In her 1973 essay “Language and Woman’s Place,” linguist Robin Lakoff claimed that clear differences exist between the speech of women and men, and that these differences both reflect and perpetuate women’s powerlessness in society. Lakoff’s work became the basis for a substantial number of studies on gendered language since. Outside of academia, assumptions about the existence of “women’s language” are prevalent in popular advice books and manuals directed at women, who are advised to use or avoid certain linguistic features, including those identified by Lakoff nearly fifty years ago. These include the use of empty adjectives, tag questions, hedges, hypercorrect grammar, and super-polite forms.
My study aimed to identify current assumptions about women’s language to uncover the relevance of Lakoff’s claims today and the wisdom of advice directed at women regarding their language behavior. Which linguistic features, both identified by Lakoff and not, are associated with how women use language today?
I distributed a survey containing written dialogues using features associated with women’s language, as identified by Lakoff, or sourced from recent speaking advice for women. Participants were asked to identify the gender of the speakers and their choice. Responses from 600 English-speaking participants confirmed some assumptions about current stereotypes of women’s language (use of specific color terms, super-polite terms, tag questions, and verbosity), but not others (trivialized exclamations, apologies). The qualitative data suggests that stereotypes about gendered language act in concert with other non-language gender stereotypes, making the identification of specific features as women’s language largely contextual.
Fisher, Allison, "You Talk Like a Girl: Stereotypes about Women’s Language" (2021). Honors College Theses. 364.