chapter  23
Gender
ByJudith Baxter
Pages 13

Folk-linguistic evidence has long portrayed the language of women and men to be different, and, as we can see above, this belief lives on in media texts today. Much of this evidence – in the form of proverbs, sayings, literature, diaries, essays, newspaper headlines, advertising captions and so on – takes a prescriptive perspective (how women’s language ought to be) rather than a descriptive view – how it actually is, thus revealing deeply rooted ideological assumptions about gender. Language and Gender (also known as ‘Gender and Language’ or ‘Feminist Linguistics’) is

a relatively new field within sociolinguistics, usually said to be marked by the publication of Lakoff’s Language and Woman’s Place in 1975. The field has since aroused huge interest among applied linguists both on ethnographic and ideological grounds. Ethnographically, linguists were keen to gather authentic data to explore and explain folk-linguistic beliefs that males and females speak and act differently (e.g. Fishman 1978; Spender 1980). Ideologically, language and gender scholars aimed to show that language – both in use and as a form of representation – was a primary means of constructing gender differences, and at times hierarchies and inequalities between men and women. Consequently, two aspects emerged in language and gender research; first, how women and men talked (and by extension, wrote), and second, how women/men/boys and girls were represented in language – as a code, as discourse, and in actual texts. Today, ethnographic and ideological quests appear more integrated in a concern to explore how people’s identities are constructed in gendered ways within localised ‘communities of practice’ (Wenger 2000; also see Norton, this volume), but also in relation to

larger gendered discourses (Sunderland 2004). While the feminist agenda has been modified since the 1970s in light of developments in women’s status, there is nonetheless a consensus that gender continues to be highly relevant to the way people interact through language, and in the way they are positioned and represented by gendered ‘discourses’ or ‘ways of seeing the world’ (2004: 6). Within its short history, language and gender scholars have repeatedly contested the terms

‘gender’ and ‘sex’, which are not regarded as interchangeable. ‘Gender’ has now stabilised as a term to distinguish people in terms of their socio-cultural behaviour, and to signify masculine and feminine behaviours as scales or continua rather than as a dichotomy (Holmes 2001). While I use the term ‘sex’ in this chapter to refer to categories distinguished by biological characteristics (i.e. ‘male’ and ‘female’), it should be noted that a number of scholars have contested these categories as ‘hetero-normative’, and have suggested that ‘sex’ should also be reconceptualised as a socio-cultural construct (e.g. Butler 1990; Bergvall et al. 1996).