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Language and gender

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-U016-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved June 16, 2024, from

Article Summary

How do language and gender interact? This can be interpreted as asking about sexual difference in relation to language-use. How do the sexes speak, how do we speak of the sexes? And could or should these patterns change?

Not surprisingly, understanding language-gender interactions solely in terms of sexual difference yields a static and polarized picture. Men insult and swear, women flatter and wheedle, women draw others out while men monopolize conversations, men are direct and women beat around the bush, women gossip whereas men lecture. Linguistic conventions and familiar vocabulary equate humanity with males (note, for example, so-called generic uses of ‘he’) and sexuality with females (‘hussy’, for instance, once meant ‘housewife’). Men are linguistically represented as actors and women as acted upon, passive. Men control the institutions controlling language – such as schools, churches, publications, legislatures. Children of both sexes, however, learn a ‘mother tongue’ at a mother’s knee.

Such generalizations contain a few grains of truth, at least if restricted to so-called mainstream contemporary America or England. But they completely obscure the differences among women and among men and the varied forms of social relations so important to gender. One is never just a woman or a man: sexual classifications are inflected by age, class, race and much else. And gender involves not only women in relation to men as a group but also more specific cross-sex and same-sex relations ranging from egalitarian heterosexual marriages and same-sex partnerships through intense friendships and enmities among adolescent schoolgirls to camaraderie among boys on a football team. All such relations are partly constituted by people using language to and of one another; all are informed by and inform larger social arrangements. On the more linguistic side, these include dictionaries, the language arts curriculum and editorial guidelines; arrangements with a gender focus include marriage, high-school dances and gay rights legislation.

Emphasizing large-scale sex difference ignores cross-cultural and historical variation and makes change in language, in gender, or in their interaction appear mysterious. And such an emphasis erases the linguistic dynamics of a particular society’s construction of gender. Yet it is in such dynamics that, for example, language shapes and is shaped by sexual polarization and male dominance. This entry highlights approaches to language and gender that root each in historically situated social practice. Linguistic change and gender change then become inseparable.

Citing this article:
McConnell-Ginet, Sally. Language and gender, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-U016-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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