

This particular cultural world view, to which Spender alludes, has established female subservience, curtailing their freedom and constraining their choices. In order to earn their bread—or even to prove that they are worthy of consideration—women have to ingratiate themselves with their bosses, to support the males’ views, to kowtow to their husbands, to admit to their inefficiency as human beings, to inure themselves to a status quo that has been forged by men and functions only for men. How can they possibly subscribe to male notions when they are denied the right to express their own opinions and viewpoints, to provide alternative ways of conceptualising the world? The patriarchal system ordains that they must seek solace in motherhood, beauty, and men’s power to protect them. No doubt, they are torn between the desire to change the world and the inertia caused by centuries of oppression. No matter what they do, they are bound to come in for criticism, to “set tongues wagging.” They are damned if they do, damned if they don’t (Lakoff, 1975: 6). 

As was intimated above, language is a powerful, almost uncanny tool, which has always been under “men’s control.” In the same vein, literature and poetry—two domains exploited predominantly by men—have been literally unstinting in the power and status they have lavished on males. For instance, the volubility ascribed to women was noted by Swift in 1735, whereas Oscar Wilde (cited in Key, 1996: 3) once said, thus encapsulating the male prejudices with regard to women’s status: ‘Women are a decorative sex. They never have anything to say, but they say it charmingly’. Moreover, naturalists, such as Humboldt, contented themselves with describing the languages of aboriginal tribes, asseverating that the men and women spoke different languages—which was hardly the case. Even in the eyes of law, in the period of the French Revolution, women were, more or less, on a par with lunatics and criminals: ‘Children, lunatics, minors, women, those convicted of odious crimes...shall not be considered as citizens’ (cited in Key, 1996: xix). 

Certainly, there are differences between the sexes but there is not a scintilla of evidence to show that these differences are physiological. According to Key (1996: 6), ‘linguistic differences are not so easily explained away by innate sexual differences’. There may be differences in the size and length of the vocal cords, but this alone does not account for the fact that some men use high pitch or some women speak lower than some men. And she adds, ‘Most of the differences noted have to do with vocabulary choice and grammatical devices, neither of which has anything to do with the physiology of speech mechanisms’ (ibid, p. 6). For her the differences between the sexes are indubitably cultural artifacts, the products of men’s domination, and apparently her view is in keeping with Spender’s conviction that ‘both language and material resources have been used by the dominant group to structure women’s oppression, and they are interconnected’ (Spender, 1985: 6). 

The basic premise permeating feminist theory is that society is biased against women, and this bias is as often as not couched in seemingly “benign” words and expressions. Two eminent feminists, Ann Bodine and Joan Roberts, have used the terms androcentric and masculist, respectively, to refer to sexism, i.e., the linguistic bias in favour of men. Dale Spender (1985: 10) succinctly voices most feminists’ views: ‘In a society where women are devalued it is not surprising that their language should be devalued…’ Once again, women are relegated to an inferior place by dint of a language—men’s language, that is—which consigns them to obscurity and non-existence.  

Often a word that may be used of both men and women (and perhaps of things as well), when applied to women, assumes a special meaning that, by inclination rather than outright assertion, is derogatory to women as a group (Lakoff, 1975: 19).  

An oft-quoted example illustrating, and attesting to, the semantic derogation of women is the pair bachelor—spinster. Even though these words are semantically equivalent, the former being used of men and the latter of women, they nonetheless assume different connotations. For instance, a bachelor is seen as a happy man ‘sowing his wild oats’, while a spinster always evokes an image of an ugly, scrawny woman plunging into self-pity in consequence of being “on the shelf.”  What is suggested is that men can engage in sexual activity even if they do not get married, whereas single women are assumed to be frigid. In addition, language use seems to impute a degree of sexual immorality and promiscuity to women. For example, a Madam might refer to the manager of a brothel, but one is unlikely to call a pimp a Sir (Fasold, 1990: 113). Robin Lakoff (1975) also makes a strong case for the euphemistic use of ‘lady’, as if ‘woman’ was something to be eschewed.  

Then perhaps we can say that the very notion of womanhood, as opposed to manhood, requires ennobling since it lacks inherent dignity of its own: hence the word woman requires the existence of a euphemism like lady (ibid, p. 25). 

Another example is the pair Master—Mistress, whereby the male term, master, has positive overtones, while the corresponding female term, mistress, has acquired sexual connotations and is no longer associated with the person who is responsible for a household.  

One of the features of the English language that has the proclivity for implicitly denigrating women is the use of names and titles. It is evident that it is only men who are entitled to ‘a real name’, while women seem to have a somewhat “tenuous” grip on their family names—‘another device for making women invisible’ (Spender, 1985: 24). The same applies to the titles Mrs and Miss, which, on the one hand, reflect the representation of women as sex objects and, on the other, help signal whether such an “object” belongs to another male or is “up for grabs.” 

Apropos of the ostensibly generic use of the pronoun he and the noun (or verb) man, it could be argued that it has the effect of excluding women, often depriving them of human traits. Let us consider the following sentences:

  1. Man has definitely made inroads into his environment.
  2. The spaceship was manned by a fully competent team of scientists.
  3. All men are mortal 

Socrates is a man 

Therefore, Socrates is mortal (found in Fasold, 1990: 112).       

