Linguistics is the scientific study of human language. It studies how men, women, children, old people and even animals tend to communicate. In the case of humans, it is not concerned with one or two languages, but all of the languages in the world.

It observes the, phonological, lexical, and syntactic differences between languages and moreover dialects within one area. Linguists go further to study the gender speech differences. However this study has not shown until recently. In an article titled “Genderlects” the author says that “surprisingly, the most obvious division of humankind into groups; women and men has not engendered…until relatively recent”.

As we shall see later, linguists such as Robin Lakoff, Deborah Tannen, and William Labov studied the differences of speech between men and women. In addition, to Janet Holmes’ in her An Introduction to Sociolinguistics, third edition ,studies  this matter and somehow relates it to  the society.

She offers various reasons why women tend to speak differently from men. As well as Ronald Wardhaugh, in his An Introduction to Sociolinguistics, offers his studies about various linguists concentrating on gender speech differences. Those linguists cooperated in answering one question; which is why women tend speak differently from men

If we observe the history of this study of the speech differences between men and women, we will find that it was first tackled by Robin Lakoff. She returns this difference in speech to the existence of sexism in society. In 1973, she wrote the first article specifically concerned with women and language.

In 1975 in her book Language and Women Place, she set basic assumptions of what marks out the speech of women, such as: using phrases like sort of the use of super polite forms like would you mind, the use of tag question like she is here, isn’t she? the use of empty

adjectives like adorable, lovely and so on the use of wh- imperatives like why don’t you open the door?, apologizing more than men like sorry ,and the use of intensifiers like so and very

Her study suggested that women spoke more “proper” English (e.g., saying whom do you like? rather than who do you like?) than men because of the insecurity caused by sexism in society. That is a matter to debate and leads to the question, can sexism cause differences in speech between the two sexes? Is it to that extent?

As previously said, this study is also observed further by the linguist Deborah Tannen who, as mentioned in an article entitled Genderlects “has revealed other dialectical differences between the sexes. For example, women “hedge their speech more often than men with expressions like I suppose, I would imagine, this is probably wrong, but…, and so on.

Women frequently use tag questions to weaken or qualify their statements (e.g., He’s not a very good actor, is he?), and women use words of politeness (e.g., please, thank you) more often than men.” (“Genderlects”, p.430). Again, this brings us to a similar question as the previous, which is why women need so much to qualify their statements.

Tannen was the first to give a term to this difference in speech between men and women and called it “genderlects”.

Tannen calls the different variants of English used by men and women    “genderlects” (a blend of gender and dialect). She attributes the differences… to   a greater desire on the part of women than men to be cooperative and non confrontational). (“Genderlects”, p.431)

Both Lakoff’s and Tannen studied the speech differences between men and women and attributed it to sexism and hierarchy in society.  However, William Labov attributes it to a slightly different case which is the socioeconomic class. He realized that women tend to speak like higher classes rather than men.

The fact they do this is that they want to raise their standards, as in women’s nature. “He carried out a sociolinguistic analysis in New York City focused on the rule of r-dropping…and its use by upper, middle, and lower class speakers.” (“Dialects”, p.431). He went through three different department stores in New York. He entered the first store that sells expensive products and asked, “Where the toys department is?” And he would get the respond “the fourth floor” so that he would be able to listen to the r pronunciation.

He continued this process with the three stores. In the first one, clients pronounced the r ; which denotes the high standard. In the second store selling products with average price, only half of the clients pronounced the r. Finally in the cheap store, only 5% pronounced the r The obvious observation here is that in the cheap store the 5% were women! This proves that it is a nature in women to have the desire to rise to a higher standard.

Janet Holmes agrees with Tanenn when she says that “women are more linguistically polite than men” (Holmes,1992, p.157). However, Holmes focuses more on how men and women of the same speech community speak differently. She offers various examples of different speech communities as evidence that men and women within one speech community speak differently.

She starts with how women and men in the same speech community not speaking a different dialect but a totally different language. She gives an example of the Amazonian Indian woman. Her first language is Desano but the language she uses to speak to her children and husband is Tuyuka. That returns to the reason that men of such communities “must marry outside their own tribe” (Holmes, 1992, p.158). She then gives an example where men and women within one speech community share one language, but still women tend to speak slightly different linguistic features than men.

She gives an example of an Indian tribe where the women pronounce /kja’tsa/ and men use /d3a’tsa/ for ‘bread’ In this community, if a person uses the wrong form for their gender, the elder members of the community may consider them bisexual. Holmes provides several ways in which men and women differ in their speech. First, there is the different use of word-shapes between men and women in the use of affixes. For example, in Yana, a North American Indian men use words rather longer than women use of it.

That can be illustrated by the example of the word ‘deer’ Women pronounce it as ba while men pronounce it as ba-na. Second, Holmes provides us with the languages that have different vocabulary between men and women such as the Japanese term for ‘father’ Women pronounce it otoosan while men pronounce it as oyaji.

She agrees with Robin Lakoff, as well as, William Labov when she says “Gender differences in language are often just one aspect of more pervasive linguistic differences in the society reflecting social status or power differences”(Holmes, 1992, p.159). In some communities, men are more powerful than women.

However, in such society, the linguistic differences between the two sexes can be said to be emerging due to the social hierarchy as a whole. Holmes gives the example of Bengali where a wife should not address her husband by his first name because of being subordinate to him. Holmes offers an example of  a Benagli wife whose husband’s name is tara which means star but she could not call him by his name but chose to call him nokkhotro which means heavenly body’ . As we have just seen, here social factors interfere in the gender differences of speech.

