Male and female language in Cambridgeshire: differences and similarities

Anna-Liisa Vasko 2010a

This article aims to supplement the information given in Vasko (2010), which is a revised and extended version of Ojanen (1982).

In Ojanen (1982), the data consisted of interviews with 19 informants from 15 rural localities. The informants were selected according to the criteria generally followed in traditional dialect studies until the 1970s. Thus, the informants were mostly men from the oldest section of society. However, the total amount of data collected in Cambridgeshire was considerably larger than the amount of data investigated in Ojanen (1982). The proportion of female informants, in particular, was higher.

In this article, I will focus on differences and similarities observed in the dialect speech of male and female informants. The analysis is based on interviews with 38 speakers from 26 localities in Cambridgeshire. However, I shall first present a short overview on findings in studies discussing male and female language.

One of the first linguists to give his opinion on male and female language was Jespersen, in his Language: Its Nature, Development and Origin (1922). Men were seen as the norm and women as departing from that norm in various ways. Jespersen (1922: 247) stated that women’s conservatism and modesty prevented them from innovating in language, whereas men used ‘new’ fresh expressions (cf. e.g. Labov 1972a: 243, 301-310; Cameron & Coates 1989: 13-15). Jespersen described women’s vocabulary as less extensive as men’s (see also Goddard & Patterson 2000: 94).

Thorne & Henley (1975) and Spender (1985) shifted the focus away from women as deficient users of language towards the idea that men dominate and control both interaction with women and the language system itself. Tannen (1993) saw the difference between men and women as cultural. Tannen claimed that in social interaction there were two forces at work: power and solidarity (cf. Goddard & Patterson 2000: 101).

The difference between men’s and women’s use of language is particularly thoroughly discussed in sociolinguistic studies. Modern sociolinguistic research traditions put particular weight on conversation, and use the term vernacular to mean “the language used by ordinary people in their everyday affairs” and “the style in which the minimum of attention is given to the monitoring of speech” (Labov 1972a: 62, 69, 208).

In virtually all sociolinguistic studies that include a sample of males and females, there is evidence of difference between the linguistic behaviour of men and that of women. The conclusion is usually that women use fewer stigmatized and non-standard variants than men from the same social class. [1] Over the past few decades, this conclusion has been stated in various ways. For instance, Wolfram (1969: 76) states that women show a greater sensitivity to socially evaluative linguistic features than men. As women are more conscious of the social significance of different linguistic features, they use more socially prestigious speech forms (Poussa 2001, 2006; Cheshire 1998: 413). Labov (1972a: 243; 1990: 205-206) summarizes the difference between women’s and men’s language by saying that “in careful speech, women use fewer stigmatised forms than men, and are more sensitive than men to the prestige pattern” and “in the majority of linguistic changes, women use a higher frequency of the incoming forms than men”, whereas “in stable sociolinguistic stratification, men use a higher frequency of non-standard forms than women.”

Trudgill (1983: 161) (expressing the idea that he pointed out as early as 1972 in his article “Sex, covert prestige, and linguistic change in the urban British English of Norwich”) shares Labov’s (1972a: 243; 1990: 205-206) opinion that women produce linguistic forms more closely approaching those of the standard language and having higher prestige. Similarly, Romaine (1984: 113) notes that forms produced by women are nearer to the prestige norms. Wolfram & Fasold (1974: 93) state that women’s awareness of prestige norms relates not only to their actual speech but also to their attitudes towards speech. Cameron & Coates (1989: 13) point out that women deviate less from the prestige norms in every social class in modern urban societies.

Contrary to this view, L. and J. Milroy (1991, 1993) claim that it is misleading to say that women favour prestige forms; rather, women create these prestige forms in the sense that the forms they use become overtly prestigious in the speech community. Evidence for this is presented in Milroy et al’s (1994) review of a number of investigations on the glottal stop.

It has also been suggested that male speakers choose to use more non-standard forms because in Western society non-standard working-class speech has masculine connotations of “roughness” and “toughness” (Cheshire 1998: 413; see also Trudgill 1974).

