A Look at Gendered Language

However, suspicions were aroused by the author’s assured writing style and skill at describing women’s clothes and people’s appearances, leading some readers to speculate that an established female novelist might be behind the book

The Cuckoo’s calling: publishers’ embarrassment at turning down JK Rowling detective novel”, The Telegraph, July 14 2013

Last week we had our first ‘Lunch and Learn’ at work, it was hosted by our summer student who did a 20 minute presentation on Language Theory, specifically on gendered language. I was already contemplating writing an article about active v. passive voice, but the idea took a more gendered approach once it was revealed that J.K. Rowling published a well-reviewed crime fiction novel under the pseudonym Richard Galbraith. It’s funny how these things all seem to roll together (yes, yes confirmation bias, I know).

As writers, one of the first things we learn about is the dichotomy between passive and active writing. Passive writing swaps the noun that would normally be the object of the sentence for the subject. In non-fiction this would be writing “Caesar was stabbed by Brutus” instead of “Brutus stabbed Caesar”. The University of North Carolina has an excellent handout that examines passive voice in writing and how to identify and correct it.

Since the 1960s, various theorists pointed out that men tend to use more declarative and authoritative sentence structures while women resorted to super-polite, deferential speech patterns. Robin Lakoff is probably the best known language theorist; in her book Language and Woman’s Place Lakoff outlined many of the ways female speech differs from males. For example, a man would be more likely to say “go do this” or “I want that”, while a women would likely say “could you go do this” or “I would like that”.

Lakoff outlined 10 specific ways female syntax differed from men’s:

  • Hedging: adding estimates into sentences, i.e. “sort of”, “kind of”, “it seems like”
  • Empty adjectives: an adjective that adds no concrete value to a sentence, i.e. “divine”, “adorable”, “gorgeous”
  • Super-polite: Rather than asking directly, a request is blanketed in super-polite terms, i.e. “Would you mind…” “…if it’s not too much to ask” “Is it o.k if…?”
  • Apologizing: When stating an opinion, it is often prefaced with an apology, “I’m sorry, but I think that…”
  • Speak less frequently (interestingly, men are more likely to interrupt conversations)
  • Avoid coarse language or expletives
  • Tag questions: adding a super-polite tail to questions, which almost turn them into rhetorical questions, i.e. “You don’t mind eating this, do you?”.
  • Hyper-correct grammar and pronunciation: Use of prestige grammar and clear articulation
  • Indirect requests: rather than asking for an item directly, they are more likely to reframe the desire, i.e. “Wow, I’m so thirsty.” instead of asking for a drink
  • Speak in italics: Use tone to emphasize certain words, e.g., “so”, “very”, “quite”

The idea that women used more passive, overly structured speech patterns was established by Otto Jespersen. A founding language theorist, Jespersen used male syntax as the norm; any differing language structure was seen as deficient. He first categorized female syntax as deficient in his 1922 book Language: Its Nature and Development. While Jespersen  focused his research on gendered language, he also pointed to the importance of social class and customs to the use of language.

The ‘Deficit’ approach is attributed to Jespersen, being a retrospectively named term applied to a way of examining language and gender which ascribes normative (standard) and non-standard, or deficient, roles to feature users… male language is normative and the language of others (the ‘child’, the ‘foreigner’ and the ‘woman’) is considered extra to that norm and, as such, deficient.

Mellor, Brenda, Deficit, Dominance, Difference and Discursive: the changing approaches to language and gender, Diffusion, Volume 4, Issue 2

After the feminist movements in the ‘70s and ’80s, several language theorists reexamined gendered sentence structures and discovered that while language is still gendered, the greater difference was in the language structure between different social classes. This reexamination concluded that deferential and modified sentences were used more by people in a lower social class/occupation relating to someone in a higher station. People who were marginalized by society developed their own sentence structures, differing from the syntax commonly used by higher, or more educated, social classes.

It’s not a matter of gender but of hierarchy… male and female power relations are reflected in conversations and… there is an unequal distribution of work in conversation: women tried more often to contribute to conversations e.g. by asking questions, because they also succeeded less often. Women’s topics are tentative and quickly dropped in conversation due to men’s lack of cooperation.

