Language and Gender

Women's language and men's language

Sometimes, there are very clear differences between the forms of language typically used by women and those typically used by men.

For instance, here are a few of the many cases where Japanese men and women traditionally use different lexical items to express the same meaning (examples from Janet Shibamoto, The Womanly Woman, in Philips et al., Eds., "Language, gender and sex in comparative perspective"):

Men's form
Women's form
box lunch

It is not an accident that all the traditionally "female" nouns have the polite or honorific prefix /o-/; this is one of many ways in which Japanese female speech has been characterized as being more polite than male speech. These days, many younger Japanese women would no longer choose to use the specific female forms.

Terminology: sex vs. gender

The different words traditionally used by Japanese men and women are obviously not determined directly by their complement of chromosomes, or by the nature of their reproductive organs, any more than the fact that all of them speak Japanese rather English is. Such linguistic differences are part of a cultural (re)construction of a biological difference -- a marking of gender differences that appears to be dying out in Japanese culture, as the roles and attitudes of men and women change.

The available terminology of ordinary English does not give us any easy way make it clear -- if we want to -- whether we are talking about biological or cultural differences. In recent years, many people have imposed this distinction on the terms "sex" and "gender", although in ordinary usage these terms overlap.

Here are some paired quotes from different recent newspaper stories, in which uses of "gender" might easily have been replaced by "sex," or vice versa:

Here is another newspaper quote, where gender and sex are used in adjacent sentences in apparently interchangeable senses: In The American Heritage dictionary, the definition of gender starts with its grammatical senses, and then references the definition of sex:

    1. Grammar.
    1. a. A set of two or more categories, as masculine, feminine, and neuter, into which words are divided according to sex, animation, psychological associations, or some other characteristic, and that determine agreement with or the selection of modifiers, referents, or grammatical forms.
    1. b. One category of such a set.
    1. c. The classification of a word or grammatical form in such a category.
    1. d. The distinguishing form or forms used.
    2. Classification of sex.

The definition of sex in the same dictionary starts from the biological question of reproductive function, but extends to all associated characteristics:

    1. a. The property or quality by which organisms are classified according to their reproductive functions.
    1. b. Either of two divisions, designated male and female, of this classification.
    2. Males or females collectively.
    3. The condition or character of being male or female; the physiological, functional, and psychological differences that distinguish the male and the female.
    4. The sexual urge or instinct as it manifests itself in behavior.
    5. Sexual intercourse.
    6. The genitalia.

The dictionary definitions are consistent with the overlapping usage seen in the newspaper quotes.

Nevertheless, as indicated earlier, in recent years many people have decided to use this pair of terms to express the newly-salient distinction between biological and cultural aspects of reproductive status. Roughly, in this way of talking, sex is genetics and physiology, while gender is culture and identity. From a recent medical text:

Another quote, from a book entitled Gender Voices: Although the terminology of sex vs. gender is far from generally accepted or even understood, the distinction that it expresses is a useful one, and so we will adopt it here.


Men and women are differentiated biologically in two ways that seem directly relevant to language. One has to do with the larynx, and the other with the brain.

The larynx

Males and females differ little in stature before puberty, but post-pubescent males are about 8-9% taller. According to a database maintained by NIST, the male children in their sample averaged about 3% taller at age 2, and less than 1% taller at age 10, whereas males average about 9% taller at age 18. According to a 1977 publication from the National Center for Health Statistics, at age 2 the 50th percentiles for males and females are identical; at age 10, girls are .6% taller (in the 50th percentile), and at age 18, males are about 8% taller.

With respect to the length of the vocal folds (the tissue in the larynx that is responsible for producing  voiced speech), this overall difference between the sexes is magnified by approximately a factor of four: the vocal folds of post-pubescent males average about 30-40% longer than those of females of the same age.

As a result of these laryngeal changes, adult human males have significantly lower voices than females do, out of proportion to their rather small different in average height. Though the pitch of anyone's speech depends very much on circumstances, under comparable conditions, (adult) human females voices are likely to show pitches almost double those of male voices. This difference reflects not only the difference in vocal cord length, but also a difference in vocal cord mass -- and perhaps some socially-conditioned factors as well. A graph showing data from various studies is reproduced below (taken from Kent 1994):


Because the larynx also drops lower in the neck in post-pubescent males, the overall male vocal tract length is about 15% longer on average. This means that resonance frequences (including the formant frequencies that determine vowel quality) are also about 15% lower in adult males as compared to females. This is about 175% of the difference expected on the basis of the average overall size differences (8-9%). This difference also means that adult males are even more subject to the risk of choking on aspirated food that is a price the human species pays for adapting its vocal organs to speech.