Romaine (1994: 100-101) focuses on two aspects: (1) women and their speech have been measured against male standards and found to be deficient and deviant (cf. e.g. Jespersen 1922) and (2) the reason for this evaluation is the fact that men have been in power and have enforced the myth of male superiority (cf. e.g. Thorne & Henley 1975; Spender 1985; Tannen 1993).

Given that this difference between men’s and women’s use of language is stated in so many, albeit usually non-quantitative, studies, I wanted to find out whether this difference could also be seen in Cambridgeshire dialect speech in the 1970s. After an investigation of the data presented in Ojanen (1982), drawn from interviews with 19 informants, I came to the conclusion that the speech of working-class women included fewer non-standard elements than the speech of working-class men. However, in Vasko 2005, based on a larger data set with a greater proportion of female informants (13 four of a total of 38) [2], the apparent difference between men’s and women’s use of language was comparatively limited. This conclusion was based on qualitative and quantitative analyses of prepositional locative expressions.

To examine the differences in the use of prepositional locative expressions, the informants were divided into two groups: males and females. Although the informants were classified according to their sex, the speech of men and women was analysed on the basis of social and cultural factors (‘gender’) rather than as a result of biological determinants (‘sex’). The distinction between sex and gender presupposes that we can distinguish between innate and environmental differences, and that is far from the case (Romaine 1994: 101). Sex and gender are tightly interwoven. Gender differences are partly based on sex differences. Sex differences, being visible, are usually taken as the independent variable to be correlated with linguistic variables, but they are often stated to be ‘gender’ differences in the absence of any real consideration of gender roles in the community (Chambers 2003: 117-118).

In Vasko 2005, the qualitative and quantitative analyses revealed a great deal of variation. The number and types of expressions with a single preposition (at, in, on, to etc.) or a preposition combination (down in, up to, out of, out + zero) [3] was largely speaker-dependent. This was to be expected, as the richness and frequency of these expressions was related to the speaker’s choice of topic. [4] I concur with several other scholars (e.g. Macaulay 1988: 161) that the use of particular syntactic structures is clearly related to the content of the utterances and the kind of information being communicated.

Despite this speaker-dependent variation, the differences between male and female speakers proved to be comparatively limited. The same non-standard expressions were used by both men and women. However, they occurred somewhat less frequently or in different contexts in the speech of women than in the speech of men. For instance, both male and female speakers used the zero (Ø) (e.g. I used to go Ø Cambridge always [male speaker] and used to take ’em Ø Sandy station [female speaker]). [5] The context, however, showed some differences. Male speakers used the zero mostly after motional verbs (e.g. used to have candles to go Ø bed with) and in paratactic expressions in longer stretches of speech, whereas female speakers used expressions with the zero mainly in comments or when confirming the statements of another speaker (e.g. WW: No, from Essex. – RW (female): Essex. – WT (male): Oh, from Essex). (For a more detailed discussion about the use and non-use of prepositions, see Vasko 2005)

One explanation for the relatively small difference between men’s and women’s speech is the family and social backgrounds of the informants. The informants and their ancestors had been living in the same restricted area all their lives. [6] Another reason is integration into village life. Young girls and women stayed in their own villages and went fruit picking in Chivers orchards or worked in Chivers farms, where a great number of Cambridgeshire men were also working. Even when they were married, working-class women from Cambridgeshire still continued working for Chivers either as fruit pickers or factory workers. [7] Working in the Chivers orchards and factory meant that women were paid workers, as opposed to domestic labourers. Domestic labour had little status (cf. Cameron & Coates 1989: 14), and women who did it sought to acquire status by other means, such as by changing their speech patterns in the direction of standard speech. Being wage-earners, Cambridgeshire female informants were not under such pressure.

