Historical Sociolinguistics and Sociohistorical Linguistics

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Male and female language: growing together?

Irene van Baalen

Published: 19 April 2001 (HSL/SHL 1)

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1. Introduction

Although the difference in language between men and women has been widely discussed, most of the literature on the subject concentrates on two main theories. The first is the “dominance approach” (supported by Lakoff 1975; Fishman 1983), which claims that the difference in language between men and women is a consequence of male dominance and female subordination. In this view, women are a suppressed minority group. Supporters of the “difference approach” (Coates 1986; Tannen 1990) on the other hand, believe that men and women belong to different subcultures and that any linguistic differences can be attributed to cultural differences.

During the last few decades, rigid role patterns have changed and as a result gender notions have changed as well. Men and women are increasingly becoming each other’s equals in areas of education and profession. This implies that, in Western society anyway, the concept of masculinity no longer exclusively brings to mind the image of tough guys who work all day and leave the upbringing of their children to their wives; it can now also be associated with men who take care of children and do domestic chores. Men are encouraged to open up and  share their feelings, whereas this was quite unusual in the times of rigid role patterns. Women can now work in almost every profession they aspire to, and they can continue to work after having children without being regarded as bad mothers. As language helps people to create their identity and their gender, it makes sense to assume that when people’s ideas of masculinity and femininity change, their language changes as well. My hypothesis is that the language of men and women is becoming more similar as a result of changing gender notions.

Until recently, the language of men and that of women were perceived as being very different from each other. Specifically, male use of language was considered the norm and women’s language was deviant from that norm, thus being regarded as inferior to that of men. Following this belief, it has been claimed that there is a typical female language. According to Lakoff (1975) this style is marked by the use of certain linguistic features such as hedging devices, tag questions, intensifiers and qualifiers, so-called “trivial lexis”, “empty” adjectives and rising intonation on declaratives. The link between these markers is their alleged common function in communication: they weaken or mitigate the force of an utterance. Lakoff’s characterisation of language suits the rigid role patterns that existed decades ago. More recent research has shown, however, that women’s language is not as weak and tentative as Lakoff suggested. O’Barr and Atkins (in Coates 1998) have shown in their study of language used in American courts that the mainly female characteristics of language as described by Lakoff were in fact not characteristic of female language. They suggest that this use of language should not be called “female language” but “powerless language” as it is characteristic of people in powerless positions (either because of their relatively low social status or because of lack in experience in the courtroom). They suggest that this use of language by female speakers is a reflection of American society, in which women often have subordinate positions. Likewise, Harris (1984) argues that people’s use of tag questions does not express uncertainty or a request for confirmation as was commonly assumed, but that it actually reflects a very powerful act in that questions demand answers. From this point of view, women are not tentative and insecure but authoritative and powerful.

Although in my opinion men and women are equal and should not be looked upon as coming from different subcultures as is claimed by supporters of the “difference approach”, I do think that there is a difference in the way language is used by men and women. In my opinion this is due to the way boys and girls are raised linguistically. However, as gender notions change, the traditional upbringing of children may also change. In order to test this hypothesis, I have taken the use of hedging devices by men and women as a case study. Hedging devices are semantically empty phrases like I think or you know. Holmes (1996) claims that they may express that the speaker is not committed to what s/he is saying and that they can be used to soften or mitigate utterances in order not to hurt the addressee’s feelings. As hedging devices have often been considered a characteristic of female language mainly, e.g. by Lakoff (1975) and Fishman (1983), it is my aim to find out whether even today hedges are still mainly a characteristic of female language and whether men use fewer or different hedges. If the language of men and women is becoming more similar, as the changing gender notions might lead us to expect, it could be possible that men and women are becoming more alike in their use of hedging devices. This would mean that the difference between “powerful” and “powerless” language as described by O’Barr and Atkins is diminishing.

In order to test this hypothesis, I recorded six of the BBC Five “Ruscoe on Five” programmes which were broadcast on weekdays between 2 and 4 p.m. in the period of December 1997 to April 1998. “Ruscoe on Five” was a programme in which Sybil Ruscoe, the programme’s host, discussed news items and social issues with people who were invited to the studio and listeners who called in to give their opinion on a subject. In my analysis of these programmes I looked in particular at the use of hedges by men and women. In addition, I took a number of quotations from the programmes and asked native speakers of British English, men and women alike from different generations, born in the 50s or 60s and in the 70s or early 80s, to look at the quotations and indicate whether they thought a man or a woman was being quoted. The purpose of this survey was to find out whether these two generations have different perceptions of typically male and typically female language.


