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Women's History Month

Language and Gender: A Reading List


The courting stick., Digital ID 1160499, New York Public LibraryDo you ever feel like people of the opposite sex just don't understand you, like you're speaking another language? You're not alone!  It is well documented that men and women have different styles of speaking and interacting, from conversations to their storytelling styles. 

In conversation, women typically try to make connections while males approach conversation as a contest.  Not surprising then, males typically tell stories involving competition, contests, and that are aggressive in nature.  Males use male protagonists exclusively and their protagonist acts alone.  Females write about community, relationships, social norms, and responding to the needs of others.

It is not just important to study gender differences in language to identify the differences and to better understand the other sex, but because it also holds an important place in feminism and women's history.  According to Talbot, there are two views regarding the relationship between language and gender.  First, and what she feels is the weaker view, is that language reflects society.  So for example the use of "Miss" and "Mrs" as a distinction of marital status for women reflects how this is an important distinction for a woman (as opposed to a man, who uses only "Mr" no matter what the marital status).  The other and stronger view according to Talbot is that language creates gender divisions instead of simply reflecting the divisions.  So the use of "Miss" and "Mrs" don't just reflect society but create and sustain inequality.  Feminists then have an interest in this inequality that language either reflects or creates in sustaining gender divisions.

Here are some suggestions for further reading that you can check out to explore this topic:   

You Just Don't Understand: Men and Women in Conversation by Deborah Tannen

This easy to read book by sociolinguist Deborah Tannen is replete with examples of the different styles men and women typically use in conversation.  It can be used as a tool to understanding the other gender's style, which Tannen views as different but equally as valid styles.  Her examples show how men's style is punctuated by status, independence, advice, information, orders, and conflict, while women's style is centered on support, intimacy, understanding, feelings, proposals, and compromise.


Language and Gender: An Introduction by Mary Talbot

This is an introductory text that covers an overview of foundational research on the topic of language and gender and current research in the field. Talbot covers topics such as sex versus gender, women's language, man made language, interactions between men and women, and construction of gender and includes further reading suggestions at the end of each chapter.




A Beginner's Guide to Language and Gender by Allyson Jule

Also an introductory text in the study of language and gender.  This book covers theoretical and practical perspectives in language interactions between gender in media, schools, places of business, places of worship, and at home.



Gender in Interaction: Perspectives on Femininity and Masculinity in Ethnography and Discourse edited by Bettina Baron, Helga Kotthoff

This book is a collection of articles examining the relevance of gender in interaction. One of the interesting articles included is Rachel Giora's “Theorizing Gender, Feminist Awareness and Language Change.” Giora suggests an alternative approach to Deborah Tannen's.  Instead of men's and women's styles being different but equally valid, she hypothesizes a Self vs. Other point of view.  A writer with the Self point of view will focus on in-group rather than on out-group members. This group relation based theory groups males and feminist writers on the basis of their similar strategy and non-feminists and males on the basis of their similar speech products.  She tests her hypothesis by studying written storytelling (including novels,
magazine articles, and screenplays) by Israeli male and female authors.


Gender and Conversational Interaction edited by Deborah Tannen

This book includes twelve papers about gender-related interaction.  Both anthropological and sociolinguistic in nature, this collection explores the complex relationship between gender and language use.  One of the interesting articles from this book includes Barbara Johnstone's “Community and Contest: Midwestern Men and Women Creating Their Worlds in Conversational Storytelling.”  This is a study of fifty-eight personal experience narratives told orally.  Johnstone studies the differences between each gender in how they create the world of the story they are telling.  Johnstone argues that neither the male or female strategy for resolving disturbances is more powerful or reflective of greater power than the other.  She also suggests that their narratives are not the product of separate men and women’s worlds, but that these worlds are creations.

The Myth of Mars and Venus by Deborah Cameron

This book challenges the popular and widely accepted attitudes and assumptions about gender and communication.  There are far-reaching consequences these myths and stereotypes can have, and Cameron argues that we must think about gender in more complex ways, recognizing that men and women's linguistic differences are related to the self-construction of personal meaning and identity.



Gendered Talk at Work : Constructing Gender Identity Through Workplace Discourse by Janet Holmes.

This accessible book examines men's and women's interaction in the workplace, exploring how gender contributes to the interpretation of meaning in workplace communication.





Gender and Politeness by Sara Mills

Mills challenges the claim made by language and gender literature that women are always more polite than men in this discussion of the relationship between gender and politeness. 






Feminist Perspectives on Language by Margaret Gibbon

This book looks at how we learn language and addresses the question of sexist language, language as possible reflection of male dominance, and how language effects how we understand the world around us.  An examination of methodology and interpretation of language in use and conversation analysis are also covered.




The Feminist Critique of Language : A Reader edited, with an introduction, by Deborah Cameron

This book is a guide to the major debates in current feminist thinking about language.  Topics include sexist
language, political correctness, and gender and language on the internet.




Articles available full text from Academic Search Premier

  • Daemmrich, Ingrid G. “Paradise and Storytelling: Interconnecting Gender, Motif, and Narrative Structure.” Narrative 11:2 (2003): 213-233
  • Libby, Marion N. and Elizabeth Aries. “Gender Differences in Preschool Children’s Narrative Fantasy.” Psychology of Women Quarterly 13:3 (1989): 293-306
  • McAuliffe, Sheila. “Toward Understanding One Another: Second Graders’ Use of Gendered Language and Story Styles.”  The Reading Teacher 47:4 (1993-94), 302-310
  • Newman, Matthew L "Gender Differences in Language Use: An Analysis of 14,000 Text Samples" Discourse Processes; May/Jun2008, Vol. 45 Issue 3, 211-236
  • Tannen, Deborah. "He Said, She Said." Scientific American Mind 21:2 (2010): 55-59


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