63N Week 3

Elizabeth Traugott/Arnold Zwicky 

Linguistics 63N. Week 3. Varieties: Gender stereotypes. Jan 23rd.

Models: broad frames of reference used in various fields. In social sciences there were two main competing models in the 20thC, commonly referred to as “nurture vs. nature”:

a) “Nurture”, social construction: “[T]he process [of cultural transmission from generation to generation] is maintained through learning, a well-understood and unitary process, that acts to make the child like the adult of her culture”, which as a group process is “called ‘socialization’, imposed on the child by the group”, and “the individual is the…passive recipient…and product of her culture” (John Tooby and Leda Cosmides. 1992. The psychological foundations of culture. In Jerome H. Barkow, Leda Cosmides, and John Tooby, eds., The Adapted Mind, chapter 1, pp. 19-136. Oxford: Oxford University Press.) Therefore “the mind of the individual is almost entirely shaped by their culture and facts about a culture are not products of human nature”. (http://www.goldmark.org/jeff/papers/ridley/html/node1.html)

b) “Nature”: involves at least some degree of universalism. Human nature determines culture to at least some degree.

Likewise in linguistics, there were two major competing models of the mind:

a) First half of 20thC: the mind as a blank slate shaped largely by input and culture (see e.g. Leonard Bloomfield, Language, 1933).

b) Second half of the 20thC: the mind as a highly structured language learning device shaped by an innate Universal Grammar (see e.g. Noam Chomsky, Syntactic Structures, 1957). The focus is on cognitive structures, the language capacity, and language as a unique property of the mind. Communication is considered to be secondary.

In both these linguistic models, the child is relatively passive, and interlocutors more or less mirror each other. Variation, especially social variation, is not a particularly important factor. Here is a famous sketch of communication by Ferdinand de Saussure. 1916. Course in General Linguistics. Trans. By Roy Harris, Open Court: La Salle, IL, USA, 1983.

A model of growing importance in the 21st century (but going back to the 1960’s) is interactional and social. It combines elements of nature and nurture. The child is thought of as actively interacting with caregivers and the environment, so environment and use influence mind and mind in turn influences environment. Whatever universal abilities there are, are considered to be minimal. Language is one of many cognitive abilities, and is not sharply distinct from communication (see e.g. Adele E. Goldberg. 2006. Constructions at Work: The Nature of Generalization in Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press). Emphasis is on practice (see Eckert, Penelope. Linguistic Variation and Social Practice. Oxford: Blackwell, 2000).

In this model, interlocutors may be very different. Factors such as differences in age, gender, etc., play a large role. Men have been shown by sociolinguistic work to promote local, often vernacular, varieties, whereas women promote supralocal, more standard varieties (see Labov, William.  1990. The intersection of sex and social class in the course of linguistic change. Language Variation and Change 2: 205-254).

All humans categorize. Depending on the model adopted, this may be because they learn the categories already established a) in their culture or b) in their cognitive system. Categorization is a major research issue in linguistics.

a) Are linguistic categories (e.g. animacy, obligation, motion) discrete with sharp boundaries?

b) Are categories prototypical, with marginal members and fuzzy boundaries?

Many comics comment on variation, and either further or laugh at social categories/stereotypes such as teen-talk and gender-talk.

What teen stereotypes have we encountered?

Gender stereotypes

Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman, Zits, (date? Appears to be 2005)


Cathy Guisewite, Cathy, 4/26/2005


Scott Adams, Dilbert, 9/21/2006


Mark Liberman says in the blog at this site that this comic strip reminds him of “Many women find biological comfort in one another’s company, and language is the glue that connects one female to another” (Louann Brizendine, The Female Brain, Morgan Road Books, 2006).

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