2. Linguistic forms of hedging devices

Hedges have multiple functions. They can add a degree of uncertainty and non-commitment to an utterance and indicate that a speaker does not want to give up his/her speaking turn yet. This leads us to consider which phrases or words can act as hedging devices. Coates (1996: 152-173) names several words and phrases, such as maybe, sort of, you know, may and might and I mean. Holmes includes pauses and hesitations like …eehm… and … eeh … in the category of hedges since “they can be used to express a speaker’s reluctance to impose” (1996: 75). She lists fall-rise intonation, tag questions and modal verbs, lexical items such as sort of and I think (1996: 74-75). In her study of politeness devices, Holmes found that women seem to use tag questions more as positive politeness devices while men use them more to ask for information or confirmation of assumptions. Other differences in the use of hedging devices between men and women found by Holmes involved the use of the lexical items you know, I think and sort of. Women tend to use the solidarity marker you know (used most often between people who know each other well as it emphasises shared knowledge) as an addressee oriented positive politeness device when it protects the speaker’s positive face needs. Men, on the other hand, use you know more in its referential meaning when it refers to presupposed shared knowledge or acts as a hedge on the validity of a supposition. In Holmes’s data, I think was often used as a booster by women and they also used it as a positive politeness device (expressing agreement with the addressee) more often than men did. Sort of occurs most often in informal contexts and can also function as a solidarity marker. According to Holmes’s data women tend to use sort of more often than men.

In contrast with Coates and Holmes, Hirschman (1994) does not make use of the term hedging devices in her paper which she originally presented in 1973. Her research covered male‑female differences in conversational style and she studied cross‑sex conversations as well as single-sex conversations. She uses the terms “fillers” and “qualifiers”. “Fillers” are defined as phrases that could appear anywhere in the sentence and that could be deleted from the sentence without a change in content. Hirschman divides “fillers” into two groups, the first consisting of um and its variants uh and ah, like (when not used as verb or preposition) and well, not in initial position. The second group includes the phrases you know and I mean which are often used “when the speaker is groping for words but doesn’t want to give up the claim to the floor” (Hirschman 1994: 432). The second category of “qualifiers” is characterised by the fact that their deletion only affects the degree of assertiveness of a sentence and does not change the content of the utterance. The group defined as “qualifiers” by Hirschman consists of several subdivisions. Phrases of the type I think, I assume and I mean are qualifiers as well as the adverbials maybe, relatively, generally and the adverbials used with a negative (not) really, (not) very. Generalised adjuncts, for example, (or) something, (or) whatever, sort of and kind of also function as qualifiers. Other qualifying expressions, e.g. modals, quantifiers like many and some and sentence operators like it seems that function in a similar way and can also be deleted with minimal syntactic adjustment.

Taking account of the discussion of hedges by Coates, Holmes and Hirschman, I have listed six categories of linguistic forms of hedging devices.

  1. fall-rise intonation patterns;
  2. phrases like I mean, I think, I assume, I guess, sort of, kind of, you know;
  3. adverbials such as maybe, probably, relatively, generally, really;
  4. the modal verbs may, might, would and could;
  5. lexical items such as perhaps, conceivably, or whatever, or something;
  6. tag questions such as isn’t it, are you, can’t she.

In the analysis of the radio programmes, the first category has not been taken into account. As the speakers came from all over Britain I found it difficult to establish which intonation patterns were part of a particular accent and which were really meant as hedges. These linguistic forms are rather equivocal since there are many phrases that can act as hedging devices in people’s language. However, the phrases do not often by definition function as hedges as can be seen in the following example.

Example 1: … and that’s the sort of harassment I mean, rather than physical touching …

In the analysis, I have distinguished between phrases that were meant as hedging devices and phrases that were not meant to hedge an utterance. Hedges are phrases that can be left out without changing the contents of the sentence.