The social history of Cambridgeshire working-class men and women is, thus, completely different from that of working-class men and women in North Norfolk, as described by Poussa (Poussa 2001, 2006, 2002: 231-245). The typical man from North Norfolk went straight from school to a local farm. Once he was able to do a man’s work, he could get a tied cottage from the farm. The tied cottage system tended to keep the farm workers close to home, and encouraged close social networks. Young working-class rural women often went into live-in service in aristocratic or middle-class households, which meant a sudden separation from their parents and previous social network. In families of higher social classes, careful, standard speech was important, and could help in gaining a higher position. All this meant that before marriage, working-class girls were more mobile, geographically and socially, than their future husbands. These girls tended to become bi-dialectal or to abandon the most stigmatized features of their own local dialect (Poussa 2002: 232-237). The close connection of the advanced character of speech and higher mobility, and vice versa, is specified by Chambers (2003: 140) as follows:

In societies where gender roles are sharply differentiated such that one gender has wider social contacts and greater geographical range, the speech of the less circumscribed gender will include more variants of the contiguous social groups.

Although differences in mobility are often correlated with sex, they need not be. It is also possible that both sexes are relatively non-mobile. Working-class women and men from Cambridgeshire worked together from a very young age. Baugh (1988: 185) notes that once a child becomes socialized, he/she begins to make value judgements regarding language, among other aspects of culture. He/she then attempts to adopt linguistic behaviour that has gained respect from the individuals from whom he/she seeks respect. Baugh goes on to point out that those who strive to maintain strong ties within the dialect speech community tend to preserve the dialect through active use. By contrast, those who seek acceptance within the majority culture attempt to embrace the standard, as linguistic accommodation is often viewed as a first step on the path out of the community (cf. Poussa 2002: 237).

L. Milroy (1980: 179, 194-195) notes the importance of integration, observing that “the closer an individual’s network ties are with his local community, the closer his language approximates to localized vernacular norms.” This tight-knit social network is an important mechanism for the maintenance of linguistic features. Working-class girls and women in Cambridgeshire had strong ties with local culture and the local speech community, that is, they were well-integrated into local life. They were non-mobile in the sense that they did not leave their familiar surroundings. They did not go to work for middle- or upper-class families, and, thus, there was no need to adjust their speech to the norms of middle- or upper-class speakers. Thus, generalizations such as the idea that women use fewer stigmatized and non-standard variants than men need to be re-evaluated along locally-specific, historical and occupational dimensions.

Speech is also affected by the speech situation. Individuals generally have several dialect variants in their repertoire and switch from one to the other according to the situation in which they find themselves (Lyons 1990: 274). A person’s choice of grammatical structure and vocabulary varies in accordance with the style of speech he/shechooses in response to the interlocutor (Cheshire 1996: 3). In various studies (e.g. Lakoff 1975; Tannen 1994; Cameron 2002), attention has been paid to differences between women’s and men’s conversational styles. The characteristics of a ‘feminine’ interaction style include a greater use of verbal tags (e.g. don't you think? That is a good idea, isn’t it?) (Romaine 1994: 116). Research also suggests that men talk much more than women in a wide range of contexts, such as husband-wife interaction (Romaine 1994: 116). Nevertheless, the analysis of Cambridgeshire data showed that this was not necessarily the case. For instance, in an interview with a married couple, it was the female informant who did the talking, while her husband had the role of a ‘second’ informant. [8] The role of ‘first’ or ‘second’ informant depends on the personality of the informant and on the accustomed roles between couples (Vasko 2005: 232-233).

Another point that needs to be taken into consideration is the effect of the interviewer. Formerly, dialect interviews were usually conducted by male interviewers (e.g. SED in the 1950s; Labov 1963; Shuy, Wolfram & Riley 1967; Wolfram 1969; Fasold 1972; Trudgill 1975). In more recent years, several surveys have been carried out by women (e.g. Cheshire 1978; Milroy 1980). [9] In addition, there have been occasions on which several fieldworkers have been used in a single study. For instance, Labov (1972a) used both ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ to collect his data, the primary data being collected by means of an ‘insider’ acting as intermediary. There has been no real overlap in these various studies in terms of the populations under study, the methods of interview or the linguistic variables. Nor have these studies specifically or quantitatively examined the possible influence of the interviewer on the grammatical structures produced.

