How So Is Women’s Speech a Bit Different From Men’s?

By AL ROMANO | Dec 12, 2018

We have heard many comments about the differences between men and women, the opposite sexes, as different as night and day. Much also has been made about the “feminist revolution” of the 1960s and 1970s (often ignoring previous iterations in U.S history), and the more current #MeToo movement among others in the intervening decades. All of these social uprisings have been premised on the basic differences between the sexes, and the concomitant claim of women’s inequality in the relationships brought up and out. A lot of words have been stated and written about these matters. For linguists, the words themselves have been indicative of attitudes about – and real differences in – the realities of our gendered selves.

When I studied for my degrees in linguistics, race and gender were my two paramount interests. I initially wanted to study ethnic language varieties: Appalachian dialects, “black English,” Italian-American vernacular. What led me into gendered language studies – how men and women actually speak – arose from a paper I did on what I called the “lost language of ladies”: the polite speech of early- and mid-20th century American women of a certain race and class (white, urban, middle class).

During my research, the work of the pioneering linguist of feminist speech, Robin Lakoff, said it all. In her 1973 article for the journal Language in Society, “Language and Women’s Place,” she outlined nine features of women’s speech, or attitudes about women’s speech, that galvanized all linguists. So powerful were her points that I used them as part of my dissertation’s focus. Of all the analyzed features, one struck me as a salient structure, and one that was the smallest, physically: “so.”

She described this “intensive so” as “more frequent in women’s language, although certainly men can use it.” She further characterized it as a device to hedge on emotion, “as though to say: I feel strongly about this – but I dare not make it clear how strong.” For example, the use would be something like this: When a woman sees a newborn baby, she might exclaim, “She is so cute!” This use of the hedged “so” seemed important enough for Lakoff to note.

Many of her other features were general, such as women don’t have a sense of humor or can’t tell jokes – from a man’s point of view. I delved into this element through a number of recordings and contexts, which I won’t get into, as they fill my dissertation. But what she stated about “so” proved powerful: Women of all ages and differing backgrounds used this construction much more than the males in my sample.

I found that rather than being a brake on emotion (or “hedge,” as she called it), the use of “so” demonstrated an outpouring of emotion, a gush of feeling, especially evident in the audiotapes I compiled. My dissertation was defended, accepted and duly filed.

Over the 20 years since, I have occasionally dipped into the use of “so” to hear if it had changed in any ways. Other than a spike in the use of the idiom “thank you so much” in acceptance speeches at awards shows by both genders (and I include its use by gays and others who reject the binary male/female gender designations, as I did in the original thesis work), the predominant preference for “so” remained among women. So, I decided to do a little more anecdotal research.

Between September and November, I spent five- to 10-minute stretches of time listening to women and men talking on television. Included in this little survey were political and culinary contexts: the reaction to the brouhaha surrounding the confirmation of Judge Kavanaugh and holiday cooking shows. From the former sampling, in the space of 10 minutes I noted the following comments, among many others:

“I’m so passionate about this moment” (concerning Dr. Blasey Ford’s testimony); “it was so heartfelt”; (the results of the testimony) were so discouraging”; “so important (were the speeches)”; I was so amazed to see so many people demonstrating”; “I was so disappointed”; “so honest were the words of the two sides”; “(Dr. Blasey Ford) spoke so forthrightly”; “The hearings were so incredible and so important”; “so many people came forward”; “so incredibly struck by it all”; “so disturbing”; “so many survivors came forth”; “I’m feeling so rejuvenated;” “(Judge Kavanaugh seemed) so perilously out of touch.” These 16 uses of “so” were uttered by women of different ages, different races and ethnicities (four were born in non-English-speaking countries), and different places; all but two were interviewed or spoke separately from the others. No man used “so” during the time I watched, although all speakers were emotional about the unfolding events, and both genders spoke separately and together.

I then listened to parts of two cooking shows, and during the seven minutes spanning the two, I heard the following: “(The food was) so moist”; “(The cake was) so tasty”; “(The dish was) so amazing.” The first speaker was African-American; the second was white. There were men present during both telecasts, but, as before, none used the expression, although all were excited by the foods they ate, and said so.

What this little study again showed was Lakoff’s discerning ear, noting that “so” is a sign of emotion and, more importantly, used mostly by women. My own initial research into her work proved her correct, and years later, by just listening in a little on people’s unguarded emotional talk, I found that her findings were still accurate.

So, I hope you enjoyed this as much as I did, and will be so happy if this proves so.

Al Romano of Manahawkin is an adjunct assistant professor in the English/literature department at Ocean County College.

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