3. Hedging devices in male and female conversations

The basic function of hedging devices is to indicate that speakers are not committed to what they say. In other words, they avoid making explicit statements. The interpersonal function of hedges is to take account of the feelings of the addressee. Conversations are not just about people and events, they also reveal the speakers’ attitudes to their addressees. Hedging devices are useful to express opinions but to soften them in the process. According to Coates (1996: 156), protecting face needs is an important function of hedges. Face needs are the need to feel acknowledged and liked (positive face needs) and the need to have one’s personal space respected (negative face needs). Hedging devices help the speaker to avoid imposing on people. Tannen (1990) and Coates (1996) found that the use of hedges by women is closely related to the speaking styles and kinds of conversations women have. Tannen (1990: 77) argues that “for most women, the language of conversation is primarily a language of rapport a way of establishing connections and negotiating relationships”. Women place emphasis on “displaying similarities and matching experiences” (Tannen 1990: 77). Coates (1996: 162) claims that the use of hedges by women is closely related to three aspects of their conversations. Women often discuss sensitive topics which may arouse strong emotions in the speakers and their addressees. In order to avoid creating arguments, they tend to hedge their assertions. The second aspect of all-female talk is mutual self-disclosure. Telling others about personal experiences (necessary for establishing friendship) is easier when it is done in a mitigating way and hedges are useful for doing so. The third aspect of women’s talk is that a collaborative floor is maintained. A collaborative floor involves social closeness, and the group’s voice is considered to be more important than an individual opinion. In this respect it is important for women not to make hard and fast statements about topics that could be sensitive to others. Knowledge of topics of conversation also plays a role in the use of hedges. Women are more inclined to downplay their authority, as playing the expert in a conversation creates social distance. In other words, women sometimes deliberately use hedging devices to avoid a hierarchical structuring of relationships.

All-male talk is different. It is characterised by a one-at-a-time structure. There is little overlap in men’s conversations and consequently “the ideas expressed by individuals in those turns are seen as individually owned” (Coates 1997: 124). Male friendships do not seem to place a great value on talk; men concentrate more on doing things together, such as sports. On the other hand men generally place greater value on what is being said, on exchange of information. Tannen (1990: 77) calls this phenomenon “report talk”: for men “talk is primarily a means to preserve independence and negotiate and maintain status in a hierarchical social order”. She claims that men establish their status by “exhibiting knowledge and skill and by holding centre stage through verbal performance such as story-telling, joking or imparting information” (1990: 77). Men do not often discuss personal things but their conversations seem to involve sports and politics quite frequently. Since no collaborative floor is maintained in their conversations, men do not feel as strong a need to agree with each other as women do. When politics or other rather impersonal things are discussed and when there is no need to agree on a subject, men could be expected to use fewer hedging devices than women do. This is not to say that men do not use any hedges at all. They use hedging devices in different ways, for example to indicate that although they may not have the right words at hand, they are not giving up their speaking turn.

With respect to cross-sex conversations, the supporters of the “dominance approach” see women as weak and tentative participants in conversations whereas men determine which subject is discussed for how long. According to the “difference approach” men and women must make adjustments in order to make conversations possible. One of the supporters of the “difference approach” is Tannen, and she argues that communication between men and women is cross-cultural communication. In her opinion, a fundamental difference between the two sexes is that men see themselves as “an individual in a hierarchical social order” (Tannen 1990: 8) while women consider themselves “individuals in a network of social connections” (Tannen 1990: 9). Meinhof and Johnson, on the other hand, emphasise that men and women still draw on the same linguistic resources. They hold the view that “there must be some degree of similarity or overlap in the speech of men and women, otherwise it would be impossible to envisage a situation where they could ever communicate” (Meinhof and Johnson 1997: 11). In informal cross-sex conversations women are said to make more efforts to keep the conversation going by asking questions. Fishman (1983) observes that while women invest considerable effort in thus supporting the conversational needs of men, they do so at their own expense. Men usually determine the subject of the conversation and the point at which new topics are brought up. Holmes (1992b) claims that men are more likely than women to dominate the speaking time on formal and public occasions, which would be in agreement with Tannen’s view that men are much more practised in report-talk or public speaking since they employ that speaking style in all-male conversations with friends as well. In view of all this, men would not be expected to use many hedging devices in cross-sex conversations as they are usually in control of them.


