Men and women use language differently. Whether the differences are principally biologically or socially induced continues to be debated, especially since recent neurological research has found that both areas of the brain associated with language work harder in girls than in boys during language tasks, and that boys and girls rely on different parts of the brain when performing these tasks. How much this impacts on the way the sexes grapple with language to meet their own nefarious requirements remains to be concluded, but this little Sociolinguistic Sherlock is to sniff out the effect of gender on the dramatic differences in the language behaviour of all of you, well most of you, the communicatively competent among you anyway, my worthy subjects.
An endearing epithet, little pet names we give each other smacking of deference, affection and all round warm and fuzzy influences. Among the French there is, Cherie, Arabic, 7abibti, or my personal ambition 7yati, so too English, darling, doll, honey, sweets, sweetie, sweetheart… Understandably used in the context of the creation and maintenance of the influences of warm and fuzzy feelings and its by-product, a beckoning dementia.
When a man, within the domains of platonic friendship or colleaguedom, uses the term darling, as in, ‘Wont you be a darling and do my share of the work too?’ it would be deemed appropriate to vent upon said subject the same fury ignited by errant apostrophes and shoddy spelling. It’s parochial, patronising and demeaning and it ought to be known.
But how to explain being termed ‘hun’, ‘doll’, ‘sweets’, ‘sweetie’ , ‘honey’, ‘darling’ and ‘angel’ ? — by female friends? I’ve done some snooping, and men in similar circumstances, with each other, use ‘bru’ (From Afrikaans, broe), ‘bozza’ (I haven’t worked out the etymology on this one), ‘bruv’, ‘boss’ (proof of hierarchical structures in the male world?), ‘dude’,’ bro’, ‘guy’…
Shelve my parochial, patronising demeaning comment here, my purpose is not to remark on the use of these terms but rather to establish the underlying meaning of these differences and attempt to contribute to developing theoretical explanations underpinning their cause. Inquiry into sexism in language has been largely informed by two theories, dominance and difference. Dominance, popularised by Robin Lakoff’s Language and Women’s Place (1975), assumes the statistical advantages men tend to have over women, physically, financially and culturally in social hierarchies to be reflected in the way we talk. The differences in the way women and men use language are also seen to reinforce the material differences between the sexes, making them seem normal and part of the natural order of things.
Difference theory was born in response to the shortcomings of dominance theory. From a difference perspective, the differences in male and female language use are explained as a difference in cultures. Women and men develop different styles of talking, it is claimed, because they are segregated at important stages of their lives. According to difference theory, playing in single sex groups as children and having same-sex friendships in adulthood, leads men and women to have separate ‘sub-cultures’, each of which are guided by their own sub-cultural norms. Within their own sub-cultural groups, men’s and women’s conversational norms work well for what they wish to achieve.
Women, the theory explains, desire from their relationships, collaboration, intimacy, support and approval. Men, conversely, allegedly place a greater premium on status and independence and are less concerned about overt disagreement and inequality in their relationships.
The distinctions between dominance and difference theories apply better to relatively early (1970-1990) work than to more contemporary research in the field, which is characterised by a wider range of approaches and orientations, but though I try to broaden my approach to the current dissertation fodder, I keep coming back to difference theory. Proof perhaps that, ‘Researchers in many cases start out with an interpretation of the social world which predisposes them to investigate particular things and to perceive them in particular ways’ (Deborah Cameron, 1992)