None of the other species of apes shows a similar sexual dimorphism of the vocal organs, although overall size differences between the sexes tend to be larger in other apes than in homo sapiens.

Brain anatomy and physiology

There is only one well-documented difference in neuroanatomy between human males and females, concerning the corpus callosum, an array of neural fibers that connects the two hemispheres of the cortex.. According to a series of studies (reviewed in Holloway et al. 1993), the corpus callosum of females  is on average larger when adjusted for total brain size, especially in the posterior portion known as the splenium. Brain size tends to track body size, and so male brains are on average larger. The average size of the corpus callosum in adult females is apparently roughly the same as in males,  but it is larger in proportion to total brain size. Some researchers have argued that the differences are not so much in size but in three-dimensional tissue distribution, with the female splenium more bulbous and thus more concentrated in the midline, where section areas may be most easily compared.

It is claimed (de Lacoste et al. 1986) that hman sex differences in the corpus callosum appear by 26 weeks prenatal.

The sexual dimorphism of the corpus callosum is said to contrast with other aspects of brain anatomy, where average sizes, corrected for overall brain size, show no significant differences between males and females. The corpus callosum does not appear to be dimorphic in monkeys and prosimians, while evidence from apes is uncertain.

Such differences suggest that interhemispheric communication may differ between the sexes. Speech and language tend to be localized on the left, or dominant, side of the brain ("lateralized"), while some other functions such as visuospatial integration and emotional appreciation of context are lateralized on the opposite side.

Several functional studies have found sex differences in cerebral lateralization for language-related activities. Perhaps the most striking differences appear in some studies of early development. A more recent study has found an adult difference in degree of lateralization of (at least certain kinds of) phonological processing. Finally, there are some suggestive differences in patterns of disability following stroke. However, it needs to be stressed that in what is known about neurophysiology, just as for neuroanatomy, there is a great deal of individual variation, and the overall similarities between the sexes are much greater than the differences.

Developmental studies of cerebral lateralization

A pair of developmental studies apear to show large and striking differences in lateralization of language-related functions between male and female infants at three and six months of age. The information in this section comes from D. W. Shucard et al., Electrophysiological activity in infancy, in Philips, Steele and Tanz, Eds., Language gender and sex in comparative perspective, 1987.

The studies used measurements of Auditory Evoked Potentials (AEP). In the AEP technique, recordings are made from scalp electrodes. The intensity of the recorded signal depends on the amount of activity in the neural tissues in the brain region near the electrode location. When a sudden sound, typically a beep-like "tone pip," is heard, there is a corresponding burst of AEP over a period of a second or so.

In these studies, tone pips were presented in pairs; each tone was a tenth of a second long, and the tones in each pair were two seconds apart. The tones were presented in three conditions, called music, verbal and baseline. In the music condition, classical music was played as a background. In the verbal condition, the background was passages from a second-grade reader, read by a female voice. In the baseline condition, the background was a white-noise hiss.

In the studies being discussed, what matters is the difference between the signal recorded on the right side of the head and the signal recorded on the left side of the head. The figure below shows the AEP recordings for one presentation of a pair of tones to a 3-month-old male infant in the "verbal" condition:

You can see that the signals from the left-side electrodes (especially the extrema labelled N2 and P3) are systematically smaller than the signals from the right-side electrodes.

As the graph below indicates, this pattern is quite regular for the male 3-month-olds in all conditions -- the right-side electrodes show higher activity regardless of the background condition. For the female three-month-olds, the situation is reversed -- they show higher activity in the left-side electrodes, regardless of conditions.

When infants are tested at the age of six months, the situation is different. The male six-month-olds still show the same pattern of greater right-side response regardless of background condition. The female six-month-olds show no significant lateralization for the baseline condition, and show the verbal condition with more activity on the left side, while the music condition shows more activity on the right side. This is the pattern expected for adult subjects.

