Discussion on Sex Differences

Sex Differences
I think the English women speak awfy nice. The little girls are very
feminine just because they’ve a nice voice. But the same voice in an
Englishman—nae really. I think the voice lets the men down but it flatters
the girls.
Aberdeen housewife
More nonsense has been produced on the subject of sex differences than on any
linguistic topic, with the possible exception of spelling. Perhaps this is appropriate.
The relations between the sexes have generally been considered a fit topic
for comedy. In his book Language: Its Nature Development and Origin, Otto Jespersen
has a chapter entitled “The Woman” in which he manages to include every
stereotype about women that was current at the time. It is almost unfair to quote
directly but even in the 1920s Jespersen should have known better, particularly
since he lived in Denmark where women have traditionally shown an independent
spirit. Here are a few examples:
There can be no doubt that women exercise a great and universal influence on
linguistic development through their instinctive shrinking from coarse and gross
expressions and their preference for refined and (in certain spheres) veiled and
indirect expressions.
Men will certainly with great justice object that there is a danger of the language
becoming languid and insipid if we are always to content ourselves with women’s
Women move preferably in the central field of language, avoiding everything that
is out of the way or bizarre, while men will often either coin new words or
expressions or take up old-fashioned ones, if by that means they are enabled, or
think they are enabled, to find a more adequate or precise expression for their
thoughts. Woman as a rule follows the main road of language, where man is often
inclined to turn aside into a narrow footpath or even to strike out a new path for
himself. . . .
Those who want to learn a foreign language will therefore always do well at
the first stage to read many ladies’ novels, because they will there continually meet
with just those everyday words and combinations which the foreigner is above all
in need of, what may be termed the indispensable small-change of a language.
Macaulay, Ronald. 2006. <i>The Social Art : Language and Its Uses</i>. Cary: Oxford University Press, Incorporated.
Accessed April 22, 2021. ProQuest Ebook Central.
Created from templeuniv-ebooks on 2021-04-22 10:06:47.
Copyright © 2006. Oxford University Press, Incorporated. All rights reserved.
94 The Social Art
Woman is linguistically quicker than man: quicker to learn, quicker to hear, and
quicker to answer. A man is slower: he hesitates, he chews the cud to make sure
of the taste of words, and thereby comes to discover similarities with and differences
from other words, both in sound and in sense, thus preparing himself for
the appropriate use of the fittest noun or adjective.
The superior readiness of speech of women is a concomitant of the fact that their
vocabulary is smaller and more central than that of men.
Such stereotypes are often reinforced by works of fiction. Since little information
about prosodic features or paralinguistic features is contained in the normal
writing system, novelists frequently try to indicate the tone of voice by descriptive
verbs and adjectives to introduce dialogue. An examination of several novels revealed
an interesting difference between the expressions used to introduce men’s
or women’s speech:
said firmly said quietly
said bluntly asked innocently
said coldly echoed obediently
said smugly said loyally
urged offered humbly
burst forth whispered
demanded agressively asked mildly
said challengingly agreed placidly
cried furiously smiled complacently
exclaimed contemptuously fumbled on
cried portentously implored
grumbled pleaded
The surprising part is that the two lists are totally distinct. No doubt the novelists
intended to be realistic in describing two very different styles of speech but, in
doing so, they also reinforce the stereotypes of men and women.
In the past twenty years the question of sex differences in language has been
a growth industry as scholars have attempted to claim and to counter claims that
there are or are not important differences in the ways in which males and females
use language. It would, of course, be surprising if there were not. Both men and
women will use the forms of language, registers, and styles appropriate to the
activities in which they are engaged. To the extent that these activities differ between
males and females, it is to be expected that their language will differ. This
much is obvious. There is no need to look for a genetic basis for such differences.
It is also obvious that those in a position of power often expect to be treated with
deference by those over whom they have power. To the extent that in Western
industrialized societies men have more often been in positions of power over
women than the reverse, it is hardly surprising if women are sometimes found to
have used deferential language. There have also been certain violent activities, such
as fighting or contact sports, that until recently have been exclusively a male province,
and there are forms of language appropriate to them that may have been less
common among women.
