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.


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