In Vasko 2005, it was possible to investigate the interviewer’s role, as the Cambridgeshire data were collected by three different methods with respect to the different interviewers: (1) a non-local non-native female, (2) a non-local native female, and (3) a local native male. One would expect any differences in the interviewer’s influence on the informant’s speech to be most noticeable between the interviews carried out by a native local close friend of the informant(s) and those carried out by a non-native fieldworker. A local interviewer who knows the local dialect will speak it spontaneously, or at least will have the option of using it. However, the quantitative results showed that the interviewer did not have any noticeable influence on the informant’s dialectal prepositional usage, the topic of investigation of Vasko 2005. Thus, the investigation did not support the hypothesis that a non-native interviewer could only record the more standard part of a speaker’s linguistic repertoire. In fact, I would claim that informants were actually more natural in the presence of a non-native than with a native speaker. The presence of a non-native actually encouraged informants to accept more easily the ‘mistakes’ of their own non-standard grammar, so that they felt permitted to use their own local speech more freely than with a native speaker. Furthermore, a foreigner was not easily associated with any particular social class; thus, the interviewer and the informant were of similar social standing. In the presence of a person of higher standing, informants at the lower end of the socio-economic scale would be more conscious of their language and thus the results would be less authentic.

The method of data collection provides one further explanation for the negligible difference in the influence of native and non-native interviewers on the informant’s language usage. All the interviewers tried to speak as little as possible, the aim being to give the informant the chance to produce large stretches of speech (necessary for the analysis of morphosyntactic features). The informants’ answers were also not directed towards specific structures by means of leading questions.

The effect of the interviewer’s sex on the speech of the informant has not generally been the focus of dialect research. However, male informants have been thought to avoid ‘tough’ language in the presence of a female interviewer (e.g. Francis 1983: 84-85). Researchers have also questioned the nature of the relationship established between male sociolinguists and the female informants they have interviewed (Romaine 1994: 122). I would claim that a female interviewer has at least one advantage: she is more easily ‘accepted’, since older people, especially women, are sometimes afraid of admitting strangers into their homes. Thus, there are more informants available for a female than for a male interviewer. The domestic environment of the informants’ homes is considered conducive to the natural use of the dialect.

The qualitative and quantitative analyses revealed that the informants’ speech did not contain fewer dialectal expressions when the interview was carried out by a non-native female, nor was there any noticeable difference between male and female informants in their usage of standard and non-standard forms. Overall, it appeared that it was the interviewer’s ability to win the informants’ confidence that was the most significant factor (Vasko 2005: 245). Nevertheless, to obtain more evidence of the interviewer’s influence on the informant’s speech, the same informant would have to be interviewed by different interviewers, by a male and a female and by a native and a non-native speaker.

In addition to the influence of the interviewer, the investigation of situation-related factors might also focus on the role of informants in the interview. In Vasko 2005, it was possible to investigate this, since the data were collected in interviews with (1) one informant and (2) two informants. The qualitative and quantitative analyses revealed that the most important of the factors affecting the realization of prepositional locative expressions appeared to be the speaker’s role as either (1) the only, or (2) the ‘first’ or ‘second’ informant in the interview situation. It was found that informants who were interviewed in one-informant interviews and those who were ‘first’ speakers had ‘richer’ preposition inventories (as measured by the number of different prepositions) than the informants who were ‘second’ speakers in two-informant interviews. A richer preposition inventory was closely connected with (1) longer stretches of uninterrupted speech by the informant, and (2) a higher total of words (which is statistically what one would expect). A less extensive inventory was connected with (1) a smaller total of words spoken by the informant, and (2) the brevity of turns in two-informant interviews. Since a long stretch of uninterrupted speech was conducive to richer preposition inventories, interviews with one informant, which have generally been considered to be more formal and hence less favourable for non-standard usage, were in fact more likely to favour non-standard usage.

