Language and Gender: The Dominance Model

In my last post, I briefly introduced ‘The Deficit Model‘ approach to perceived differences between language and gender. As clearly as possible, I tried to explain that this is just one theory surrounding language and gender. Note too my deliberate use of the word ‘perceived’ in my first sentence. There are linguists who would disagree that these differences even exist, such as Deboarh Cameron who wrote about this topic in ‘The myth of Mars and Venus.’

So, onto the Dominance model. Whereas the deficit model might suggest that so-called features of ‘women’s talk’ suggest a weakness in the language, the dominance model suggests that men’s use of language ‘dominates’ the weaker female sex. Partly this stems from their higher position in the social hierarchy. Thus, either consciously or subconsciously, men use language to exert power and maintain their dominance in society.

One linguist associated with this theory is Pamela Fishman. In her study, she taped mixed sex conversations between 3 couples. The tape recorders were set up to capture ‘natural’ non-planned conversations, though the participants could choose when to switch the recorder on and off. In her study (Fishman1983), Fishman observed that men often maintained control over conversations and that women asks many more questions, almost as if they were asking permission to speak. She also found that when men initiate conversations, they were much more likely to succeed and that ‘women had much more trouble getting conversations going.’ Her conclusions suggested that women do much more ‘work’ in keeping conversations going (asking questions, supporting men with their speech) whereas men tend to control the conversation, helping reinforce their dominance and social power.

Another study which links to the Dominance Model was completed by Zimmerman and West in 1975. You can read the whole study here, but there is a helpful summary online which you can listen to here. Zimmerman and West recorded everyday conversations in informal settings, such as coffee shops and cafes. Their study reinforced the dominance model, finding that in mixed sex conversations men interrupted women more, gave delayed minimal responses to women and also tended to talk more. In mixed sex conversations, women were silent more and for longer periods.

Next, we’ll look at the Difference Model.

Language and Gender: The Deficit Model

One of the language issues you need to be well-acquainted with is the differences between the talk of men and women. This is a hotly debated are, with a wide range of studies available that can be used to discuss this issue.

In your exam, you may well be given some data about how men and women use language, for instance frequency of hedges, or interruptions used in mixed conversations. Using this starting point, you’ll need to be able to discuss the idea that men and women use language differently.

Let’s begin with the Deficit Model. This is often linked to the linguist Robin Lakoff and her influential work ‘Language and Women’s Place‘. In this study, Lakoff identified several differences in the way women used language when compared to men, which are summarised here.

Lakoff suggested that these differences she noticed were part of ‘Women’s Language’ and was general seen as inferior to men. The ‘Deficit Model’ refers to how this language use contributes to women’s lower status and weaker position in society.

Another important study to consider was completed by O’Barr-and Atkins in 1980. In their courtroom study, they tested Lakoff’s hypothesis that features of ‘Women’s Language’ would be used more frequently by women. Their conclusions, however, suggested that these features were more closely linked to power, social status and social class. This led to them suggesting that ‘Powerless Language’ would be a more accurate definition of the features Lakoff identified. According to them, men would also often use these features and it was social status, not gender, which determined their use.

Of course, you are free to agree, disagree and debate any of these findings. As linguists, that is your job.  It’s also mentioning that the Deficit Model is just one approach to exploring differences in language between genders. We will be exploring different approaches in the coming weeks.

Attitudes to Accent

For Language Paper Two, you need to have a good command of the issues relating to accents, attitudes to accents and accent prejudice. Not only this, but you need to have a good command of different studies relating to accent and different sources you could use to enhance this discussion.

A typical question might be:

“Write an opinion article in which you discuss the issues surrounding people changing their accents. Before writing your article you should state your intended audience.”

Here are some of the sources we read in class, that you could use to help you answer this question. In particular, you should be confident at discussing the Academic research by Labov and Trudgill:

Key Terms you need to know:

  • Accent
  • Dialect
  • Received Pronunciation
  • Standard English
  • Overt and Covert Prestige
  • Divergence
  • Convergence