Language and Gender

Essay briefing – 

Robin Lakoff (1975) argued that some of the features of women’s language use (which create uncertainty and hesitancy) “deny women the opportunity to express themselves strongly, and make what they are talking about seem trivial.” (Swann 2010: 226)

Do you agree or disagree that the use  of language contributes to the social inequalities present in our society? Is this applicable to a modern South African setting? Discuss.

Looking at Language and Gender


The way in which we use language defines the way that others perceive us. This any layman can tell you. If a person wants to appear to belong to a social class way above his rank then he merely needs to alter his posture and his language to mimic that of the higher classes and the same is true for below. If this is true, and indeed it is, then if the speech of men and women differ, they will come across differently and therefore have different perception/attitudes/ideologies associated with them because of their different use of language. It does not follow that women’s, or men’s, speech alone is responsible for the difference and the alteration of one is not a solution to any discrepancies laid out in the other.

Language is fluid and changing, but there are multiple points in which it changes less than others. The rate of change of consonants in a language is one example, women’s speech may very well be a leftover linguistic phenomena from days when our society was far more sexist than it is now. At present, the language of women denies her of the same respect as a man because the female register (or women’s language) denies her the means of strong expression and promotes triviality in the states-of-affairs (Lackoff, 1973).

If we take a look at the three studies put forward in Crosby & Nyquist (1977) then we see the domain specificality of the female register. The amount of female register present varies in accordance to the objective of the speaker and gender of the speaker. The one requesting the information showed greater use of the female register, which is known to be more polite and less enforcing. And if Mary Bucholtz (2003) is right when she says that most discourse analysts believe that “the social world is produced and reproduced in great part through discourse” (Bucholtz, 2003, p. 45. emphasis my own) then we cannot dispute the fact that the presence of the female register does not only contribute to the social differentiation between genders present in our society but also but re-establishes them.

I am inclined to think that this inequality is twofold, for, since women’s language is seen as more polite and is used in more formal domains, such as when we inquire information as seen in study 2 of The Female Register (see Crosby & Nyquist, 1977, p. 316-318). Based on that point, it follows that women in general will be seen as more polite and less harsh than males. This perceived ideology limits women in what they can do because they are restricted to carrying out these gender roles if they don’t want to cast a stain on their femininity. Point of note about the female register is that it is not restricted to females only, males can make full and effective use of it, but at the cost of losing their masculine identity. However, that is not always the case as we shall soon see in the speech of upper class British males.

A quick examination of the lexicon of older British culture will tell you that the words “bachelor” and “spinster” mean the same thing – an unmarried person of gender X or Y – yet have very different connotations. From personal experience, I have encountered bachelor in use by young males through to middle aged males but spinster only used in terms of an older, unmarried women. The movies traditionally portray the bachelor as the rugged hero and the spinster as the decrepit, spiteful old lady. Further differences are drawn in the titles bestowed upon a person. The young master married mister are both signified with a ‘Mr’ while mistress is abbreviated in two forms, married ‘Mrs’ and unmarried ‘Miss’. The differences that we can see here, are examples of gender role differences that are reiterated through language use. The male term, in both cases, carries a somewhat powerful solidarity whereas the female’s equivalent carries the exact opposite. This contrast is present in South Africa as well, the western culture has permeated throughout South Africa and we still carry this difference to this day. However, it is no longer as prominent as the female’s side has had recent alterations to it that have taken firm hold. Instead of “spinster” we find “bachelorette” and instead of the marked marital status of Mrs/Miss we have the abbreviation Ms, pronounced /miz/. Robin Lakoff in Language and Women’s Place (1973). says that it is not only lexical differences that put women’s speech as the less prestigious variety but that there are syntactical differences (like tag questions, intonation, and phrasing of requests and orders) but also how women are spoken of in society “sex-object or sex-servant” (Lakoff, Language and Women’s Place, 1973).

As much as these markers are found in the spoken word, they are also found, emblazoned, in the form of the written word. Feminist text analysis shows how the written word can draw the reader towards, and cause the reader to resist, the ideological framework of the different genderlects (Bucholtz, 2003). And this is an important point because it goes to show that although we call it the female register they can be equally used by males who wish not to be associated with those of their biological gender. I myself have found on several occasions to have both my biological gender and my sexual orientation confused, in the mind of the one listening to me, because I employ certain elements of the female register in my speech, specifically in text-based communication. A clearer example of this is the differentiation between male and female forms is evident in Japanese. This is most accessible to the foreigner in Japanese music. The vocal pitch of the average ‘masculine’ song is far deeper than the pitch of the more ‘feminine’ songs. The males also frequent the less formal “ore” and “boku” while the female must stick to the more formal “watashi” in common, everyday encounters.

To look at some more local examples, Isihlonipha and Flaaitaal (or Tsotsitaal) both show that the differentiation in language and gender is not restricted to areas like America, Britain and Japan. It is prevalent throughout the world and these examples show that South Africa is no different. The two examples mentioned are rather extreme cases and less stark contrasts do exist in the speech of men and women in South Africa (as shown by the mismatching of my sex and my gender spoken of earlier) yet it is in the extremity such an example can show us how deeply rooted into our South African society this difference is between male’s and female’s speech.