Research into the use of grammatical constructions has observed few and subtle differences between men’s and women’s language, compared with the potentially unlimited opportunity for grammatical variation. In her study of Reading English, Cheshire (1978, 1982) noted that boys added the non-standard -s suffix to the first- and second-person singular and third-person plural verb forms somewhat more frequently than girls. However, the difference was marginal. In their study of Detroit English, Shuy, Wolfram & Riley (1967) found that men produced multiple negations (e.g. We don’t have no time) 30 percent more frequently than women in conversational speech (cf. also Wolfram 1969; Wolfram & Fasold 1974). Lakoff (1975) proposed that women's speech can be distinguished from that of men in a number of ways, including the use of tag questions (e.g. You’re going to dinner, aren’t you? and You don't mind eating this, do you?). Similarly, Romaine (1994: 116) notes that the characteristics of a ‘feminine’ interaction style include a greater use of verbal tags (e.g. don't you think? That is a good idea, isn’t it?) In his study of tense-marking among black speakers in the United States, Fasold (1972) did not discover any clear difference between men and women. Thus, Fasold’s findings are in accordance with my findings with regard to the use of prepositional expressions (Vasko 2005). Chambers (2003: 151-152) emphasizes that the postulated sex difference in terms of language is merely statistical. Chambers further points out that individual differences are almost as extensive as differences between the sexes.

Great individual variation was also observed among Cambridgeshire dialect speakers. Although the Cambridgeshire informants were in principle a fairly homogeneous group due to the selection criteria (i.e. older inhabitants who have spent their entire lives in a limited area and are at the lower end of the socio-economic scale) and applied the ‘grammar’ which was typical of their speech community and necessary for communication with other members of the same area, they did not lose their own individual habits of communication.

No single factor can account for variation in the linguistic behaviour of men and women. Language researchers need to pay great attention to local social, occupational and historical factors influencing language usage, rather than arriving at broad generalizations about men’s and women’s use of standard and non-standard speech. We cannot say that either men or women are, on the whole, more likely to use dialectal forms. Sex is one factor among many, and there are reasons why both men and women, in different contexts and for different reasons, preserve or abandon features of their traditional regional language varieties.


[1] The observation that women master standard speech better than men is by no means new. This observation was made “as early as 55 BC by Cicero in De Oratore (III,12) in a dialogue in which his mouthpiece, Crassus, sardonically contrasts his mother-in-law’s elegant accent (translated here as “tone of voice”) with that of Sulpicius, his interlocutor” (Chambers 2003: 139).

[2] In Vasko 2005, the proportion of female informants was also greater than in Ojanen (1982), and in traditional dialect studies in general. For instance, in the Survey of English Dialects by Orton et al. (1962-1971), there were 955 informants altogether, of which 118 (12.3%) were women (Viereck 1988: 268), whereas in Vasko 2005 the percentage of female informants was 34.2.

[3] In Vasko 2005, down to, up in, out of etc. were considered to be combinations of two prepositions, instead of combinations of adverb + preposition, as they are often interpreted in traditional grammars.

[4] The informants were encouraged to talk about any topics they pleased at the time of the recording. The topics ranged from personal reminiscences from the speaker’s working-life, through village activities, to opinions on today’s lifestyle. This was to ensure that the informants’ speech would be as close as possible to their natural everyday speech.

[5] In their survey on Research on non-standard dialects Edwards and Weltens (1985: 114) noted the deletion (their term) of the prepositions to and on in particular. They illustrate this deletion by the examples We’re going pictures and He comes Saturday or Sunday. In Cambridgeshire dialect speech, the zero instead of on is also frequent in expressions of time, comparable to the example by Edwards & Weltens. In the speech of both men and women, there are instances such as I had to go back Sunday morning. In addition, the zero is frequent instead of the preposition in, in expressions of both time and location, as illustrated by the examples There wont (for StE weren’t) no two or three changes of clothes them days (female speaker) and He lives- lived West Wickham (male speaker).

[6] This was described by one of the informants as follows: [My] grandfather was shepherd on Winfowl Farm in Waterbeach, my father and my brother, they followed on.

[7] For generations the social history of Cambridgeshire has been closely connected with the Chivers company. The Chivers family settled in Cottenham (5 miles from Cambridge) in the 17th century. The family moved to Histon (2 miles from Cottenham, 3 from Cambridge) in 1818, and started making jam there in 1873.

[8] By the ‘second’ informant I mean simply that the total number of the words spoken by this informant is limited compared to the total number of words spoken by the other informant in the same interview.

[9] There have been studies in which consideration of the fieldworker’s sex has been unavoidable. This was the case, for instance, in the Belfast study, where the fieldworker had to be a woman due to the ‘political’ situation – since women were less likely to be attacked than men (Milroy 1980: 45).


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