4. The “Ruscoe on Five” programmes

In “Ruscoe on Five” Sybil Ruscoe, the programme’s host, discussed news items and social issues with people she invited to join her in the studio. Sometimes listeners also called in to give their opinion on a subject. In most of these programmes both men and women joined the discussion, which is why this particular programme was highly appropriate for my study. In analysing six of these broadcasts, I distinguished between hedges and non-hedges based on the criteria explained above. Thus, a particular phrase or word qualifies as a hedging device when it can be left out without changing the contents of the utterance.

Most of the topics in the programmes were introduced by a BBC reporter. These parts have not been taken into consideration, as the speech is not spontaneous but carefully planned and prepared. This kind of speech will have to sound impartial and confident and will as a consequence not contain many hesitations, minimal responses or hedging devices. Another characteristic of these parts in the programmes is that the reporters are not influenced by what others say. Participants in a discussion have to adjust what they say, how they say it and when they say it to the other participants. The reporters were not interrupted and did not have to provide reactions on the spot. This is not to say that the other speakers could not in some way plan what they were going to say, but they had to take account of what the other speakers said and the direction in which the host of the programme led the discussion. Since I believe that the number of hedges used by the speakers could well be influenced by their knowledge of a particular subject, I have tried to characterise each of the participants in the discussion as either an expert, i.e. a person with a lot of knowledge of the subject in question, or as a non-expert, i.e. a person with little or only basic knowledge of the topic. In all of the analyses the host Sybil Ruscoe was classified as a non-expert since she would only have basic knowledge on the topics of discussion in comparison with the people invited to the studio, who are often specialists in a particular area.

Altogether I recorded and analysed six programmes. The topics of the programmes were “Prozac”, about the effects of using the drug Prozac, “Drink and Drive”, which was a general discussion about punishment for drinking and driving, and “Child Care”, about standards that childcare centres have to meet. The programme about “Women in the Royal Navy” dealt with the changes that the Navy has gone through since women were allowed to join it, “Child Exploitation” dealt with the abuse of children abroad and in the UK, and, finally, “Women in the Anglican Church” dealt with the position of women in the church. The topics were various and ranged from rather general, as for example the programme about women in the Navy, to quite emotional, such as child abuse. Another fact that contributes to the general character of the study is that the participants in the discussions probably come from different social backgrounds, in other words, this study did not focus on members of one particular social class.

In analysing the six programmes, the numbers of hedges used by the participants in the programmes were normalised to two hundred words per speaker. In calculating these figures I counted utterances as units rather than the words of each utterance.

Example 2:  it means that i… the trial …

I included … eehm ... and ...eeh ... as well as units similar to i… in example (2). The reason for this is that … eehm ... and ... eeh ... have a communicative function in that they express the speaker’s wish to hold the floor in a conversation even though at that particular moment s/he may have difficulty in finding the right words to express what s/he wants to say. As for the few instances of people beginning to say a word such as in I mean i… it, these units are of course not completed words but they indicate that the speaker does not want to give up his/her speaking turn yet and is trying to avoid interruptions from other participants by immediately correcting him/herself.

The traditional role patterns and earlier perceptions of women’s language might lead us to expect a big difference in use of hedges between the fifteen men and seventeen women who participated in the six “Ruscoe on Five” programmes. It could be expected that the number of hedges is greatest in the category of nine female experts since this category corresponds both to the expectation that women use most hedges and to the assumption that female experts hedge their utterances to avoid sounding authoritative. The eight female non-experts should then use more hedges than the four male non-experts. The eleven male experts in the programmes, who would need to boast their knowledge to get a respected place in the hierarchy, would use fewest hedges. However, if men and women have indeed become closer in their language, their use of hedging devices would be similar, and male and female non-experts would be close to male and female experts.

Overall, this study showed that there is no significant difference between the two sexes with respect to their use of hedging devices. Table 1 shows the results for the categories men and women.