Sergio Bolaños Cuellar, “Women’s Language: A struggle to overcome inequality”, Forma Y Función 19, 2006 [cached only]

The old-school ideas about gendered syntax have been applied to writing styles. There’s the idea that a reader can determine an author’s gender through the plot and the sentence structure used in a novel. This belief is based on a few reasons mentioned later, but first and foremost is the assumption that female writers are passive-voiced writers.

Female writers have always faced scrutiny over their work. While our current society claims an impartial, unisex view of judging writing, classifying a writing style as ‘male’ or ‘female’ has become standard. Female authors in male dominated genres (e.g., horror, fantasy, crime) tend to take on either a unisex name (often using initials rather than a full name [e.g., J.D. Robb = Nora Roberts, James Tiptree Jr = Alice Sheldon, J.K. Rowling, K.A. Stewart, S.E. Hinton]) or a masculine based name in order to reach a wider audience. In many genres female authors aren’t given the same critical weight as male authors. Mira Grant (Seanan McGuire) was recommended to use a more neutral pseudonym for her Newsflesh zombie series.

Science fiction has a strong tradition of female writers not only using male names, but pretending to be men… Fantasy has been somewhat friendlier for women, but generally not if they are writing about male characters. J.K. Rowling has famously said that her publisher, Bloomsbury, told her that she should sell the Harry Potter books under initials, not her given name, Joanne. Even after being revealed as a woman and becoming one of the best-selling authors of all time, those rules often still apply.

Why Women Writers Still Take Men’s Names, The Wall Street Journal, December 6, 2012 [only available at Passive Voice]

The long-standing assumption between female and male authored works has always been that male authors are the more informative, have more skilled active phrases, and have an action-based plot. If a woman writes a successful genre novel in a typically male-dominated field it becomes a conversation topic, explaining that she doesn’t write like a woman, or she writes great action scene, or she really knows the tropes of the genre. Female writers, especially successful female writers, become treated as outliers.

There are many ‘gender guesser’ web programs which take a snippet of text and allocate a gender to the author. These sites try to not quantify these gendered writing styles as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, however the question remains why use gender as an identifier? Why not switch to using active and passive or another nomenclature? Here’s two examples:

Gender Guesser

Gender Genie

I think my favourite part of the Gender Guesser from Hacker Factor is the “In particular, men should not be offended if it says you write like a girl note at the bottom of the page (interesting that it’s ‘girl’ and not ‘woman’ but it’s ‘men’ and not ‘boy’)

Both sites use an algorithm from ‘Gender, Genre, and Writing Style in Formal Written Texts’, a paper which investigates the “simple lexical and syntactic features” that differentiate male and female authored texts. The paper examined 50 identifiers that marked documents as written by a woman or a man. In general, women tended to use pronouns more often than their male counterparts; as well there was more “involvedness” in female writing. Male writers were more informative and used more determiners (a, the, that, these).

This renewed interest in creating a gendered division of writers is interesting because it ignores the importance of social standing. Personally, the ideas in Language Theory seem more accurate when social standing is weighed more heavily than gender. Those with power always hold more dominance in a conversation. Those with lesser social standing become deferential or overly polite in order to maintain the conversation. Those with the ability to dominate a conversation tend to get further up the social ladderthey are comfortable interjecting into conversations, into leading conversations, and able to maintain people’s attention through conversation. The gift of the gab is a wonderful thing. Women are ascribed to passive speech and writing structures because they held lower social significancethis is no longer always the case.

Assigning a gender to active or passive writing weakens writers. It casts further scrutiny and examination onto female-authored workers; specifically focusing on ‘why that work is not typically feminine’ or ‘why that work outsold male authors in the same genre’. Looking over the majority of my blog, I commonly use pronouns, adjectives and the passive voice; but I don’t believe that this is because I am a woman, I believe that this is because I’m a novice and I need to preface every declarative statement with an explanation.

Assertiveness and authoritative speech and writing patterns come from knowledge, not necessarily gender. If you know about a topic, or if you are skilled in a field, you become authoritative because your comprehension level gives you status that you may have previously been denied. Your knowledge gives you a high social standing because it commands respect. Your writing becomes more informative and ‘active’ because you have knowledge to impart on the reader.

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