language and gender


language and gender
Language and gender are mutually influential. On the one hand, speakers of different sexes use language differently to fit their communicative and socializing needs; on the other hand, language helps create and reinforce gender differences. Speakers of different sexes can be said to have different sets of expectations and different means of accessing language. In Chinese, female speakers generally have more restrictions than their male counterparts. For example, female speakers traditionally are not expected to utter profanity in public places, nor are they expected to speak loudly or too directly (though many such expectations have changed in mainland China since the Cultural Revolution).
One way in which language varies is in the association of different linguistic forms with different sexes. Men and women can usually be distinguished by phonological properties such as high and low pitch levels, but equally important is the distribution of vocabulary. Exclamations such as ai you! and ai ya! are almost exclusively associated with femininity, as are utterance-final particles such as ou, hou, ma, especially when accompanied by vowel-lengthening. The Chinese pronoun renjia, when uttered by men, merely refers to third persons; when used by a woman, however, it may refer to others or, under special circumstances such as whining to a lover, to herself. Also, since females are generally perceived to be more emotional, it is perhaps no surprise that most female-exclusive lexical items tend to express the passions; thus expressions indicating disgust, such as taoyan! (‘disgusting, come on!’), are mostly used by females.
In interactive discourse strategies, Chinese female speakers tend to be more cooperative with their interlocutors, frequently using feedback tokens such as en, ao (‘oh’), zhende (‘really?!’), dui (‘right’) and the like in conversation.
Another way in which language discriminates between the genders is in the reference forms for men and women. Male dominance is evident in many aspects of the Chinese language. Linguistic elements referring to men usually precede those referring to women, as exemplified in words such as nannü laoshao (‘male-female old-young’, or ‘everyone’) and fuqi (‘husband-wife’, or ‘spouse’). Professional titles are often prefixed with nü, as in nü yisheng (‘female doctor’) when referring to females, whereas the same titles for males do not require any special marking. Such linguistic properties indicate some of the social realities of the Chinese language.
Speakers can also change language. Women are generally considered more sensitive to language use and better innovators of linguistic forms. A case in point is the so-called ‘feminine Mandarin accent’ (nü guoyin), which refers to the substitution of j, q, and x sounds with z, c, and s sounds, respectively, in words such as gaoxing>gaosing (‘happy’). Such changes have been led by female speakers in Beijing since the 1920s. There is evidence that the feminine Mandarin accent now appears to be spreading beyond the female speech community. Another example is the women’s script (nüshu), a system of written characters similar to the Han Chinese and developed and used exclusively by women in Hunan.
TAO HONGYIN

Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture. . 2011.

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