Table 1: Figures for all men and women


Total number of hedges

total number of units


hedges per 200 units






men (15)





As can be seen in Table 1 above, there is a significant difference in the number of units produced by men and women. The contribution of the seventeen women to the programmes is almost twice as big as that of the fifteen men, while on average the women use more hedges. The normalised figures, however, are identical for men and women. Both groups use approximately three hedging devices in every two hundred units. However, when the speakers are subdivided into experts and non-experts, a different picture emerges. Table 2 shows the figures for the categories expert and non-expert.

Table 2: Figures for men and women and experts vs. non-experts



total number of units

total number of hedges


hedges per 200 units


expert (9)












expert (11)



88/11 = 8








The raw figures in Table 2 show that, on average, women use more hedges than men. The normalised number of hedging devices for male experts and non-experts, however, is higher than for female non-experts. The data show that male experts and female non-experts are very close in their use of hedges, while female experts and male non-experts are even closer. The figures have been tested for significance in a Two-Sample Kolmogorov-Smirnov Test as this test is appropriate for the small number of participants. None of the differences proved to be significant. The results show that in the category women, experts use more hedges than non-experts, whereas in the category men the opposite is the case: male non-experts use more hedges than male experts. This coincides with the findings that men tend to boast of their expertise while women tend to downplay their authority. Altogether these data show that hedging devices are not typically female linguistic devices, and although no earlier research data on this subject are available, my hypothesis that the language of men and women has become more similar appears to be confirmed.

With respect to the kind of hedging devices that were used, the phrases I think and I mean were used by men and women alike. You know and sort of / kind of often functioned as hedges as well. The only linguistic form of hedging devices that was almost exclusively used by women were tag questions. In other words, there is only a slight difference in the kinds of hedges that were used.

Six programmes are probably insufficient to serve as a basis for valid statements about the language of men and women as one has to consider individual differences in speaking styles as well. It is hard to categorise people and in order to make a valid analysis of language use one needs to look at individuals rather than at groups. The results of this study may, however, still give some indication as to how the speaking styles of the two sexes differ, or following my hypothesis, whether men and women are approximating each other in their use of language. The data show that female experts use most hedges, which confirms the claim made by Tannen (1994) and Coates (1996) that women downplay their authority and hedge their utterances in order not to sound authoritative and thereby disturbing the collaborative floor. However, my analysis also shows that male experts and non-experts hedge their utterances almost to the same extent as female experts and non-experts do. This goes against the common view in the literature on the same subject.

The difference between female experts and male experts is not statistically significant, which indicates that hedges are not primarily female linguistic devices. It even seems to demonstrate that men and women approximate each other. My findings show that, to a considerable degree, men also maintain a collaborative floor in cross-sex conversations. In other words, in this day and age at any rate, the language of men and women seems to be more similar than has been described in the (earlier) literature.


5. Perceptions of male and female language

As I was also interested in what people perceive to be typically male or typically female language, I selected some quotations from the programmes analysed and asked people to indicate whether they thought a man or woman was quoted and why they thought so. For obvious reasons, the names of the persons quoted had been omitted from the questionnaire. I sent the quotations to a secondary school in Cheltenham where three girls (aged 15 and 14), two boys (aged 14 and 15) and two male teachers (aged 48 and 36) looked at the quotations. Later, I also sent quotations to four adults, two married couples (aged 45 and 46, 57 and 61) in Huddersfield and Bristol. I slightly changed these quotations as I feared that the quotations sent to Cheltenham might be predictable with respect to the contents, for example that in the quotation starting with I was shopping ... eehm ... in a supermarket a woman would be recognised since women might be considered to do most of the shopping, as one young informant actually replied. Another reason for making adjustments was that this time no children would be reading the quotations and therefore I felt free to use quotations from the programme about child abuse which provided some clear examples of hedges.

None of the informants knew that my study concerned the use of hedging devices. They were told only that it would deal with language. As for the social class of the informants, the school in Cheltenham is small and is supported by the Council Estate. Most of the pupils come from the lower social classes. The two married couples in Huddersfield and Bristol can be considered middle class.