Thus the infants at three months show opposite condition-independent lateralization, while at six months, the female infants seem to have developed the adult pattern, while the males are still showing the same immature pattern as at three months.

We should mention in passing that other studies have shown that human infants have some phonetic perception abilities essentially from birth, a matter that we will return to later in the lecture on child language acquisition.

No one knows what these infant AEP differences mean -- beyond the fact that there are apparently some real sex differences in developmental lateralization of brain function. These sex/language differences in 3- and 6-month-old infants are much larger than anything that can be measured in adults.

Evidence from fMRI studies

A 1995 study by Shaywitz et al., using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), found that in phonological tasks (rhyme detection),

in males, brain activation is localized to left inferior frontal gyrus (IFG) regions; in females the pattern of activation is very different, engaging more diffuse neural systems involving both left and right IFG regions.

In other words, (this particular type of) phonological processing was more strongly lateralized in males than in females. It should be noted that a variety of other language-related tasks in this (and other) studies did not show sex-linked differences in localization of activation.

Evidence from aphasia

Evidence for language-related functional differences in neuroanatomy between adult males and females is offered by a series of studies by Doreen Kimura and colleagues (Kimura 1993, Kumura and Hampson 1994), which show that in patients suffering damage to the left hemisphere of the brain, more men (48.5%) than women (30%) show signs of aphasia (impairment in speech or language skills). Looking at the details of correlations between damage location and type of impairment, Kimura further finds that when the left anterior portion of the frontal cortex is damaged, somewhat more women than men suffer aphasia. When the the left posterior portion of the frontal cortex is damaged, more men than women suffer aphasia.

We will return to questions of this kind in the lecture on Neurology and Pathology of Language. For the moment, the only thing that matters about Kimura's findings is that they appear show some differences between men and women in functional localization of language skills in the brain. However, some other researchers have called the conclusions into question, since the men and women in the study also differed in typical size of brain lesions.

Functional differences

No one knows why the sex difference in the human corpus callosum exists, if indeed it has any function. Nor does anyone really know why human larynx size and position differ between the sexes.

Evolutionary theorists usually assume that sexual dimorphism arises as a result of within-species reproductive competition, part of what is known as "sexual selection". This is a plausible account in the case of larynx size and position -- a deeper voice, sounding like it comes from a larger person, might have been helpful to paleolithic males in impressing potential mates or intimidating potential rivals. It is less clear that there is any story of this kind about the differences in brain anatomy and physiology.

It is tempting to speculate that  the brain differences are somehow connected to the hypothetical division of labor on the Pleistocene plains. Perhaps there was an evolutionary pressure for greater communicative abilities among women, or better integration of language functions with other kinds of processing. Alternatively, since some visuospatial functions are localized in the non-dominant hemisphere, and males tend to perform better than females on tasks such as visualization of object rotation, greater lateralization of male brains might have something to do with development of hunting-related skills like long-distance navigation and projectile aiming. However, recent research  shows that females in fact excel in other spatial skills, involving learning and remembering where things are. At present, all stories about a functional-evolutionary basis for the language lateralization differences between the sexes are speculative at best.

A recent news release from the Educational Testing Service reiterates the general finding that females tend to score somewhat higher than males on language-related tests:

Such results are widely replicated, from standardized tests in Addison, Vermont, to English writing skills among Taiwanese business students.

It is important to keep in mind, while considering these issues, that the average differences in these various skills between men and women are fairly small, and that there is a great deal of variation among individuals of either sex. To the extent that there are systematic differences in language usage between men and women, we must apparently look elsewhere for an explanation than in the anatomy and physiology of their brains.


When we look at the linguistic behavior of men and women across languages, cultures and circumstances, we will find many specific differences.

Quite a few languages show lexical and morphological differences like those exemplified above for Japanese. In some Native American languages, grammatical forms of verbs are inflected differently according to the sex of the speaker. Examples from the Muskogean language Koasati are given below:

Women's form
Men's form
English gloss
he is lifting it
let me lift it
he is peeling it
he is eating it
you are singing

However, explicit and categorical grammatical and or even lexical marking of speaker gender is not the norm. Instead, we usually find differences in the frequency of certain things (words, or pronunciations, or constructions, or intonations, or whatever), especially when the circumstances of utterance are taken into account. This has been explained by Trudgill as follows: It has often been observed that (other things equal) female speech tends to be evaluated as more "correct" or more "prestigious", less slangy, etc. Men are more likely than women to  use socially-stigmatized forms (like "ain't" or g-dropping in English). On the other hand, women are usually in the lead in changes in pronunciation, typically producing new pronunciations  sooner, more often, and in more extreme ways than men.

