LINGUIST List 8.1475

Sun Oct 12 1997

Disc: Women's Language

Editor for this issue: Martin Jacobsen <>


  • Waruno Mahdi, Discussion: women`s language

    Message 1: Discussion: women`s language

    Date: Sat, 11 Oct 1997 20:11:00 +0100
    From: Waruno Mahdi <>
    Subject: Discussion: women`s language

    This was originally meant as response to the query by Kerstin Ermschel <> in LINGUIST 8.1463 #1, but as it got longer and longer, I thought it might interest others too, so I'm volunteering it as discussion topic to open opportunities for critical comments from which perhaps not only the queriant and I myself would profit.

    > 1.Do you believe that it is women who do all the gossiping? I feel > at times that men gossip as well and not less than women.

    No, gossiping is probably just as important for men as it is for women. It is just that men are perhaps less talkative than women, and, perhaps more important, men are in the average less proficient than women in expressing themselves linguistically (and when words fail us, we may be prone to letting fists speak).

    In my opinion, gossiping is a biologically ingrained human (male AND female) characteristic, and performs the same function among humans as "grooming" does among apes. It is a way of maintaining friendly social relations. There was a major publication which touched on the topic recently:

    Robin Dunbar, 1996, Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language.

    (I'm merely citing him for your information. I don't necessarily agree with everything that is said there).

    Some years earlier, there was a French book on the role of gossip in a socio-linguistic perspective. I unfortunately do not remember the names of the author(s) or the title, but I remember that there was an elaborate review article on it in the news magazine Der Spiegel (Hamburg), somewhere between 5 and 12 years ago. Perhaps you can still find it by going through the annual indexes of Der Spiegel from 1985 till 1992. (actually I've not missed a single number of Der Spiegel since May 1977, but I don't think it was before 1985).

    > 2. Do you think that women`s speech styles differ from that of men > due to biological reasons or solely due to socio-cultural factors?

    I think that there are both biological as well as socio-cultural factors, so that one should perhaps be careful about jumping too quickly to conclusions about giving either the one or the other the priority. To begin with, one must of course be careful when one speaks about "men" and "women", because such classifications typically contain generalizations which have much in common with popular clichees. In reality, both "men" as well as "women" encompass extremely wide ranges of temperament, character, behaviour, which partly overlap, so that you will find members of the one group, behaving like the more typical ones of the respective other group.

    So, when I talk about "men" and "women", I'll simply assume that there is something like a "typical man" and a "typical woman", serving as "archetype" of their respective gender groups. Basically, the idea is like this: I assume that one needs two logical stages to construct the actual situation. Stage one involves gender polarization in personality characteristics of "men" vis-a-vis "women". Stage two involves diversification within each of the two groups, resulting in a partial overlap. Both stages I see as consequence of darwinist evolution which led to the formation of Homo sapiens sapiens. But in the concrete context of your question, we can tentatively limit ourselves to the theoretical state resulting from stage one alone.

    Now, the gender polarization of economic roles at a certain stage in the evolution of hominid subsistence seems to lie at the beginning of the way towards Homo sapiens sapiens. It seems to have been a direct consequence of upright locomotion, leading to a narrowing of the pelvic bone and hence also a narrowing of the birth passage. Hominids, developing ever larger brains because of additional motoric problems to be dealt with in manipulations with hands which became free (bipedal locomotion only needed the feet), had to have smaller heads at the moment of birth. The solution of this contradiction was an ever more prematurely born baby, which was totally helpless at birth, and fully occupied the mother for a long period after birth. The lengthened period of childhood (premature birth, in combination with more to learn to be adult) had as consequence, that females became pregnant again before earlier-born children could vie for themselves. Consequently, females were fully occupied with newborn babies and tied down in their movements by children at various ages. This required a differentiation of economic roles. Hunting and defence of territorial domains, requiring greater mobility became the responsibility of males, whereas females specialized in more stationary pursuits, particularly foraging of vegetable food (and care for mentioned children). This economic cooperation within the community, between hunting males moving at large, and foraging females representing the community's "homebase", combined with the circumstance that mothers of newly-born babies, needing additional food while stilling the baby, is physically handicapped in gathering food, and thus depends on food sharing, all this must have served as the basis for the development of a "humane" form of community, being in contrast to "animal" community where the strongest one typically snatches the lion's share of the food.

    What does this have to do with gender-specific speech behaviour? It would take too much space to answer that in detail, but there are two basic moments:

    (1) The basic difference between humans and animals seems not to be intelligence, use of tools, affinity to art, or many other criteria which may have formerly been brought into consideration, but that the social organization of an animal community is biologically determined (and thus specific for each species), but in human communities it is culturally determined (in one and the same species of Homo sapiens sapiens one may find monogamy, polygamy, polyandry, exogamy, endogamy, etc., matrilear/patrilinear descendance reckoning. matrilocal/patrilocal organization, etc., egalitarianism, despotism, etc.). As literary reference for the basic proposition one may probably take

    Sherwood Washburn in Scientific American 203/3:63-75 (1960), Marshal Sahlins in ibid., 76-87 (1960).

