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Communicative Features of Gender-Neutral Language

Communicative characteristics of Male/female

A constructionist point of view takes gender as a radical challenge to the question of whether women and men use language in different ways. A common assumption that upholds many questions of ‘gender difference’ in speech is simply intricated in everyday speech. Thinking realistically, if one feels that there is an essential difference or set of differences and those differences are reflected in language then it would be theoretically possible to establish the stable and enduring features defining gender-specific speech styles.

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However, constructionist approaches view language and discourse as constituting gender, and does not reflect that being a man or a woman means, amongst other things, talking like one. A constructionist standpoint while acknowledging the failure of research determines exactly what the gender differences in speech are not an empirical reality of how women and men speak. Rather, constructivists view women’s speech and men’s speech as symbolic notions that are ideological and function as standards or norms against which the ways women and men actually talk get judged. For example, a woman speaking with a low pitch may be perceived as being accused of something that rejects her femininity (Weatherall: 152).

Though gender differences are not minor, they are based on a social and symbolic setting, which constructs an expression that expresses the meaning a society confers on biological sex. Communicative factors of male or female that has varied across cultures and have crossed over time within societies in relation to the other gender highlight gender differences that are real, persisting, and significant by any measure. Increasing studies elaborate communication-related differences that women and men have been repeatedly experienced and therefore are reported by researchers. Such aspects that initiate gender based differences follow the following grounds:

  1. Gender based differences are measured on the grounds in which male irrespective of age communicates while involving more interruptions, self-displays and challenges than any female.
  2. It is noted that women are more convenient in relying upon verbal communication as compared to men; this is evident from personal disclosures which builds and maintains intimacy with friends and romantic partners.
  3. Men are more dependant upon relying on shared activities and doing things for others to build, sustain, and express intimacy with friends and romantic partners as compared to women.
  4. Women prefers to talk about relationship satisfying more often than men, as men generally find talking about relationship satisfying only when there is some tension or problem requiring attention.
  5. (Women are sensitive enough to perceive others’ nonverbal cues than men and are more involved in caring for others than are men.

Example: One can say that any difference between women’s and men’s communication styles present a sense of ‘generality’ which implies that both sexes pursue instrumental and expressive goals, although each sex may emphasize one objective more than the other. Yet the difference is often measured in consequential terms, for instance, in heterosexual relationships, female and male partners may be frustrated by each other’s preferences for talking and doing, respectively, as primary paths to intimacy. Therefore it is evident what Canary & Dindia (1998) suggests that “any deferential, relationship-enhancing communication style is emphasized in feminine communication cultures and the instrumental, aggressive communication promoted in masculine communication cultures may contribute to some men’s sexual harassment of women and to some women’s reluctance to object” (Canary & Dindia: 20).

Sex versus Gender

Since animate entities are characterized by biological sex or intrinsic gender, sex is to be differentiated on the basis of grammatical gender, which is a morpho-syntactic category that some languages have for keeping track of nouns. Sex acts as a semantic property whereas gender is a formal or coding property (Frawley: 99). Not denying that sometimes sex and gender gets equal, there are still many languages that support nouns to be coded as biological females to be perceived in one way, and for biological males in another but the direct manifestation of sex totally and only as a gender system is the rare case, for three reasons (Frawley: 99).

Various researches have revealed that a conventional psychological approach can investigate language use as a spot where gender identity can be freely expressed. A questionable concern made by such research is between ‘real’ sex markers of speech that highlights only linguistic features that truly differentiate between women and men and speech sex stereotypes i.e., beliefs about the features associated with each gender regardless of actual use. A key point here is that there is a visible difference between ‘real’ and ‘stereotyped’ gender differences in speech and that is problematic because differences between women’s and men’s speech may exist, but what differentiates women’s speech from men’s cannot be reduced to a set of certain features.