A number of stylistic differences between female and male speech have been observed or claimed. Women's speech has been said to be more polite, more redundant, more formal, more clearly pronounced, and more elaborated or complex, while men's speech is less polite, more elliptical, more informal, less clearly pronounced, and simpler.

In terms of conversational patterns, it has been observed or claimed that women use more verbal "support indicators" (like mm-hmm) than men do; that men interrupt women more than than they interrupt other men, and more than women interrupt either men or other women; that women express uncertainty and hesitancy more than men; and that (at least in single-sex interactions) males are more likely to give direct orders than females are.

For nearly all of these issues of stylistic and conversational differences, there are some contradictory findings, and it seems that one must look closely at the nature of the circumstances in order to predict how men and women will behave verbally.

Nevertheless, it is clear that in many circumstances,  women and men tend to use language differently.

Within the domain of culture,  two broad classes of explanations for such gender effects have been offered: difference theories and dominance theories.

According to difference theories (sometimes called two-culture theories), men and women inhabit different cultural (and therefore linguistic) worlds. To quote from the preface to Deborah Tannen's 1990 popularization You just don't understand, "boys and girls grow up in what are essentially different cultures, so talk between women and men is cross-cultural communication."

According to dominance theories, men and women inhabit the same cultural and linguistic world, in which power and status are distributed unequally, and are expressed by linguistic as well as other cultural markers. In principle, women and men have access to the same set of linguistic and conversational devices, and use them for the same purposes. Apparent differences in usage reflect differences in status and in goals.

The general consensus is that both sorts of explanations are appropriate to some degree, but the discussion is sometimes acrimonious and political. For instance, Tannen has been criticized by some feminist writers as a "deeply reactionary" "apologist for men", who "repeatedly excuses their insensitivities in her examples and justifies their outright rudeness as merely being part of their need for independence." Those who criticize Tannen in this way argue that the behavior of the men in her examples reflects a desire for domination rather rather than a different set of cultural norms.

What about the other genders?

Discussions of male and female speech and language, whether construed as biological or cultural or both, leaves out the fact that human sexuality is not nearly as binary as the basic opposition between XX and XY chromosomal complements. As discussed above, this has been one of the motivations for introducing the term gender, since gender characteristics may be present to varying degrees across individuals, or for a particular individual across occasions.

An interesting analogy between sexuality and language is suggested in the following quote from a book review in the October, 1997 issue of Scientific American, written by anthropologists Tom Boellstorff and Lawrence Cohen:

There has been considerable interest in gay and lesbian language. In particular, the speech of gay males is stereotypically marked, and there have been some attempts to find out what sorts of gay-specific speech varieties really exist,  for which particular groups and circumstances. The detailed linguistic characteristics of marked varieties of gay male speech, and their relationship to actual or stereotypical female speech varieties, remain largely unexplored by scientists, though they are extensively exploited by comedians.

Pop psychology

Over the past decade, public awareness and interest in the topic of language and gender has grown enormously, mostly focused on some popular and effective presentations of the two-cultures theory. Though both critical and scientific response to these works have been mixed at best, they have sold millions of copies, and been extremely influential in forming popular opinions on the subject.

The first and most important of these was Deborah Tannen's 1990 work You just don't understand. Opposed reader reviews from

  1. This book changed the way I look at the world. It is truly a tool for life and probably the single most important book I have every read.
  2. Whining misrepresentation. Tannen represents herself as an objective linguist but does little more than rail against men and make a biased, self-serving case for women. Thankfully, most women with whom I've discussed her work see through it and its reductive claims about report talk (men) vs. rapport talk (women).
A more recent work in this genre is John Gray, Men are from Mars, women are from Venus. More reader reviews from
  1. This is good - men and women do not speak the same language. I have always known this but was unable to articulate it as well as John Gray. We read pieces of it to each other, laughing and giggling we say "yes, that is how you behave" and "now I know why you act that way".
  2. Absolute twaddle. Gray is a charlatan at best, a caveman at worst. This take on gender relations is insulting to men, women, and aliens.
The idea of gender differences in communication style has given rise to a new genre of joke -- what do women -- or  men -- really mean?