The practice of hlonipha is a Zulu, Xhosa and Sesotho tradition in which a married women is not permitted to use the names of her in-laws (Zeller, 2015). She must therefore avoid the use of any syllables which include all or part of her relative’s name. However, due to the nature of aspects like the noun class structuring in these languages, certain aspects such as the prefix i- is exempt from the practice of hlonipha (Swann, 2009). hlonipha puts forward the same associations in the language of women that we have seen in other studies, like the American, British, and Japanese examples already mentioned, hlonipha puts women as the less powerful (because it is them that has to change their vocabulary in relation to the name of their husbands relatives) but, equally, they are seen as more polite in doing so.

It must be noted that the practice of hlonipha is not only a linguistic phenomenon but a cultural one that permeates all aspects of living, nor is it one-sided. Men hlonipha their wives’ in-laws as she would his, but the vocabulary used in each case differs (Bongela, 2001, p. 35).It is in the women’s hlonipha that the avoidance of names must take place. This leads to the need for women to develop certain methods for filling in the non-hlonipha base words that they have to alter due to the syllabic avoidance they are obliged to abide by. If the husband’s name was Bheki or Bhengu then his wife would need to avoid the -bhe- (for instance) in words like i-bhekile (‘a tin can’) (Swann, 2009). Swann goes on to list four methods of engaging in this practice. The consonants may simply be deleted i-ekile; they might have another syllable substitute for them i-wekile; a synonym may be chosen; or a paraphrasing of the word used to carry across a meaning close enough to the target word for it to be understood by the listener (Swann, 2009)

HLONIPHA             XHOSA                    ENGLISH








to eat


to eat

isikhajulo  isikhafit umzimela


ukutya ukutya umkhwetha


food food

khwetha boy


khwetha boy







khwetha blanket


klnvetha blanket

Table 1: Bongela, 2001, p. 199


The practice of hlonipha is predominately in the more rural areas where urbanisation has not yet caused a decrease in one’s native cultural practices. But that is not to say that the practice of hlonipha has been killed off in urban areas. Bongela (2001, p. 151-163) shows that in urban areas, Xhosa families still engage in many hlonipha practices, just at a rather reduced rate of them. In the context of the women’s use of linguistic hlonipha, she may only use the traditional terms when at home, switching between standard and traditional aspects as she moves through different domains in her day, eg: hlonipha at home vs standard variants in the workplace. There is also the development of standardised hlonipha vocabulary (as see in table 1) which leads to one wondering whether or not hlonipha could develop into something of a sub-language/dialect of the language it is based off.

The use of the language of hlonipha is the thread that ties together the larger customs entailed in Isihlonipho. To use the words of Bongela (2001, p. 234): “[The use of hlonipha] is more than just a moral practice, it is a philosophy of life. It is a strong component of the Xhosa social fabric. The concept is built around the language of Hlonipha.”

Flaaitaal is another case where this gendered difference takes place, however, the manner in which Flaaitaal shows a gendered difference spawns dominantly out of the covert prestige of the language in that Flaaitaal creates a marked in-group / out-group distinction. For this purpose, we may call it an anti-language as it excludes certain members of the population. The dominant social group that uses Flaaitaal is African males living in the township areas of Johannesburg and Pretoria (Makhudu, 2002). The female sector of this language variety is largely non-existent. Again, this can be related to the ‘in-grouping’ that Flaaitaal promotes. It excludes those who are not ‘like us’, those with greater power, and those with influence. Here, the dominant male-speaker base suggests that women; have more power in these social contexts; that they are not even worth inclusion into the group because of their lack of influence; or that they are seen as too polite to be in frequent use of this language either by themselves or by the rest of the speakers.. Whichever way, we have another scenario of gender differentiation in South Africa that is reinforced by language use.

The examples discussed above show that language does contribute to social inequalities between the genders, in modern South Africa as well as other parts of the world. The language of women is seen as more polite and more respectful, which is definitely true of Isihlonipha – the language of respect. Flaaitaal, which is far more derogatory, has almost no female speakers and therefore further reinforces the social differentiation.


Bongela, K. S. (2001). Isihlonipho Among Amaxhosa. South Africa: unpublished doctoral thesis. Retrieved from

Bucholtz, M. (2003). Theories of Discourse as Theories of Gender: Discourse Analysis in Language and Gender Studies. In The Handbook of Language and Gender (pp. 43-68).

Crosby, F., & Nyquist, L. (1977). The Female Reister: An Empirical Study of Lakoff’s Hypotheses. Language in Society, 6(3), 313-322.

Lakoff, R. (1973). Language and Women’s Place. Language in Society, 2(1), 45-80.

Makhudu, K. (2002). An Introduction to Flaaitaal. In R. Mesthrie (Ed.), Language in South Africa (pp. 398-406). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Swann, J. (2009). Gender and Language Use. In R. Mesthrie, J. Swann, A. Deumert, & W. L. Leap, Introducing Sociolinguistics (2nd ed., pp. 213-241). Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Zeller, J. (2015). Understanding Language 1. Durban: UKZN moodle.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s