The main reason for using language to identify social variables such as gender is phonological variation. According to Weatherall (2002) “Feminist sociolinguistic research on gender and language has moved from essentializing and universalizing the relationship between gender identity and language to the view that gender is constructed through local communities of practice” (Weatherall: 123). When contrasting with social cognitive approaches, gender based identities usually goes along with developments where feminist social linguistics argue that a sense of self is socially constructed.

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However the local and occasioned nature of social identity categories such as sex and gender are supported by analytic styles of conversation where discursive psychology investigates. A society perceives a poststructuralist style of discursive psychology as an individual’s identity resulted from the cultural meaning systems available and the ongoing demands of any social interaction. Even a more diversified aspect of discursive psychology weaves together both the local and global discursive practices that function to produce gender in everyday talk.

Gender neutral language characteristics

Minimizing assumptions on the basis of linguistics regarding gender, gender-neutrality promoted languages devoid of grammatical concern. For instance the use of the term ‘man’ instead of a more gender-neutral term such as human(s), humanity, people, and so on obscures a female to understand language. According to one standpoint uttered on the question of the relationship between language and reality informed the task of reform, language attaches labels to things that are already there. Therefore, many researchers refer language as symptoms which catch up with the new non-sexist society being created and focus their attack on providing gender neutral alternatives for sex-differentiated job titles, masculine pronouns used as generics, and a few other key areas where male bias is particularly visible.

While conducting research Romaine (1999) concluded that “Despite the relying and dependency of some grammarians on the generic nature of the masculine, experiments have shown that women feel excluded when they read texts with generic ‘he’ and ‘man’ because when we read sentences such as “Man has the capacity to adapt to his environment”, people often think of men, not men and women” (Romaine: 107).

Study shows that whenever people are asked to make drawings to go with such texts, they go for drawing men. A similar study involved more than 500 high-school students who were simply asked to visualize and make drawings of prehistoric people based on statements that best describe them, therefore they received statements with generic nouns and pronouns, such as Prehistoric man left behind images of himself in his artwork. In the same study when another group was given gender-specific and gender-neutral tasks such as Prehistoric people particularly men and women left behind images of themselves in their artwork it was seen that a higher proportion of students drew male images (Romaine: 107).

Gender neutrality not only covers sex differences in language across various academic disciplines but also concerns about gender and voice, verbal ability and brain specialization for language have primarily interested psychologists, with differences in language development being examined in both educational and psychological research. Cross-cultural variability is a common topic of interest to anthropologists as far as gender differences are concerned whereas sex variation at the phonological, syntactic and semantic levels of language has been of more interest to linguists.

Research that compares women’s and men’s language use presents a broad literature view on the study of sex differences in other aspects of gender behaviour. However the lack of compelling evidence for, or against explanations of, sex differences in language is indicative of the fact that a wider confusion about the nature, size and origins of other sex differences is there.

The Semantic Aspect

Based on the semantic criteria of the modern English, the first reason highlighted from the semantic side supports the notion that since property of sex is associated with animacy and humanness; therefore sex is not always coded and perceived directly into gender. This is obvious by having a look at the English third-person, where singular pronouns support this point. Male and female in this respect are distinguished by ‘he’ and ‘she’ and when opposed to it, which codes neither, he and she are normally understood to refer to humans. However sex-sensitive pronouns points out nonhumans and are supposed to be intimately known by the speaker (McConnell-Ginet, 1979).

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Secondly if viewed from a formal aspect, gender is considered purely a structural device with its own peculiar rules of operation, and just like syntax, it cannot be read simply or directly off semantic distinctions, even though there may be high correlations between biological sex and gender marking in some languages. This is evident from the earlier languages like the Indo European languages support grammatical gender to be historically driven from an earlier distinction in the animacy of nouns, and this marking system has evolved into a general device for signalling formal subclasses of nouns. Gender as a formal device often interacts with other purely formal features, and it is not unusual to find gender connected with agreement and anaphora, or even with phonological features, that is, gender promotes those properties that are even more remotely connected to meaning.

