Gender (Sociolinguistics)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Couple sitting at a table, smoking and drinking, circa 1950s

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In sociolinguistics and other social sciences, gender refers to sexual identity in relation to culture and society.

The ways in which words are used can both reflect and reinforce social attitudes toward gender. In the U.S., the interdisciplinary study of language and gender was initiated by linguistics professor Robin Lakoff in her book Language and Woman's Place (1975).


From Latin, "race, kind"

Example and Observations

"It is quite clear that language use and the use of language are inseparable--that over generations and centuries, people's constant talking deposits cultural beliefs and ideas in the medium of communication. At the same time, the weight of the linguistics system constrains the kinds of things we say and the ways we say them."  (Penelope Eckert and Sally McConnell-Ginet, Language and Gender, 2nd ed. Columbia University Press, 2013)  

Language Use and Social Attitudes Toward Gender

"[T]here is now a greater awareness in some parts of the community that subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, distinctions are made in the vocabulary choice used to describe men and women. Consequently, we can understand why there is a frequent insistence that neutral words be used as much as possible, as in describing occupations e.g., chairperson, letter carrier, salesclerk, and actor (as in 'She's an actor'). If language tends to reflect social structure and social structure is changing, so that judgeships, surgical appointments, nursing positions, and primary school teaching assignments are just as likely to be held by women as men (or by men as women), such changes might be expected to follow inevitably. . . . However, there is still considerable doubt that changing waitress to either waiter or waitperson or describing Nicole Kidman as an actor rather than as an actress indicates a real shift in sexist attitudes. Reviewing the evidence, Romaine (1999, pp. 312-13) concludes that 'attitudes toward gender equality did not match language usage. Those who had adopted gender-inclusive language did not necessarily have a more liberal view of gender inequalities in language.'"  (Ronald Wardhaugh, An Introduction to Sociolinguistics, 6th ed. Wiley, 2010)

"Doing" Gender

"It is apparent that when friends talk to each other in single-sex groups, one of the things that is being 'done' is gender. In other words, the fact that female speakers mirror each other's contributions to talk, collaborate in the co-narration of stories and in general use language for mutual support needs to be considered in terms of the construction of femininity. For many men, by contrast, connection with others is accomplished in part through playful antagonisms, and this ties in with men's need to position themselves in relation to dominant models of masculinity."   (Jennifer Coates, "Gender." The Routledge Companion to Sociolinguistics, ed. by Carmen Llamas, Louise Mullany, and Peter Stockwell. Routledge, 2007)

A Highly Fluid Social Category

"Like language, gender as a social category has come to be seen as highly fluid, or less well defined than it once appeared. In line with gender theory more generally, researchers interested in language and gender have focused increasingly on plurality and diversity amongst female and male language users, and on gender as performative--something that is 'done' in context, rather than a fixed attribute. The whole notion of gender, and identity in general is challenged when this is seen, rather like language itself, as fluid, contingent and context-dependent. This is mainly an alternative theoretical conception of gender, though there are also suggestions that identities are loosening so that in many contexts people now have a wider range of identity options."  (Joan Swann, "Yes, But Is it Gender?" Gender Identity and Discourse Analysis, ed. by Lia Litosseliti and Jane Sunderland. John Benjamins, 2002)

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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Gender (Sociolinguistics)." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 27). Gender (Sociolinguistics). Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Gender (Sociolinguistics)." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 2, 2023).