LINGUIST List 17.115|
Sat Jan 14 2006
Review: Socioling/Psycholing: Coates (2004)
Editor for this issue: Lindsay Butler
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Women, Men and Language, 3rd Edition
Message 1: Women, Men and Language, 3rd Edition
From: Isabelle Lemée <isabelle.lemeeucd.ie>
Subject: Women, Men and Language, 3rd Edition
AUTHOR: Coates, Jennifer
TITLE: Women, Men and Language
SUBTITLE: 3rd edition
PUBLISHER: Pearson Longman
Announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/16/16-2691.html
Isabelle Lemée, School of Applied Languages and Intercultural
Studies, Dublin City University.
As the title suggests, Coates' book introduces the reader to the study
of Language and Gender. This is the third edition, and the subtitle of
this book informs the reader that it is a sociolinguistic account of
gender differences in language.
'Women, Men and Language' is organised around four main parts and
comprises a total of twelve chapters. Part 1 (Introductory) has three
chapters and gives an introduction to the key area of language and
gender. Coates focuses on linguistic variation related to the gender of
the speaker and relates these linguistic differences to the social roles
assigned to women and men in our culture. She exposes our society's
preconceptions about gender differences in language through
In Part 2 (The sociolinguistic evidence), five chapters introduce
sociolinguistic evidence of gender differences in language in the
chronological order in which sociolinguistic research on gender
developed. The chapters focus respectively on quantitative studies,
the concept of social networks, women's and men's linguistic
behaviour while communicating, as well as the way certain
conversational strategies can be used to achieve dominance in talk, to
conclude with single-sex talk.
Part 3 (Causes and consequences) examines three related areas: the
development of gender-differentiated language in children, the nature
of linguistic change and the role of gender differences in promoting
changes, and finally the consequences of gender differences in
language, looking especially at the use of language in school and the
workplace. Coates attempts to understand to what extent women are
disadvantaged in these two contexts.
Part 4 (Looking to the future) is the final part of this book and contains
only one short chapter which provides an overview of recent
developments in language and gender research, as well as an overall
conclusion about the shape of language and gender research in the
In structural terms, the book is very consistent and all chapters are
generally organised in similar ways. Thus each chapter starts out with
a general introduction, very clear definition of terms, followed by
general discussion of the studies presented. At the end of each
chapter, Coates provides an overall conclusion and voices her opinion
about the chapter. The author presents the studies conducted on
language and gender in details and does not presuppose any
previous knowledge of the field. Therefore this book is intended for
readers with little or no background in this field and for experts alike.
Students can read about early language and gender work at the same
time as developing an understanding of new approaches to gender.
SUMMARY OF INDIVIDUAL CHAPTERS
Chapter 1 (Language and gender) opens with a general introduction
where Coates expresses her intention to provide a coherent
sociolinguistic account of the co-variation of language and gender. In
this introductory chapter, she gives an overview of the way language
and gender studies have developed within sociolinguistics, and also
provides a brief account of the main approaches by linguists to the
question of gender differences in language. The last section
discusses the organisation of the book.
In Chapter 2 (The historical background (1) - Folklinguistics and the
early grammarians) Coates looks at the cultural mythology associated
with gender differences in language. The chapter concentrates on
vocabulary, swearing and taboo language, grammar, literacy,
pronunciation and verbosity. She presents her definition of the
Androcentric Rule which states that 'men will be seen to behave
linguistically in a way that fits the writer's view of what is desirable or
admirable; women on the other hand will be blamed for any linguistic
state or development which is regarded by the writer as negative or
reprehensible' (p.10). This chapter reflects ideas of scholars from the
Middle-Ages up to the beginning of the century. For example silence
was synonymous of obedience for a woman in the 18th century.
Chapter 3 (The historical background (2) - Anthropologists and
dialectologists) features a detailed survey of works done by
anthropologists and dialectologists to illustrate respectively the kind of
male/female variation in language that anthropologists commented on,
and the weakness of traditional dialectology in its selection of
informants which lead to the claim that women's speech was more
standard than men's and therefore less worthy of researching on.
Coates describes how women were often supplementing the
dialectologist with information rather than being full members of the
Chapter 4 (Quantitative studies) presents classic sociolinguistic
studies, with their analysis of linguistic variation in relation to social
class of speakers and speech style. Sociolinguistic studies revealed
clear social stratification and gave rise to the related concept of
prestige and stigma. The studies presented have found that gender
differences in language often cut across social class variation. For
some community studied, use of non-standard, non-prestige forms
seems to be associated not only with working-class speakers, but also
with male speakers. This is contradicted though by Eckert's study
(1988; 1990) where her high school (burnout) girls lead the boys in
the use of vernacular forms. Women are found to use fewer
stigmatised forms and more prestige forms than men in each social
In Chapter 5 (Social Networks), Coates presents work exploring the
hypothesis that the level of integration of speakers in a community
directly reflects in their language. She stresses the importance to
accept vernacular norms as features marking a speaker's loyalty to a
particular network. Milroy (1980) and Cheshire (1982) demonstrate
that female speakers are less closely integrated into vernacular
culture, that women use vernacular norms less consistently than male
speakers. Cheshire's work clearly shows that women's loyalty to
vernacular norms is not always marked with the same linguistic
features that mark men's identification with vernacular culture. Women
are generally thought to belong to less dense and multiplex networks
than men, even though some research present counter-examples of
In Chapter 6 (Gender differences in conversational practice) Coates
presents evidence from a range of studies which suggest that women
and men differ in terms of their communicative competence. She
describes how women and men pursue different interactive styles:
women use hedges more frequently and pay more compliments to
other speakers, they also appear to be more polite, while men talk and
swear more and use aggravated directives to get things done. The
evidence presented shows that both women and men accommodate
to the perceived norms of the other gender. This chapter also
describes misconceptions, showing for example that although gossip
is part of female subculture, some aspects of men's talk can also be
Chapter 7 (Conversational dominance in mixed talk) focuses on how
some conversational strategies are used to achieve dominance in
talk. ''Sociolinguistic research into mixed talk exposes the fact that
women and men do not have equal rights to the conversational floor''
(p. 124). In mixed talk, interruptions, talking too much or being silent
are strategies mainly used by men to undermine the current speaker
and consequently to reinforce male dominance. Studies suggest that
gender overrides status.