Obviously, the uses of Man, his and manned in (a) and (b) can be assumed to imply that women are hardly considered to fall into the category of “human beings.” As for example (c), it is patently obvious that substituting Mary for Socrates renders the syllogism preposterous. 

One could adduce innumerable examples; the fact remains that language has contrived to ostracize women, to extirpate them from the cultural and social milieu. As Spender (1985: 31) notes, 

Language is a cultural artifact which has been invented by human beings; because males have primarily been responsible for the production of cultural forms and images (Smith, 1978), it would be surprising if language were to be an exception. 

An exception, it is certainly not. Males are the norm and they have managed to exalt their speech to a higher rank. When a man speaks, it is taken for granted that he is efficient, authoritative, serious, and intelligent; when a woman speaks, she is considered to be ineffectual, hesitant, tentative, or even weak (see Spender, 1985: 33). To the extent that they are viewed along these lines and are expected to “toe the line,” women, out-of-awareness, are reduced to disseminating males’ norm—and thus undermining their own cause—by sounding more polite and ‘eschewing the coarseness of ruffianly men’s language: no slang, no swear words, no off-color remarks’ (Lakoff, 1975: 52). In other words, the very words and expressions they resort to “aid and abet” in their oppression. Once again, Lakoff ascribes these differences in men’s and women’s speech to factors extraneous to physiology or biology: 

…the use of different particles by men and women is a learned trait, merely mirroring non-linguistic differences again, and again, pointing out an inequity that exists between the treatment of men, and society’s expectations of them, and the treatment of women (Lakoff, 1975: 11). 

At any rate, women use—or are assumed to use—more polite expressions and milder words, such as divine, charming, lovely, and cute, thus maintaining the demarcation lines between males and females. Let us consider the following examples:  

  1. What a terrific idea!
  2. What a divine idea! 

Interestingly, both (a) and (b) could be used under any circumstances by a woman; men, however, are restricted to using only (a), lest their reputation be damaged and their virility impugned, as it were. The underlying assumption, of course, is that, in uttering (b), women admit to living in an ivory tower, entertaining and expressing concepts that are of no consequence or relevance to the world at large. 

Another feature of “female language” shedding light on men’s and women’s different treatment is the tag-question formation, as in: Sarah is not here, is she? One of the reasons a speaker might use a tag question is to make a tentative claim. As Lakoff (1975: 15) says, ‘[a tag question] is midway between an outright statement and a yes-no question: it is less assertive than the former, but more confident than the latter’. In this light, greater use of a tag by a female speaker implies that she presents herself ‘as unsure of [her] opinions and thereby as not really having opinions that count very much’ (Fasold, 1990: 104).          

A widespread difference perceptible in women’s speech are the intonational patterns they use. For instance: 

  1. When will you phone me?
  2. Oh…around four o’clock…? 

Here the man who asks (a) receives an answer, (b), which is in the form of a declarative sentence, but has the rising intonation found in a yes-no question. Consequently, the woman uttering (b) appears to be somewhat hesitant, unable to provide the requisite information. 

To hark back to the claim made earlier that women are more polite; we could say that their putative politeness manifests itself in their predilection for indirect directives as a way of making requests. Let us have a look at some of the different ways in which we can ask someone to do something, ranging from a direct order to a hint. 

  1. Close the window
  2. Please close the window
  3. Will you close the window?
  4. Will you please close the window?
  5. Won’t you close the window?
  6. It’s cold in here 

Since an overt order, such as (a), carries the assumption of the speaker’s superiority to the addressee, it is seldom used by women. Instead, a woman is apt to use any of the (b)-(f) sentences, thus leaving the decision to comply with the request up to the addressee. 

Women’s lack of self-confidence is also manifest in the use of hedges such as well, kinda, sorta, I guess, I wonder etc. For example, if a woman says, He will be here at ten o’ clock, and he isn’t, then she lays herself open to criticism for making a misleading or wrong assertion. But if she says, I guess he will be here at ten o’ clock, she signals that she is not sure of the validity of her statement and thus not to be held responsible for giving any false information. Looked at from men’s perspective, the use of hedges gives the impression that the speaker—the female speaker—does not know what she is talking about. Nevertheless, this is not the case should a man happen to use a hedge. As Spender (1985: 35) notes, ‘I think the determining factor is more often the sex of the speaker rather than the speech…’ 

The same criticism applies to the use of intensifiers, such as so and such. A woman may say, I like him so much, instead of I like him very much, in order to avoid making it clear how strongly she feels. Jespersen (1922, cited in Spender, 1985: 36) makes so bold as to claim that the use of intensifiers renders women’s speech imprecise. 

As was mentioned earlier on, women use a wide range of intonational patterns, which makes them sound uncertain and hesitant. Along the same lines, women try to make themselves heard by ‘speaking in italics’, as Lakoff (1975: 56) says (my italics). As beginning students in academia often use italics when writing an essay, in their attempt to draw the readers’ attention to what they feel is likely to go unnoticed, so do women use italics when they speak, with a view to convincing their (male) addressees. ‘Possibly extra intonational variety is used as a sort of secondary signal, in case the first was not received’ (ibid, p. 56). 