Even in making such banal statements, one must qualify them by reference to
Macaulay, Ronald. 2006. <i>The Social Art : Language and Its Uses</i>. Cary: Oxford University Press, Incorporated.
Accessed April 22, 2021. ProQuest Ebook Central.
Created from templeuniv-ebooks on 2021-04-22 10:06:47.
Copyright © 2006. Oxford University Press, Incorporated. All rights reserved.
Sex Differences 95
“Western industrialized societies” or by limiting them to a single section of the
community. For example, it is probably true that in Britain until World War I
middle-class women were less likely to swear in public than middle-class men, but
working-class women were less inhibited. (G. K. Chesterton reported that in an
argument with a fishwife he could not compete in obscenities with her but triumphed
in the end by calling her “An adverb! A preposition! A pronoun!”)
In sociolinguistic studies of complex communities such as Glasgow, NewYork,
and Norwich, it has been shown that women in the lower middle class are likely
to be closer in their speech to the women in the class immediately above them
than are the men, who are likely to be closer to the men in the class immediately
below them. It has been suggested that this is because lower-class speech is associated
with toughness and virility and the men in the lower middle class choose to
identify with this image rather than with the less “masculine” speech of the upperclass
men. It may not be unimportant that in these studies the interviewers were
all men.
There seems, however, to be a deep-seated desire to find essential differences
between the speech of men and women that can either be attributed to some discriminatory
kind of socialization or, even better, to genetic disposition. This can
be seen in many references to sex differences in language development. Popular
belief and scholarly opinion has generally maintained that girls are more advanced
in language development than boys at the same age. Jespersen, for example, claimed
that girls learned to talk earlier and more quickly than boys, and that the speech
of girls is more correct than that of boys.
For about fifty years after Jespersen this view was maintained in the scholarly
literature on children’s development. In 1954 Professor Dorothea McCarthy published
an article summarizing what was known about children’s language development
at that time. Her conclusion about sex differences is:
One of the most consistent findings to emerge from the mass of data accumulated
on language development in American white children seems to be a slight difference
in favor of girls in nearly all aspects of language that have been studied.
What McCarthy actually found, however, was that the differences were not
large enough to be statistically significant. Although psychologists are normally
very careful not to make claims about differences that could be the result of chance
(that is, are not statistically significant), McCarthy was so convinced that girls were
more advanced in their speech that she chose to interpret the evidence the way she
did. In a survey of the literature up till 1975, I found that none of the studies
provided convincing evidence of consistent sex differences in language development.
I concluded that the burden of proof remained with those who wished to
claim otherwise. To the best of my knowledge, the situation has not changed since
What I did find were many examples of preconceived notions of sex differences
from the assertion that girls have an innate tendency toward sedentary pursuits to
claims that it is easier and more satisfying for the girl baby to imitate the mother’s
speech than it is for the boy baby to imitate the father’s. One example will illustrate
the kind of attitude:
Macaulay, Ronald. 2006. <i>The Social Art : Language and Its Uses</i>. Cary: Oxford University Press, Incorporated.
Accessed April 22, 2021. ProQuest Ebook Central.
Created from templeuniv-ebooks on 2021-04-22 10:06:47.
Copyright © 2006. Oxford University Press, Incorporated. All rights reserved.
96 The Social Art
The little girl, showing in her domestic play the over-riding absorption in personal
relationships through which she will later fulfill her role of wife, mother and
“expressive” leader of the family . . . learns language early in order to communicate.
The kind of communication in which she is chiefly interested at this stage
concerns the nurturant routines which are the stuff of family life. Sharing and
talking about them as she copies and “helps” her mother about the house must
enhance the mutual identification of mother and child, which in turn . . . will reinforce
imitation of the mother’s speech and promote further acquisition of language,
at first oriented toward domestic and interpersonal affairs but later adapted
to other uses as well. Her intellectual performance is relatively predictable because
it is rooted in this early communication, which enables her (environment permitting)
to display her inherited potential at an early age.
This is contrasted with the interests of boys:
Their preoccupation with the working of mechanical things is less interesting to
most mothers and fathers are much less available.
As a result the boy’s language development is slower:
His language, less fluent and personal and later to appear than the girl’s, develops
along more analytic lines and may, in favourable circumstances, provide the
groundwork for later intellectual achievement which could not have been foreseen
in his first few years.