In chapter 8 (Same-sex talk) Coates focuses on women's and men's
talk in same-sex groups. Research suggests that linguistic
characteristics of all female-talk and all-male talk differ. ''This
difference has been labelled all-female talk 'cooperative' and all-male
talk 'competitive''' (p. 143). This chapter stresses two important facts:
firstly these different ways of talking may share the goal of creating
group solidarity; secondly language is a way of DOING gender rather
than just being women or men. In any case, this is constrained by
dominant norms which are always open to challenge.
Chapter 9 (Children and gender-differentiated language) explains how
differences in linguistic usage are mainly linked to the linguistic
environment of girls and boys. Language is an important part of the
socialisation process and children not only learn gender appropriate
behaviour, but they also acquire a knowledge of culturally approved
gender roles. Children adopt particular linguistic behaviour as part 'of
their performance of masculinity/femininity, [thus perpetuating] the
social order which creates gender distinctions' (p. 148).
In Chapter 10 (The role of gender differences in linguistic change)
Coates tries to demonstrate the existing link between gender
differences in language and linguistic change. To do so, she re-
examines Labov's (1972), Trudgill's (1974), Milroy's (1980) and
Eckert's (1990) studies, and also looks at Nichols' (1983) and Britain's
(1998) studies. Coates finds it impossible to claim that linguistic
change is associated with one gender or another. Women are
sometimes innovative - as shown by Trudgill's, Milroy's and Nichols'
studies - and sometimes conservative. All these studies underline the
fact that women, like men, respond to local circumstances. They make
linguistic choices in the context of particular speech communities.
Chapter 11 (The social consequences of gender differences in
language) Coates examines the social, as opposed to the linguistic
consequences of linguistic differentiation based on gender. She
mainly focuses on the classroom and the workplace. The studies show
that in school, boys' dominance is co-constructed by all participants -
teacher and pupils included. Cooperative conversational skills brought
to the classroom by female speakers are not valued. In the case of the
workplace, this remains a decidedly unequal arena. However a
growing body of research shows that the interpersonal skills that
women bring into the workplace are beginning to be valued. What
these studies demonstrate is that ''gender relations are changing and
that we are living through a period of transition with changes going on
in the everyday worlds of school and work'' (p. 210). These changes
have an impact on cultural notions of masculinity and femininity.
In Chapter 12 (New developments in language and gender research)
Coates gives an ''overview of some of the key changes that have
taken place and some of the new ideas that currently hold sway in the
academic community'' (p. 215), such as communities of practice, queer
linguistics. Coates claims that ''the spread of language and gender
research to non-English-speaking communities and the adoption of
the communities of practice approach have led to more studies which
emphasize the importance of looking locally'' (p 221). However she
warns that by looking too locally it is very easy to lose sight of the big
This revised edition takes the reader from an initial 'men talk like this;
women talk like that' approach to a more nuanced idea of women and
men performing gender in their everyday interactions. It covers a
range of sociolinguistic research, looking at grammatical and
phonological features a well as at aspects of conversation such as
compliments or swearing. This book presents studies that contradict
common beliefs like women talk more than men. It is written clearly
and in a very accessible manner.
This is a very useful volume in which terms are very well presented
and explained in relation to concrete studies. The small number of
typos is further evidence of the author's attention to formal accuracy.
My only minor criticism concerns the fact that since this book is
intended to students as well as teachers, it would have been useful to
see in addition to author and subject indices a definition index.
Taken together this is a very well-structured informative book that
fulfils all the objectives that the author set out to achieve. This book
explores the idea that gender is socially and culturally constructed.
Britain, D. (1998). Linguistic change in intonation: the use of high-
rising terminals in New Zealand English. In Trudgill, P. and Cheshire,
J. (eds) The Sociolinguistic Reader. Vol I: Multilingualism and
Variation, 213-239. Arnold: London.
Cheshire, J. (1982). Variation in an English Dialect. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.
Eckert, P. (1988). Adolescent social structure and the spread of
linguistic change. Language in Society, 17: 245-267
Eckert, P. (1990). The whole woman: Sex and gender differences in
variation. Language Variation and Change, 1: 245-68
Labov, W. (1972). Sociolinguistic Patterns. Philadelphia: University of
Milroy, L. (1980). Language and Social Networks. Oxford: Oxford
Nichols, P. (1983). Linguistic options and choices for Black women in
the rural South. In Thorne, B., Kramarae, C. ad Henley, N. (eds)
Language, Gender and Society 54-68. Newbury House, Rowley, MA.
Trudgill, P. (1974). The social differentiation of English in Norwich.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Isabelle Lemée is a Lecturer in Dublin City University and currently
teaches Spoken French, French for Specific Purposes as well as
Psycholinguistics. Her research interests include Second Language
Acquisition, Sociolinguistics and Language Variation.
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