Many researchers have claimed that there are distinctive gender specific language features in conversation. A major supporter of this belief was Robin Lakoff, who devised what has since come to be called The Deficit Model, when comparing the two sexes. Her thesis stated there were many differences in conversational style one of which was the use of special lexicon by females. Lakoff believed that women, used subject specific language such as colour terms more frequently than men in everyday conversation. She said that they used empty adjectives such as cute and tag questions more regularly. Other language features females use more frequently according to Lakoff are intensifiers instead of absolute superlatives, hedges such as you know, superpolite forms, hypercorrection and indirect request forms e.g. Would you mind closing the door? According to her these differences show that women are disadvantaged when compared to males, due to their early sex role socialisation. Lakoff concluded that feminine linguistic features showed unassertiveness and lack of confidence.
For all of Lakoff’s claims she merely had anecdotal evidence to support her claims. Lakoff simply repeated the differences that sexist stereotypes within society have put forth; therefore her assertions could clearly be erroneous. However, since the publication of Lakoff’s influential book Language and Woman’s Place (1975) corroborating data has been found by McMillan, Clifton, McGrath and Gale (1977). The researchers found from their sample that some linguistic distinctions stated by Lakoff were true, such as intensifier usage, with women using them six times as often as men. Other observations McMillan et al. made were that females used tag questions twice as often, modal constructions (which express uncertainty e.g. “could”, “might” etc.) about twice as frequently and grammatical construction of interrogatives which function as imperatives was roughly three times more regularly used.
Lakoff believed that these distinctive features of feminine speech signified that women had a less assured and powerful form of speech than men however not all linguists have interpreted the data in the same manner. Dale Spender (1980) believed that differences within speech were as a result of sex-role socialisation. The Dominance Model is based on similar beliefs to Spender and it states that men have a more powerful role within society and this is reflected in their language usage. A later thesis expanding on Spender’s was proposed by Deborah Tannen (1990) and suggests that differences in the use of language were the result of different purposes. Most theories on gender differences within language have viewed male speech as the ‘norm’ and based their conclusions on female speech on the belief that it is deviant. Tannen considers differences to be culturally ingrained within society and so treats both forms of speech as a separate style.
These contrasting conclusions show the difficulty in interpreting data definitively. For example, Lakoff stated that the use of precise colour terms by women was an example of the triviality of their vocabulary. Dale Spender however considers the fact that in our society women are more frequently involved in interior decorating and so the use of such terms would be anything but trivial. Another difference of opinion linguists have is the reason for fact that men take on more feminine features of speech when talking to women as opposed to men. If Lakoff’s theory is correct then the natural assumption would be that men lose their self-confidence, as female speakers are generally unassertive and unconfident. McMillan et al. believed the cause of this change in male syntactic constructions was the result of “interpersonal sensitivity”, men having increased sensitivity in the presence of women. The difficulty in giving a definitive reason for linguistic differences that men and women have because it may be the result of a variety of factors.
A study conducted by Zimmerman and West, found that turn taking within conversation also was also different, with men far more likely to interrupt than women. Other research has shown that male turns were more formal in the style of a monologue whereas female turns were a collaborative effort, with other females often overlapping with back channel behaviour. Belgian linguist Patricia Niedzwiecki research supported this belief, showing that women treat conversation as a cooperative activity with supportive interjections however men are more competitive and use verbal support far less. She found that women tend to immediately digress but male speech was more linear.
There are many pronounced differences in terms of the language usage of men and women however the number of similarities is far greater. As a result of the drive for equality by the feminist movement the roles of both genders are changing to the extent that many men are now staying at home to look after their child whilst the mother is the ‘breadwinner’ for the household. This convergence of sex-roles within society has I believe greatly reduced the number of linguistic differences such as the coarseness of profanities. So therefore I believe that men and women use a slightly different style of conversation to achieve the same aim but as social roles come closer together I believe they will merge into a single entity.