Third, when we put the semantic and formal aspects of gender together, we see that even if biological sex is relevant to a language, there is no reason why sex has to surface as gender, or some such marking system. In English, for example, there are a number of verbs that accept only biologically male or female subjects:

  1. The man ejaculated.
  2. The woman gave birth.
  3. The man gave birth?
  4. The woman ejaculated?

Except for the above subjects, English verbs have no connection with grammatical gender. Therefore it is evident from the above discussion that sex and grammatical gender diverge and differentiate in many aspects. Therefore gender itself is not only a formal device, but gender when combined with sex may be coded with other semantic properties and also have a ‘morpho-syntactic’ reflex other than what is traditionally understood as gender.

It is seen over time that gendered meanings are influenced by change due to which researchers argue the depreciation of women (Schulz, 1975). Miller and Swift in 1976 suggested that there are many words when used to describe females travelled a long journey that linguists call ‘degeneration of meaning’. Weatherall (2002) mentions it by witnessing the case history of ‘virago’ that illustrated a phenomenon which they labelled ‘semantic polarisation’. The word ‘Virago’ has been devised from the Latin word ‘vir’, which means a male person possessing admirable connotations and is usually designated a woman, but could also refer to a man of exceptional strength and courage. With the passage of time this word stopped being applied to men and was used to refer to large women or women with a bad temper (Weatherall: 25).

A grammatical technique in semantics that points us towards the gender of the person being referred to is the frequent use of adjectives. For example, ‘pretty’, ‘beautiful’ and ‘lovely’ tend to be used to describe women and not men, in contrast, words like ‘handsome’, ‘strong’ and ‘dashing’ leads towards masculine description. Whenever such terms are used to describe feminine they distract the listener or reader from notions of their femininity (Poynton, 1989).

However the unconventional usage of such terms like referring to women as strong and men as lovely undermines adjectives that function to mark gender neutrality. On the other end using slogans to represent women as strong and powerful influencing from the subculture of riot grrls (pronounced with a growl) seem to use this strategy and can be understood as feminist in so far as they are promoting a link between being female and being strong and powerful. Here the cultural system arises and it is useful to acknowledge that the same slogans may also be thought of as reproducing the status quo as they reinforce a symbol of cultural system where strength and power are valued irrespective of gender identity.

Women are supposed to create more images to describe the ways that male power impinges on their lives and there is a reason to it. Divisions in the family nexus have always imagined as walls being erected between the woman and another person important to them. Another reason for describing such ways are again those images that has allowed people living in the last two centuries to associate gender with separate space, public and private spheres. Therefore, if we view women under the lens of division, keeping women in their homes appears to be a ‘natural law’ rather than a manmade rule and thus becomes acceptable and even affirming for many women under patriarchy (Fay & Macedo: 7). Unlike women young girls are used to name wall and border images to create continuity between themselves and others, rather than to cut themselves off from their communities.

Tropes in this case easily manipulate the language by performing the same operation on thought process as they do on word construction. A trope is easy to work with as it invisibly enacts on the audience what is not really heard due to which rhetoric is intended to persuade audiences, and it is the purpose of the political and legal speeches addressed to constituencies and juries (Fay & Macedo: 7). Therefore any response without analyzing the language sways the individual.

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The phonological aspect

Sociolinguistic research covers and examines the relationship between linguistic variation and other variables on the basis of gender. On examining the consideration of the social meanings associated with different sounds and how those meanings influence patterns of language change, the research discovered very striking findings that evoked from early quantitative studies on sound and sound change in people’s accents. One result supported the notion that phonological variation in speech communities shows clear social stratification.

Furthermore it was discovered that an additional characteristic of the classic patterns of social stratification in phonological variation is that they are differentiated by gender. Although it was followed by some exceptions like generally within each class women’s speech is characterised by the use of more standard and fewer vernacular forms than that of men from the same social class (Weatherall: 133). In other words it was found out that women are more sophisticated in using phonological system of languages as compared to men. This notion goes with the explanation for women’s more standard speech was similar to that given for the stratification of phonological variables by social class. From phonological differences it was revealed that women are more status-conscious than men because their social status is more precarious than men’s.