Girls, of course, are more predictable:
The girl, meanwhile, is acquiring the intimate knowledge of human reactions
which we call feminine intuition. Perhaps because human reactions are less regular
than those of inanimate objects, however, she is less likely to develop the strictly
logical habits of thought that intelligent boys acquire, and if gifted may well come
to prefer the subtler disciplines of the humanities to the intellectual rigour of
I am not sure whether the writer considered himself a scientist, but if his writing
is an example of intellectual rigor, then give me the subtlety of the humanities any
day. What makes his statement all the more incredible is that it comes after describing
a longitudinal study of children that showed no important sex differences
in language development.
One of the problems with attempting to demonstrate differences in language
development is that measures of linguistic proficiency, particularly for young children,
are extremely crude instruments. Thus it is not surprising that samples of
linguistic behavior will reveal occasional differences between subgroups of the
sample. Such sex differences that have shown up on tests are much smaller than
those that have been shown to relate to social background. The fact that most
studies show no sex differences and that many of the findings of small differences
have been contradicted in other studies should be sufficient warning against drawing
conclusions about the linguistic superiority of either sex.
There are some differences between males and females that do not depend
upon unreliable tests of language development. Boys are much more likely to suffer
from speech disorders, such as stuttering, than girls. Adult males on average have
Macaulay, Ronald. 2006. <i>The Social Art : Language and Its Uses</i>. Cary: Oxford University Press, Incorporated.
Accessed April 22, 2021. ProQuest Ebook Central.
Created from templeuniv-ebooks on 2021-04-22 10:06:47.
Copyright © 2006. Oxford University Press, Incorporated. All rights reserved.
Sex Differences 97
deeper voices than adult females because the vibrating part of the vocal cords is
about a third longer in men. However, there may be social influences on this physiological
difference. It has been claimed that in the United States women may speak
as if they were smaller than they are (that is, with higher-pitched voices) and men
as if they were bigger than they are (that is, with lower-pitched voices). The “Oxford
voice” common among Oxford fellows (all male) at one time was remarkably
high pitched, and other social groups have adopted characteristic pitch levels that
are not totally “natural.”
In a quantitative study of connected speech I found that women used more
personal pronouns than men, particularly the pronouns I and she. In contrast, the
men used the definite article the and the relative pronoun which more often than
the women. These grammatical differences are no doubt related to the fact that the
women make much more frequent mention of people (particularly other women)
while the men more frequently mention places by name. The women also told
more stories and in their stories there was more dialogue.
It was reported that once during a debate in the French parliament when a
delegate pointed out that there were differences between men and women, another
delegate shouted out Vive la difference! It is not necessary to believe that men and
women are the same to be skeptical about claims as to the differences in the way
men and women speak. The desire to emphasize the differences seems to be widespread.
Jespersen’s chapter remains as a warning signal to all who venture into this
murky area that one’s prejudices may show through. Jespersen obviously believed
(and no doubt so did many of his readers) that what he was saying was self-evident.
However, he ends the chapter by observing that “great social changes are going on
in our times which may eventually modify even the the linguistic relations of the
two sexes.” Eventually, even scholars following in Jespersen’s footsteps may come
to see that men and women are simply people and that what they have in common
is more important than la difference, at least as far as their use of language is
It is, however, disturbing to find in a work published in 1991 the following
passage by a distinguished and respected scholar:
[I]t is clear why, as sociolinguists have often observed, women are more disposed
to adopt the legitimate language (or the legitimate pronunciation): since they are
both inclined towards docility with regard to the dominant usages both by the
sexual division of labour, which makes them specialize in the sphere of consumption,
and by the logic of marriage, which is their main if not their only avenue of
social advancement and through which they circulate upwards, women are predisposed
to accept, from school onwards, the new demands of the market in symbolic
It is a salutary reminder that progress is often an illusion.
Macaulay, Ronald. 2006. <i>The Social Art : Language and Its Uses</i>. Cary: Oxford University Press, Incorporated.
Accessed April 22, 2021. ProQuest Ebook Central.
Created from templeuniv-ebooks on 2021-04-22 10:06:47.
Copyright © 2006. Oxford University Press, Incorporated. All rights reserved.

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