Blog 4: Real and Imagined Linguistic Features of Contemporary Women’s Language

The aim of my project was to investigate stereotypes about how women use language.  In 1973, linguist Robin Lakoff published Language and Woman’s Place, an essay in which she identified several linguistic features that she claimed are characteristic of how women speak.  The aim of my project was to investigate these features–not if they’re actually characteristic of women’s language, but if people believe they are.  Language and Woman’s Place was hugely influential in academic circles, but it found its way to the wider world as well, often in popular media and advice articles and manuals for women.  Even now, nearly 50 years later, it’s nearly impossible to find any discussion of gendered language stereotypes that doesn’t include at least one of Lakoff’s proposed linguistic features. 

Whether or not people are aware of Lakoff’s work, they rely on her claims to reinforce or refute stereotypes about women’s language use. Many believe these stereotypes without knowledge of where they originated or if they are supported by research.  To investigate these features as stereotypes, I posed the following research questions:

      1. Which features that Lakoff identified with women’s language are associated with how women use language today?
      2. What linguistic features in general (beyond Lakoff’s claims) do people associate with how women use language (e.g., use of like)?

To do this, I designed a survey where respondents were asked to assign gender to speakers in written dialogues, each of which contained a feature of women’s language, and then to explain their choices.  The survey was open for responses for the month of February, and I distributed it mostly through Facebook groups I’m a part of, such as the national group for my sorority and my high school alumni group.  

Ultimately, 600 people responded; they ranged in age from 18 to 77 (the mean age was 41 years old), and about 30% were college students.  English was the first language of about 85% of the respondents.  Overall, the survey responses confirmed some assumptions about women’s language (use of specific color terms, super-polite terms, tag questions, and talkativeness), while not confirming others (trivialized exclamations, use of “sorry”).  

For this project, I was only able to examine the quantitative results (which genders the respondents assigned to the speakers), not the qualitative results (the respondents’ written explanations for their choices).  Therefore, I plan on looking further into the qualitative results for my honors thesis.

My study is limited in that I only asked about each feature once, so in the future I would like to create other versions of the survey, using the same features but different dialogues, to see if the results are consistent with the results here.  I would also like to create a version of the survey that investigates stereotypes about men’s language.  I’ve really enjoyed the overall experience of conducting this research, and I know it’s something I want to continue in the future.  

I had to take a lot of initiative to complete this project while still keeping up with my classes, and I frequently communicated and met with my faculty mentor (Dr. Kristen di Gennaro).  Her guidance has been invaluable, and I’m looking forward to working with her on my thesis.  After working on this project for the past year, this a field I could see myself pursuing in the future, so I’m grateful that I’ve had this opportunity through Pace and the UGR program.

Blog 3: Real and Imagined Linguistic Features of Contemporary Women’s Language

I just ended my data collection last week, and I finished with 602 survey responses.  I wasn’t expecting anywhere near this number of participants, since our goal was to get 30 minimum but hopefully closer to 50 responses.  I posted the survey to a few facebook groups I’m a part of, like the national group for my sorority and my high school alumni group. Some of these groups were majorly responsive, so that’s how I ended up getting so many participants.  Interestingly, the mean participant age is 41, when I expected to have mostly college-aged participants. And while I still have many college-aged participants, only 30% of participants are actually in college.

In addition to quantitative data, I also have 600 participants’ worth of qualitative data to sift through.  Analyzing that in any detail may be outside of the scope of this study, since I’m presenting in May, so I’ll probably do a full analysis for my honors thesis next year.  I might look at a sample of qualitative responses right now, but I certainly won’t be able to look at all of them. Just from glancing through them though, I can tell that there’s a lot of valuable data.  One challenge I’m going to have is in deciding which of my quantitative results are the most significant, since there’s only so much I can fit on a poster.

My next steps are to write up my method and to describe my results in tables, visualizations, and plain English, after which I can start looking for reasons why these results may have occurred and then I can start drawing conclusions.

Blog 2: Real and Imagined Linguistic Features of Contemporary Women’s Language

I’ve made steady progress on this project so far.  We submitted the IRB application about two weeks ago, so there’s not much to do until the committee responds.  Since my last blog post, I changed some things in the survey draft, and I got some feedback on it from others. One thing I determined was that, occasionally, my “beta testers” based their responses on gendered stereotypes that had nothing to do with the speakers’ actual language.  