The responses to the quotations were surprising, not only with respect to the answers but also with respect to the criteria the informants used to assess whether a quotation was from a man or woman. The boys from the school in Cheltenham stood out from the other informants in Cheltenham in that they were the only ones who actually looked at language itself. Most of the answers from the girls and the teachers were based on the contents of a quotation. As for the actual responses, the girls reacted in accordance with what might be considered the general view on male and female language. They said that women talk more, give more information and are more concerned with someone’s feelings. Male language was reported to show “control”, for example by the use of short sentences. The two teachers did not pay much attention to the language used in the quotations. The answers of both had some similarities with the “dominance view” in that they seemed to have a view of women as doing lots of discussing and acknowledging of unhappiness whereas men were associated with references to wires and using forceful language. The answers of the boys surprised me. They mainly paid attention to the language that was being used and apparently they held a view of men as “repeating themselves” and using many instances of eehm ... and eeh ... whereas women were said to speak “confidently, without stuttering and hesitations”. They probably had traditional views on role patterns because the topic of childcare was associated with women rather than men. Still, their view on language was not traditional at all. Of course, the personal situations of all informants must be taken into account before drawing any further conclusions, but the answers of the boys might indicate that the image of stereotypical female language is changing.

The informants from Bristol and Huddersfield paid more attention to language in the quotations than the adults in Cheltenham. They did, however, express traditional views on language. Women saw themselves as using language that sounded less certain and contained many hedges while men in their opinion use analytical and unemotional language. The men felt that women use language clearly, while at the same time they also saw themselves as making analytical statements which deal with facts and figures.

According to the “dominance approach”, male use of language which women in my survey describe as “cold”, “cuff” and “analytical” is the standard and women’s language deviates from it, thus being less appreciated. If, however, men describe women’s speech as “more confident” and “clear”, they do not consider female language inferior. In other words, most of the male informants in this survey value the language of women as much as they do their own way of speaking. It is the female informants who underestimate themselves. It must be taken into account however that the informants may be “over-reporting” or “under-reporting”. As I did not actually talk to the informants, it is difficult to establish to what extent this may be the case.

As has been stated earlier, my hypothesis was that the language of men and women is becoming more similar. The responses of the informants indicate that this could indeed be the case. Women still see themselves as using language in a tentative and elaborate way while men, in their opinion, use short and analytical sentences. Men on the other hand take a different perspective. They recognise hesitant speech and the use of hedges as male language and attribute characteristics as clear and confident speech to women. In other words, male views on language of men and women seem to be changing from the traditional point of view to a situation where men as well as women use hedging devices and men as well as women use short and clear language.

6. Conclusion

This paper has dealt with the use of hedging devices by men and women. I was interested in this aspect of the communication between the two sexes since in the literature on the subject, especially in studies by supporters of the “dominance approach”, the notion of hedges is used to argue that women use language in a tentative way. Male use of language is said to express authority and power whereas women, who deviate from the male norm, show their weakness through their choice of linguistic devices, such as hedges.

This study cannot be regarded as revealing general attitudes towards the language of men and women because the number of programmes analysed and the sample group of informants is obviously very small. Even so, the data suggest that male and female language is becoming more similar and that perceptions of language are changing. Further research is needed to confirm this development.

The hypothesis was that gender notions change as men and women have increasingly become each other’s equals in a number of fields, such as choice of profession and childcare. My assumption was that this process of change could be identified if I asked a number of people from different generations to look at a number of quotations in isolation and indicate whether they thought a man or woman was being quoted. A difference between adults and adolescents would prove that perceptions of male and female language are changing. This study has shown that hedging devices are not primarily female linguistic devices because men use them as well and in ways similar to women. In fact, the difference in use of hedges between male and female experts in the BBC programmes was not significant and thus the claim that only women hedge their utterances since they use language in an indecisive way does not hold. The responses that were given to the quotations suggested that there is no clear difference in perception of typically male or typically female language between adults and adolescents or middle and lower class people. However, I did find an interesting distinction between men and women in this connection. In general, the women and girls who took part in the survey have traditional views on language while the men, especially the boys, have more modern views. Although we have no data on the language of men and women in earlier periods to verify this assumption, the results of this study show that it is possible that there is a process of change going on, initiated by men. One of the female informants from Huddersfield also expressed this opinion in a note attached to her responses: “N.B. This would have been easier to answer 10 or 20 years ago - but men are now encouraged to open up and share their feelings and women are becoming more assertive and masculine in their way of speaking!”



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