These ideas formed the basis of a running gag in the 1992 movie White Men Can't Jump. Gloria (Rosie Perez) has been reading Tannen's book, and tries the experiment of telling her boyfriend Billy (Woody Harrelson) that she's thirsty. When he responds by  getting her a glass of water, she berates him for treating her statement as a request for him to solve a problem -- allegedly the typical male response -- instead of expressing sympathy for her thirst, which as a woman is what she (according to her interpretation of Tannen) really wanted.

Research results or stereotypes?

What does the two-culture theory say? The basic ideas go back at least to the early 1980's, beginning with John Gumperz's research on misunderstandings in intercultural communication involving immigrants, and Marjorie Goodwin's studies of conversational interaction among African-American children in Philadelphia. The most influential recent exponent of the theory has been Deborah Tannen.

In Tannen's version, women use language to achieve intimacy, resulting in what she calls "rapport talk." For women, "talk is the glue that holds relationships together," and so conversations are "negotiations for closeness in which people try to seek and give confirmation and support, and to reach consensus."  Men, on the other hand, use language to convey information, resulting in what Tannen calls "report talk." Because men maintain relationships through other activities, conversation for them becomes a negotiation for status in which each participant attempts to establish or improve his place in a hierarchical social order.

Is this true? Many people have criticized Tannen's ideas as social stereotypes, based on overgeneralization of limited research findings, or on anecdotes. For example, Alice Freed writes (in the Proceedings of the Second Berkeley Women and Language Conference)

It is difficult to test the broadest generalizations offered -- those about "rapport" vs. "report" for example -- but many more specific claims can be and have been tested over the past 20 years or so of research. Predicted differences are sometimes found but sometimes are not. Linguistic behavior is influenced by many other factors-- age, class, ethnicity, social setting, and individual personality -- and gender effects interact with other factors in complex and interesting ways.

A case study: use of tag questions

Tag questions are grammatical structures in in which a declarative is followed by an attached interrogative clause or 'tag', such as

  1. You were missing last week, weren't you?
  2. Thorpe's away, is he?

In her influential (1975) work Language and Women's Place, Robin Lakoff depicted a typical female speech style, allegedly characterized by the use of features such as hesitations, qualifiers, tag questions, empty adjectives, and other properties, which she asserted to have a common function: to weaken or mitigate the force of an utterance. Thus tag questions "are associated with a desire for confirmation or approval which signals a lack of self-confidence in the speaker."

Lakoff's description of female speech style was based on her remembered impressions rather than on any systematic, quantitative observation. When subsequent researchers went out and counted things, they often found it difficult to confirm her observations. For instance, some studies found that men actually used more tag questions than women did.

Thus Cameron et al. (1988) looked at tag questions in a 45,000 word sample from a British corpus of transcribed conversations, called the "Survey of English Usage" (SEU). There were nine sections of 5,000 words each; three of all-male conversation, three of all-female conversation, and three of mixed-sex conversation. In this corpus, there were 60 tag questions used by men, and only 36 by women. This is a significant sex difference, but in the opposite direction!

When they looked more closely at the function of the tag questions in this corpus, a further sex difference appeared -- which on closer examination seems not primarily to be a sex difference at all.

Holmes (1984) distinguishes two functions of tag questions: modal vs. affective. Modal tags "request information or confirmation of information of which the speaker is uncertain":

But you've been in Reading longer than that, haven't you?

Affective tags "are used not to signal uncertainty on the part of the speaker, but to indicate concern for the addressee":

  1. Open the door for me, could you?
  2. His portraits are quite static by comparison, aren't they?

Affective tags are further subdivided into two kinds: softeners like the first example above, which conventionally mitigate the force of what would otherwise be an impolite demand, and facilitative tags like the second example, which invite the listener to take a conversational turn to comment on the speaker's assertion.