Holmes then explains that women, regardless of their class or age, tend to use “more standard forms than men and…men use more vernacular forms than women”(Holmes, 1992, p.160). To illustrate this, Holmes offers a comparison between the three social classes in society:  higher, middle, and lower class.

She gives the example of multiple negation, such as I don’t know nothing about it which is used more by men than women in highest classes. Again in the middle lower classes men score 32% in the use of multiple negations while women 1%. Even in the lowest classes, men score 90%, and women score 59% of the use of multiple negation. She comes out with the conclusion that women favor the standard form of speech.

Holmes’ study reaches its resolution when she offers “explanations of women’s linguistic behavior” Holmes, J, 1992, p.164). She gives four explanations:

  1. The social class: Holmes suggests that “women are more-status conscious than men” (Holmes, J, 1992, p.164) and that is because women have an inner belief that the way they speak reflects their social class in society and, thus, tend to speak more properly than men. So, women “use more standard speech forms as a way of claiming such status”(Holmes, 1992, p.165). She then shares her study in New York and Norwich where women reported that they use these forms of standard speech because they lack status in society. She claims, but with proof, that “those in paid employment used more standard forms than those working in home”(Holmes, 1992, p.165). However, it is found in an Irish working-class community that women working outside the community “used a much higher percentage of linguistic features associated with high status groups than the older women who are working at home”.(Holmes, 1992, p.165).
  2.  The role of women in society: Holmes, with a great talent, starts this sub- section with the well-known miss-conception that ‘a woman’s place is in the home’ . She also returns that to the fact that society always expects women to act ‘better than men’ She adds, “misbehavior from boys is tolerated where girls are more quickly corrected” (Holmes, 1992, p.165)
  3. The status of women as a subordinate group: Holmes says that “women as a subordinate group, it is argued, must avoid offending men- and  so they must speak carefully and politely”(Holmes, 1992, p.166)
  4.  The function of speech in expressing gender identity: Holmes concluded that “men prefer vernacular forms because they carry macho connotations of masculinity and toughness.” (Holmes,1992, p.166). It is not accepted that women speak in a masculine way. For example, men always tend to use the gerund sound as /in/ as in /sitin/ while girls tend to pronounce the /g/ sound more  likely as in /sitiŋ/.

Ronald Wardhaugh, in his famous An Introduction to Sociolinguistics, offers the differences between men and women in speech. He went through many studies and observation to prove his debate. He suggests various differences quoting several linguists’ views which are in a way or another similar to Holmes’.

  1. “In discussing language change in Philadelphia, Labov (2001, pp.281-2)…recasts his statement that ‘Women conform more closely than men to sociolinguistic norms that are overtly prescribed, but conform less than men when they are not'”
  2. “Women speech is trivial”; Wardhaugh, however, did not agree on such an assumption unless it had a solid basis. He said “Such judgments lack solid evidentiary support. For example, apparently men ‘gossip’ just as much as women do; men’s gossip is just different. They too talk about non-consequential matters, e.g., cars and sports”(p.336)

He then gives an observation based on the study of Baron and Taylor of the geography of the most famous gender speech differences. He

  1. Observed it in the Lesser Antilles of the West Indies among the Carib Indians.  Male and female Caribs have been reported to speak different languages. This returns to when Carib-speakers killed Arawak-speaking men and mated with Arwak women. Consequently, their children would learn a language from their fathers and another from their mothers. However, Wardhaugh says that “what differences there are actually do not result in two separate or different languages, but rather one language with noticeable gender-based characteristics”. (Wardhaugh, n.d, p.336).

He then explains a slightly different angle of speech differences between men and women, which is the phonological differences. He gives examples from Gros Venture, an Amerindian language of the northeast United States. This is a place where “women have palatalized velar stops where men have palatalized dental stops. For example, female kjastsa ‘bread’ and male djatsa .

When a female quotes a male, she attributes female pronunciation to him” and vice versa. (Wardhaugh, n.d, p.336). As previously seen, linguists have been able to successfully answer the question: “Why women tend to speak differently from men? And actually still observing such a phenomenon. Linguists more or less agree about the reasons why women tend to speak differently. For example, Robin Lakoff attributes it to sexism in society.

Tannen attributes it to the fact that women have the desire to be non-confrontational. Labov returns it to the differences in social classes. Holmes agrees with them and attributes the differences of speech to several reasons, such as social class differences, the role of women in society, the fact that women are the subordinate group, and the power of speech in showing gender identity. Wardhaugh attributes it to the fact that women speech is misjudged to be trivial and that women conform to sociolinguistic form more than men. Thus, they more or less agree about the reasons that cause women to speak differently.


Holmes, J. (1992).  Chapter 7: Gender and Age. An Introduction to Sociolinguistics, 3rd ed. (pp.157-165). University of New England: Diana Eades

Labov, W. (1966). The social stratification of English in New York city. Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics

Lakoff, R. (1973). Language and woman’s place, Language in Society

Lakoff, R. (1975). Language and Woman’s place. Retrieved from:

Wardhaugh, R. (2010).  Chapter 13: Gender. An introduction to sociolinguistics, 6th edition (pp. 336) A John Wilec & Sons, Ltd. Publication

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William Anderson (Schoolworkhelper Editorial Team)
William completed his Bachelor of Science and Master of Arts in 2013. He current serves as a lecturer, tutor and freelance writer. In his spare time, he enjoys reading, walking his dog and parasailing. Article last reviewed: 2022 | St. Rosemary Institution © 2010-2024 | Creative Commons 4.0

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