Another feature peculiar to women’s speech is the use of hypercorrect grammar and standard forms. A woman is not supposed to ‘talk rough’ (Lakoff, 1975: 55). It is usually men who drop their aitches and gees, as in ‘ouse for house and singin’ for singing. If a girl says ain’t, she will be severely reprimanded, whereas a boy is less likely to be taken to task. In a patriarchal society, the woman is viewed as a paragon of virtue, the preserver of values and culture; therefore, her using non-standard or vernacular dialects is believed to be detrimental to men’s seemingly primordial norms. For Key, the fact that women use standard linguistic forms attests to their need to achieve the status that has been denied them. ‘It would appear, then, that women have not universally accepted the position in the lower ranks, and that, out-of-awareness, and in a socially acceptable and non-punishable way, women are rebelling’ (Key, 1996: 97).  

What is more, recent research has suggested that men and women have different network patterns. As Fasold (1990: 95) observes, men have high network strength and women low. ‘‘Network strength’ is a measure of the number and kinds of social ties an individual has within a particular neighborhood’. In common parlance, men are concerned with maintaining peer-solidarity and in-group membership, thus using vernacular or non-standard forms, while women identify themselves with what inherently endows them with status and prestige. It may well be the case that ‘men subliminally and implicitly perceive that in the context of the value system symbolized by local variants, they have the positional advantage’ (Fasold, 1990: 98). 

A firmly held conviction is that women are egregiously talkative. They are never regarded as “talking”; they only ‘indulge in gossip’. On this assumption, society has provided a lot of platitudes and injunctions as to their talk. There is a Scottish saying: ‘Nothing is so unnatural as a talkative man and a quiet woman’ (Swacker, 1975: 76, cited in Spender, 1985: 41). Contrary to what most people believe, though, it is men who ‘do the talking’ and women who are constantly interrupted. Zimmerman and West (1975, cited in Tannen, 1994: 55-56) report that 96 percent of the interruptions they encountered were instances of men interrupting women. For them interruption is ‘a device for exercising power and control in conversation’ (West and Zimmerman, 1983: 103, cited in Tannen, 1994: 56). At this juncture, however, we should concede that the notion “interruption” means different things to different people. Thus, Americans believe that one speaker should speak at a time, otherwise he is perceived as interrupting, whereas Jewish speakers look upon overlap as a way to ‘grease the conversational wheels’, as it were. In this light, it may not always be the case that there is some interruption taking place, let alone interruption-as-dominance, inasmuch as some speakers are overlap-aversant or are said to evince ‘high considerateness’, and others are ‘high involvement’ speakers, trying to be friendly and co-operative (see Tannen, 1994: 63). 

What one could glean from all this is that men are dominant and women muted, to use Edwin Ardener’s terms (1975, cited in Spender, 1985: 76). It is men who have created their own meanings in life, and society’s values are predicated upon these meanings. According to Spender’s own lights, it is possible for women to redress the balance between the sexes by providing alternatives to those already at work in “men’s society.” ‘We can make the effort to formulate possibilities at the periphery of our cultural conditioning and to reconceptualize our reality…’ (Spender, 1985: 3). Furthermore, women will have to “fly in the face of” men’s assumptions and norms, and draw the line at a language that denigrates and devalues them. 

Nevertheless, changing meanings alone is not going to remedy the problem. This process is dialectical. ‘As more meanings are changed so will society change and the sexist semantic rule be weakened; as society and the sexist semantic rule changes so will more meanings change…’ (Spender, 1985: 31). Only when we set about asking what contribution language makes to our racist and sexist world view, will we be able to extricate ourselves from its grip. It seems that women should be given a fair crack of the whip, so to speak. They must do violence to what threatens their existence and value, and create new symbols, recycling, or even discarding, the old ones. ‘We need a language which constructs the reality of women’s autonomy, women’s strength, women’s power. With such a language we will not be a muted group’ (ibid, p. 190). 

By way of conclusion, we could say that men and women conceptualise reality differently, which percolates through to the language they use. In a society where men are the dominant group and women are relegated to an inferior status, the role of language ineluctably exacerbates the already aggravated condition of the socially impotent. However, it is blatantly obvious that language—sexist language, that is—has distorted nature itself. In most cases, it is the female that is considered to be the unmarked form, and not the other way around. The bottom line is that we have to extirpate taboos and dispel myths. After all, ‘a great mind must be androgynous’, to quote Coleridge. 


  • Fasold, R W. 1990. The Sociolinguistics of Language. Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Key, M R. 1996. Male/female language: with a comprehensive bibliography: 2nd ed. Lanham: Scarecrow Press.
  • Lakoff, R. 1975. Language and woman’s place. Harper: Cambridge Press.
  • Spender, D. 1985. Man Made Language. New York: University Press.
  • Tannen, D. 1994. Gender and discourse. Oxford: University Press.


Dr. Dimitris Thanasoulas