Within sociolinguistics, gender has long been considered distinct from biological sex; Postmodernist sociolinguists view it as a socio-cultural factor (Butler, 1990; Coates, 2004: 4). A nice (but somewhat simplified) way to envision this is through the ‘coat rack’ metaphor (Nicholson, 1994: 81) which combats biological essentialism by positing that the human body is a ‘coat rack’, constant across time and cultures. Conceptions of gender are like the ‘coats’, which can be interchanged cross-culturally and throughout history. Traditionally, theories of ‘genderlects’ - ie. ‘gendered’ ways of communicating - “contrast[ed] female and male speech styles as two stable, clear-cut and opposite gendered varieties” (Motschenbacher, 2007: 256). The differentiating of men and women was often rooted in biological essentialism - the view that gender roles are inherent and linked to sex differences.
It is often argued that there can only be two genders because there are only two biological sexes. However, even in Western society, biological sex was not always seen as a binary. According to the “single-sex” perspective of the 18th and 19th centuries, people who would nowadays be designated female at birth were (problematically) considered underdeveloped versions of the “normative male body” (Zimman, 2012: 165). Biological sex was not always considered to directly map onto gender. Furthermore, since intersex people exist, sex is not a simple binary.
Gender is a spectrum, and non-binary people do not identify their gender solely as either male or female. Since gender is considered a form of identity in sociolinguistics, it would make sense not to categorise participants solely into the binary of male and female if they identify outside of it.
I came across the concept of redefined genderlect (Motschenbacher, 2007), which posits that speakers, regardless of their gender, can utilise features that are considered gendered by society and can redefine their gendered identity (‘genderlect’) between interactions. The nature of this framework, therefore, allows quite easily for the inclusion of non-binary genders. The motivation behind my research was not to compare non-binary people to men and women but just to include non-binary people alongside men and women in a study about ‘genderlects’, which had previously only considered binary genders.
In my study, participants self-identified their gender using whichever label(s) they prefered. The non-binary participants identified with a diverse range of labels including genderfluid, agender, and female-to-agender genderflux. Others, on the other hand, solely identified with wider umbrella labels such as non-binary and genderqueer. Regardless of the labels people preferred, I ensured that all participants were comfortable being grouped in my research as ‘non-binary’.
My data was collected from 4 groups of participants (non-binary, female, male, and a mixed group of all genders) completing a collaborative task of my own design. This task was set up in a way so as to encourage competitive/collaborative interactions between participants (for more detail, see link below).
I based my analysis on the following features which have traditionally been argued to index ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ language:
My results showed that, although certain ‘gendered’ features tended to be used more by certain gender groups, many ‘gendered’ features, which index ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ marked gendered styles, were employed variably regardless of gender identity.
Based on the selection of features studied, all participants, regardless of gender, made use of variable gendered linguistic styles and neither non-binary, female, or male participants exhibited consistently ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ language styles.
Interestingly, the use of ‘gendered’ features was not always in accordance with the stereotypes typical of the ‘difference approach’ (Coates, 2004). Several female participants, for instance, exhibited stereotypically ‘masculine’ gendered styles, including disproportionately high amount of speech, a large number of interruptions, directives and negatives, yet also vastly employed stereotypically ‘feminine’ genderlectal features, such as hedging and high rising intonation.
This study highlights the importance of not imposing binary gender categories on research participants and raises the question of whether stereotypical gendered language features should even be divided into solely ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’.
I acknowledge the limits of simplifying the wide spectrum of various identities into one ‘third’ gender group, however, this study was limited as it was part of my undergraduate dissertation. I am currently doing my MA at the University of Sheffield and I hope to explore this area more deeply in later research!
Butler, J. (1990) Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity . New York: Routledge
Coates, J. (2004) Women, Men and Language (3rd edn.) Oxon: Routledge
Motschenbacher, H. (2007) ‘Can the term ‘genderlect’ be saved?’ Gender and Language 1 (2): 255-278
Nicholson, L. (1994) ‘Interpreting gender’ Signs 20 (1): 79-105
Richards, C., W. P. Bouman, L. Seal, M. J. Barker, T. O. Nieder & G. T’Sjoen (2016) ‘Non-binary or genderqueer genders’ International Review of Psychiatry 28 (1): 95-102
Zimman, L. (2012) Voices in transition: testosterone, transmasculinity, and the gendered voice among female-to-male transgender people . PhD thesis, University of Colorado at Boulder
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