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:
- Which features that Lakoff identified with women’s language are associated with how women use language today?
- 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.