Interaction between language and gender has been one of the heated subjects in linguistics since early 1970s which brought to life gender linguistics as a separate branch of language studies [Kirillina 2005]. Later gender differences have entered into English language studies as a linguistic variable, and thus explorations on gender aspects in English language and other languages as well have experienced a period of gradual development. The reflection on the relation between language and gender has become one of the major issues in modern linguistics.
However, it has to be acknowledged that the concept of "Gender" has not been well defined in reference to linguistics. The definition of gender given by the Online Lingvo Dictionary is “the state of being male or female (typically used with reference to social and cultural differences rather than biological ones)”. Gender in linguistics is not determined biologically, as a result of sexual characteristics of either women or men, but is constructed socially. Gender is the difference between women and men resulted from cultural and social expectation. No matter a man and a woman are from the same society or they are of different cultural background, the differences they display in general are reflected through their respective constraints, views, opportunities, needs, roles and responsibilities.
It has been admitted in any researches that the two sexes respectively command different communication styles. In other words, the language women use is different from the one that men use. R. Lakoff ’s book entitled “Language and woman’s place” argued that women have a different way of speaking from men — a way of speaking that both reflects and produces a subordinate position in society. Women’s language, according to R. Lakoff, is rife with such devices as mitigators (sort of, I think) and inessential qualifiers (really happy, so beautiful). This language, she went on to argue, renders women’s speech tentative, powerless, and trivial; and as such, it disqualifies them from positions of power and authority. In this way, language itself is a tool of oppression — it is learned as part of learning to be a woman, imposed on women by societal norms, and in turn it keeps women in their place.
Lakoff ’s claim that women and men talk differently and that differences in women’s and men’s speech are the result of — and support — male dominance. Over the following years, there developed a separation of these two claims into what were often viewed as two different, even conflicting, paradigms — what came to be called the difference and the dominance theories.
According to the “difference theory” men and women, even those within the same group, live in different or separate cultural worlds and, as a result, they promote different ways of speaking. This theory is sometimes called “two-culture theory”. In simple terms, although men and women live in the same environment they establish different relations with society as if each belonged to a different environment and culture. So in this theory cross-gender communication is to be taken as cross-cultural or bi-cultural communication.
In “dominance theory” men and women are believed to inhabit a cultural and linguistic world, where power and status are unequally distributed. In this theory, also called power-based theory, the focus is on male dominance and gender division.
Thus we can say that English speakers believe- and linguists appear to be no exception- that men’s speech is forceful, efficient, blunt, authoritative, serious, effective, sparing and masterful (Kramer, 1977:43-56).
Barrie Thorne, professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies and Nancy Henley, professor who specializes in research on language and nonverbal communication declared that ‘women compared with men of the same social class, age, and level of education, more often choose the form closer to the prestige, or “correct” way of talking’(Thorne, Henley,1975:17).
In the following example we can see some of these characteristics alive:
“…Mr. Rochester rose and stood in front of the fire, leaning his arm on the marble mantelpiece, quite at his ease. “I am feeling communicative tonight,” he said, “and that is why I sent for you to talk to me. The firelight and Pilot are poor company and Mrs Fairfax and Adela little better. I’d like to know more of you. Choose your topic!”
I sat and said nothing. “If he expects me to show off, and talk for the sake of talking,” I thought, “he is asking the wrong person.”
“You are dumb, Miss Eyre”. He bent his head towards me and his eyes looked into mine.
“Stubborn?” he said; “yes, and annoyed. Miss Eyre, I beg your pardon. The fact is, once for all, I do not wish to treat you as an inferior. I must claim twenty years’ difference in age, yes and a century in experience, but I ask you to have the goodness to talk to me a little and divert my thoughts.” He drew himself to his full height. “I was your equal at eighteen, Miss Eyre. Nature intended me to be, on the whole, a good man; but circumstance has had its share in making me a common place sinner, nevertheless”.
We then talked together in a way I had never known before — he, enigmatic, trying to tell me of those things in his past life which had made him better, without giving me the actual facts; I, trying to apply to his obvious distress of mind the simpler moralities of my sheltered life.” (Ch. Bronte, Jane Eyre, p. 32)
In this dialogue man’s speech is rough and he makes decisions swiftly and sharply. However, to consider the situation, Jane is an employee, while Mr.Rochester is an employer, a boss, and his speech reflects his superior position, notwithstanding his remark about not wishing to treat Jane as his inferior.
Theoretical insight into how language and gender interact requires a close look at social practices in which they are jointly produced. Gender difference, as a social phenomenon, has been reflected in language and been studied in many separate areas for a long time. In the past decades, sociolinguistic research dealing with relationship between gender difference and language has undergone significant change and continues to gain significant importance.
In conclusion, it should be pointed out that the way is still endless for researchers to disclose more and more detailed difference between male and female speakers as well as their specific features, which is of great values in the field of English teaching and learning as well as cross-cultural exchanges.