When the tag data in the SEU study are categorized in this way, it turns out that in the category of modal tags -- that is, the tags that genuinely express uncertainty -- are much more likely to be used by men, while the affective tags are only somewhat more likely to be used by men:

  Females Males
Modal tags 9 (25%) 24 (40%)
Affective tags 27 (75%) 36 (60%)
Total tags 36 60

Suspecting that something besides sex/gender was involved here, the authors of this study turned their attention to another corpus. This database consisted of

nine hours' recorded unscripted talk from three broadcast settings: a medical radio phone-in where the participant roles were ... doctor and caller/client; classroom interaction recorded for ... educational TV, in which the salient roles were those of teacher and pupil; and a general TV discussion programme, in which the roles were ... presenter and audience.

In each case, one of the participants can be identified as "powerful" -- "institutionally responsible for the conduct of the talk", and typically also endowed with greater social power and status in the context of the conversations -- doctor vs. patient, teacher vs. student. The data was sampled so that men and women were equally represented in the "powerful" and "powerless" roles. All tag questions were identified and classified according to Holmes' categories. The results:

  Women Men
  Powerful Powerless Powerful Powerless
Modal tags 3 (5%) 9 (15%) 10 (18%) 16 (29%)
Affective tags (facilitative) 43 (70%) 0 25 (45%) 0
Affective tags (softeners) 6 (10%) 0 4 (7%) 0
Total tags 61 55

First, in this database -- unlike in the SEU data -- there is no significant overall difference in tag usage between the sexes.

Second, men continue to use modal tags relatively more often, and affective tags relatively less often.

The most striking difference by far, however, is not the sex/gender effect but the power effect: it is only the people who are in charge of the conversations -- the "powerful" speakers -- who use affective tags.

Language, gender and politics

The results of the tag question study can be interpreted in several different ways. One view would be that Lakoff's general orientation is confirmed, even though she was wrong about the facts: affective tags are used by people who feel that they are in control of a conversation; the greater use of tag questions overall by men in the SEU data means that the men in those conversations felt more powerful. Another interpretation of such data has been that women's higher proportion of affective tags, which are used to manage the flow of conversation, means that women are saddled with a higher proportion of "interactional shitwork."

Yet another interpretation might be that Lakoff was wrong: men are actually more insecure about their opinions (whence men's greater usage of modal tags), and less interested in controlling the conversational actions of others (whence powerful men's lower usage of affective tags).

Overall, the interpretation of gender differences in language use -- and the extent to which such differences are emphasized in the first place -- seems to have a strong political component. Certainly the more abstract interpretations that are sometimes given to observed differences -- for instance, the conclusion that women are more cooperative and men more competitive in conversation -- are highly political. In evaluating such interpretations, it is well to remember how widely they can vary.

An older set of sexist stereotypes about gender differences in communication -- very different from Tannen's -- are expressed in Rudyard Kipling's 1911 poem The female of the species. Kipling depicts the stereotypical man as an equivocator, "whose timid heart is bursting with the things he must not say." Men in conversation are therefore ready to compromise and to discuss all sides of an issue, and tend to be diverted by humor, doubt and pity. A woman, on the other hand, "who faces Death by torture for each life beneath her breast / May not deal in doubt or pity -- must not swerve for fact or jest." For a woman, "her contentions are her children," and anyone who disagrees will be met with "unprovoked and awful charges -- even so the she-bear fights." The conclusion, for Kipling, is that women should be excluded from politics:

No doubt many Edwardian men (and even some women) felt the same thrill of recognition, in reading Kipling's poem, that many contemporary women (and men) feel in reading Tannen or Gray. The large number of copies of Kipling's poem on the net suggests that some contemporary men still respond this way to it.

We should have learned since Kipling's time that this rush of feeling, in response to the well-crafted expression of a social stereotype, is not to be trusted. To quote from a recent article by Penelope Eckert and Sally McConnell-Ginet:


Gender-neutral language and the problem of English pronouns

Over the past couple of decades, a great deal of gender-specific terminology in English has been replaced by gender-neutral terms: chairperson or chair for chairman, server for waitress or waiter, etc. Although it rubs some older people the wrong way, most people seem to agree that elimination of incidental gender marking is a good thing, especially in the case of terms for jobs and social roles, since it helps to eliminate sex-role stereotyping.

The most difficult area in English is the pronoun system. Third-person singular pronouns are marked for gender -- he/she/it. The traditional usage was to view the masculine pronoun as unmarked. Here is a link to a wide-ranging discussion of this problem and current alternatives for dealing with it.