    (2) Vocal and other signalization in animals serves as a basic medium for maintainance of social relations within the community, and it is my contention, that this is also true in humans. In view of point (1) it is obviously clear, that vocal signalization of humans (i.e. "language") must be just as totally more complex and flexible (and just as much an exponent of culture rather than of the biological taxon) than animal signalization, as the culturally variable social organization of humans is in comparison to the taxonomically invariant one of animals.

    One aspect of this is that speech variation served as social markers. At early stages of development, there apparently was age-group specific and gender specific speech variation, and soon afterwards also profession-specific speech variation (the secret language of shamans probably the oldest). Even today, there still are languages, in which some words in the vocabulary are different, depending upon whether the speaker is a man or a woman. With development of civilization, and further differentiaions in society, there appeared also further variations, particularly social class speech varieties and the interaction between these and regional or local dialects. I am preparing a paper on this point (2), scheduled for presentation in April 1998.

    I think, from this one can gather a rough idea of why male and female characteristic speech developed on biological principles. In all this, please don't forget that I have only restricted myself to "stage one". Including "stage two" only makes things more complex, and more confusing, but essentially, one will always have to return to "stage one" to arrive at the essential biological principles that are operative in the matter. Now about the socio-cultural factors.

    This is actually also partly clear from the role of language in social organization, and the culturality of this latter. There is a further moment which is perhaps important here. The division of economic roles between males and females, animal-hunting by males, plant-foraging by females, apparently had as consequence that animal husbandry originally became a male profession, and plant agriculture a female one. And although there practically are no communities which are purely plant agricultural or purely cattle growing, it did happen that either the one or the other was economically prevalent in various neolithic communities. It has been suggested, that this may have led to patriarchal or matriarchal principles becoming prevalent in the social organizations of the respective societies. But as war became an ever more determining factor in the maintenance of social and ethnic supremacy, and war, like hunting, was typically (though not always) reserved for males, this seems to have led to the male social preponderence we find throughout history since the beginnings of civilization.

    > 3. Do you think that women should change their style of talking to > gain more respect?

    I don't think so. That which the French call "la difference" not only underlies reproducibility since pretty low in the evolutionary scale, but, as I tried to explain above, it also led to the development of that particular something by which humans differ from animals. In human society, language plays an essential role in the maintenance of social organization, and the relationship between male and female is an extremely complex and contradictary one. But when we speak of the respectedness of men and the respectedness of women, we should perhaps differentiate between some culture-independent basics resulting from the biological, and secondary culture-specific features which have been superimposed.

    Let's begin with the former. Here, men are respected as men, amd women are respected as women, each having their own respective roles. The differentiation of economic roles at the beginnings of the evolutionary development of Homo sapiens sapiens seems to have given men the greater physical strength, and women the greater physical endurance. A women may seek the protection and provision only a man could give her, and a man may seek the security and comfort only a woman could give him, both being vital for the respective other. In cultures, in which neither gender has exclusive social preponderance, mature women enjoy a respected status just as much as mature men, but again, the woman will not normally be repected the way a man would be, and vice versa (here too, with some exceptions). Their economic roles too, serving as basis for the social respect they get, may be different. In some communities in Africa and in Southeast Asia (perhaps elsewhere too?) men do the manual productive labour, and women trade at the market and bring in the money (it is usually safer kept in their hands anyway, as they are less prone to squander it, philandering through the pubs etc.).

    >From a purely biological point of view, the only actual problem comes from "stage two", the differentiation among members of the same sex, as a result of which one may find an efemminate minority in men, and a masculine minority in women. These may be inclined to achieve the respected position normally accorded to members of the respectively opposite sex. In an open and democratic society it is probably their good right to do so. But they are the exceptions which prove the rule (otherwise they would not need to strive for that other status). In any case, however, men-specific and women-specific speech style would be crucial in maintenance of the respective male-specific and female-specific respected status, and the cross-over candidates will only have to take up that respectively opposite speech style, and it will probably be in their biological nature to be inclined to do so.

    As for the super-imposed culture-specific element, it may of course seem opportune, in societies with marked male social preponderence, for women to "copy" male speech style in order to achieve equally respected status. But this would be a most unsatisfactory solution, first of all for the women themselves (unless they belong to that masculinely inclined minority), because it would mean denying one's own natural inclinations and leading an artificial life. The attempt would perhaps deserve double respect, but it is not something I would recommend or consider preferable. The actual problem here lies in the social organization, not in the speech style, and any real progress in the social position of women in such cases would in my opinion have to be fought out on the social rather than on the linguistic front, so that women may be respected as women, and not as imitation men.

    Sorry if this got too long.

    Regards to all, Waruno

    - ----------------------------------------------------------------- Waruno Mahdi tel: +49 30 8413-5301 Faradayweg 4-6 fax: +49 30 8413-3155 14195 Berlin email: Germany WWW: - -----------------------------------------------------------------