For example, one of my survey dialogues has two students talking about homework, which one student did and the other didn’t.  Both people who read over it identified the student who didn’t do the homework as male, not because of any specific linguistic feature, but because it’s stereotypical of boys not to do homework.

In another dialogue, one of the speakers asks for napkins.  One of my beta testers said they thought that the speaker was a woman, because a man wouldn’t use napkins.  When I was drafting this survey by revamping my survey from last semester, I made sure to remove what I thought may be more explicitly gendered speech subjects, such as child-care or intelligence.  However, I didn’t expect people to find less common stereotypes upon which to base their responses.

After discussing this with my faculty advisor, we decided that, as long as we address this as a limitation of the study, our conclusions will still hold validity.  The survey respondents are asked to explain the reasoning behind their choices, so through this, we will know if they identified speaker gender based on linguistic features or on other gendered stereotypes.  Perhaps it will turn out that a combination of the two factors makes someone more likely to attribute a specific gender to a speaker.

As soon as my project receives approval from the IRB, I will be able to distribute it and start gathering data.  I still have not determined how I plan to distribute the survey. Ideally it will reach as many potential respondents as possible, so I’ll probably send it out on various social media platforms and email lists, and I’ll ask my friends to do the same.  Although this method of population sampling will likely decrease the diversity of participant demographics, it will be the most effective way to gather participants. I am collecting participant demographic information along with their responses to the dialogue sections of the survey, so I will be able to determine what demographic groups are most (and least) represented by my sample.

Blog 1: Real and Imagined Linguistic Features of Contemporary Women’s Language

The purpose of my project, titled “Real and Imagined Features of Contemporary Women’s Language,” is to investigate linguistic stereotypes associated with different genders, primarily with women. Through this project, we (myself and my faculty advisor, Dr. Kristen di Gennaro) hope to determine if certain stereotypes about gender-based language currently exist, and if so, what the connections are between these stereotypes and common advice toward women about their language.  My research questions are:

  1. Which features that Lakoff identified with women’s language are associated with how women use language today?
  2. What linguistic features in general (beyond Lakoff’s claims) do people associate with how women use language (e.g., use of like)?
  3. What linguistic features do people associate with how men use language? (e.g., assertive markers)?

In plain terms, my goal is to find out if people believe that people of different genders speak differently, and what people believe these differences to be.  I am not so much concerned with whether or not these stereotypes are true, but rather what the stereotypes are. My study focuses primarily on linguistic features identified by Dr. Robin Lakoff’s essay (1973) and subsequent book (1975), both titled Language and Woman’s Place.

These works instigated the focused study of the interaction of language and gender in the sociolinguistics field.  Lakoff identified ways in which women spoke and men did not, sourcing her evidence from her own experiences and observations.  For my study, I’ve chosen several features that Lakoff identified as “women’s language” that, from my own experience, I know are still common ideas.  These features are: precise color-names, “trivializing” particles, over-politeness, and tag questions. I have also added two, more modern stereotypical features of women’s language: unnecessary apologies and verbosity.

Lakoff’s claims were widely discussed and investigated when they were published, and they became common stereotypes.  Whether or not someone could name Lakoff or knew of Language and a Woman’s Place, they would likely have encountered her ideas.

To investigate whether people currently believe these stereotypes, or are at least aware of them, I am conducting an online survey.  The survey includes short, two-person dialogues, each of which features one speaker who uses one of the stereotypical features, and one who does not.  For each dialogue, the participants are given the names of the two speakers, one of which is traditionally masculine, and the other feminine–however, they are not told which speaker is which.  The participants are asked to identify which speaker has the woman’s name. After essentially assigning speaker-gender for each of the dialogues, the participants are shown their answers and asked to explain why they made the choices they did.

The purpose of the first part is to examine if the participants correlate the stereotypical women’s language with the female speaker.  The second part is to examine if the participants are consciously aware of these stereotypes or believe them to be true.

 

Citation:

Lakoff, Robin. (1973). Language and woman’s place. Language in Society, 2(1), 45-80.