Linguistics

He for She: Language and Gender in Present Day English

Robbie Love

Robbie Love delves into the Spoken British National Corpus 2014 to explore whether gender stereotypes about language are reflected in real language use.

We’ve all heard stereotypes about how men and women talk differently. Whether it’s the claim that men are more dominant language users, or that women use more ‘emotional’ language, stereotypes about gendered language use appear to coincide with the more general and everlasting gender inequality in society today. There’s still a considerable pay gap between men and women in the workplace and women are much more likely than men to be objectified in the media.

Such stereotypes are often based on little or outdated evidence. What happens, then, if instead of relying on intuition we take into account real life, up-to-date evidence of language use? With the arrival of a brand new corpus of everyday British English speech, it’s time to describe the real situation.

We have spent the last few years collecting recordings of people having conversations about all sorts of different topics. By counting all the words used only by men, and only by women, in everyday conversation across the UK, we can compare the most commonly used words of each gender to find out what, if any, differences occur.

Pronouns

Men

Rank Word Frequency per million words
1 I 35360
2 it 32360
4 you 27276
14 they 12826
21 he 8059
26 we 7461
43 she 4613
72 them 2657
78 me 2305

 

Women

Rank Word Frequency per million words
1 I 40540
2 it 30637
3 you 26110
17 they 10682
23 he 8418
28 we 7316
29 she 7146
61 me 3141
68 them 2711
79 her 2410

Looking at the top 100 most frequently spoken words of the men and women in our data, the pronouns tell an interesting story. In both cases, the pronoun he is used more than she, which may support theories of male conversational dominance. However, the female speakers do utter she much more frequently than the men – perhaps, then, women are more ‘visible’ in female talk than in male speech.

Furthermore, first person pronouns ‘I’ and ‘me’ are both more frequent in female speech than male speech – this may indicate that another stereotype may have some weight behind it – that women talk about themselves more than men!

Softening the blow?

Non-grammatical words in both the men and womens’ top 100
like, know, just, got, think, get, really, cos, go, up, right, out, mean, people, good, going, bit, because, now

Looking at non-grammatical words, most but not all of the top 100 words are shared by the male and female speakers. The words exclusive to the male list are:

‘so’, ‘well’, ‘said’, ‘sort’, ‘some ‘and ‘see’

The words exclusive to the female list are:

‘okay’, ‘quite’, ‘time’ and ‘actually’

What does this tell us about difference in language between men and women? Well, it suggests that emotional language in female speech does not occur among the most frequently spoken lexical words (nor male speech either) . Also, the idea that women are especially prone to hedging (lessening the impact of their speech – e.g. “well, I didn’t like it”) is refuted by the presence of hedge words ‘well’, ‘sort’ and ‘some’ in the male list. This suggests that men are potentially just as likely to mitigate their speech than women. Looking at the men further, we may have evidence of conversational dominance due to the presence of typical discourse word ‘so‘, which is often used to control the conversational topic (e.g. “so, what would you like to drink?“).

Overall, there is a mixed bag of evidence for and against common stereotypes. The situation is much more complicated than any universal claim can account for. Language, and gender for that matter, is a complicated phenomenon, and we should learn to treat them both as such.

Enjoyed this article? Explore Robbie’s research into how the language of swearing has evolved in Women now use the f-word as much as men.


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