Such interpretations were heavily criticized by feminist sociolinguists as an explanation based upon the sexist assumption that women were either housewives or mothers. Such a difference grounded on the phonology invited women’s social class that tended to be categorised on the basis of their husband’s, and made things problematic. Therefore it is obvious to quote that women on such basis are considered to be ‘linguistic sensitive’ and ‘status conscious’.

Enunciative Differences: According to Malrieu (1999) “The dominant practice within discourse analysis consists in studying the relation between linguistic registers and genres” (Malrieu: 103). It is usually assumed that social roles are associated with specific language registers, which in turn impose some constraints onto the linguistic markers of enunciation as far as gender roles are concerned. When the society obeys these constraints, they set an example for other social actors to recognize language registers, thereby reinforcing the legitimacy of social roles. Another common assumption is that these constraints mainly concern indexical and illocutionary elements (Malrieu: 103).

Most studies in enunciation focus on markers of aspect, gender and person, such as pronouns, possessives and the tenses of the verbs where indexical and illocutionary components are indeed a major source of sociological induction concerning the self-perception of social groups and categories.

Since indexical components varies on the meanings in which they are utilized, it depends on the context of the speech acts for which their study must necessarily refer to the context where even in a given context, the same pronoun, for example ‘they’, may have several alternative uses. There could be many possible uses that describe the range for example inclusive, exclusive, nature of the membership etc. and identifying the use of each occurrence requires a clear conceptual layout and a careful analysis.

Although semantic information when used to define a phonemic unit makes it clear that this is a distinctly odd procedure. Therefore it is more realistic to define an element in terms of criteria which are relevant to the level at which this element is located. That means a phoneme should be defined in formal terms as it is not mainly aimed to establish contrast at the lexical but at the phonological level. In a response to such problematic Berg (1998) argues that a phoneme that primarily serves a meaning distinguishing function is not a viable concept from the psycholinguistic vantage point because it is impossible to implement with the entire lexicon in case a word or a sound is added to or lost from the system (Berg: 15).

The Syntactic Aspect

Syntax patterns in English according to many researchers reject a linguistic explanation in terms of an inherent restriction on the grammar. For instance many sociolinguists believe that that cannot deal with the fact that category-changing prefixes do occur in English, though at a lower rate than category-changing suffixes and category preserving prefixes. Hammond compares the morphological issue at hand to centre embedding in syntax, which is also understood as a ‘performance constraint’ whereas the problem that occurs in both areas is the processing of non-local dependencies.

Usually morphology supports some kind of dependency between the suffixes and the prefixes, but since the dependency in syntax is between the noun and the non-adjacent verb, therefore nonlocal dependencies are hard to process and therefore avoided. Although the psycholinguistic details are gender biased and not very clearly spelled out, it may be concluded that a processing account not only is less ad hoc but also predicts the quantitative and qualitative patterns more accurately than the linguistic account.

Up till now many researchers have succeeded to explain syntactic phenomena within a theory of processing which is remarkable insofar as syntax is typically regarded as a highly abstract system which is very remote from issues of communication. The psycholinguistic gender inclusive investigation of syntax thus assumes a particular significance like if it can be shown that syntax is under the influence of processing constraints, it can no longer be treated as an autonomous system. The syntactic phenomena can be best analyzed under the word order of freezes, which allows a particular sequence of independent words whose order is not changeable without destroying their meaning. The syntactic creativity reduces in freezes therefore it is less complicated to utter than non-frozen constructions (Berg: 32).

Gender in most of the grammatical and lexical systems supports the personal-pronoun system of English to make a gender distinction in the third person singular (he-she) but neither in the second (you) nor in the first (I). Hawkins in 1988 discovered about an implicational hierarchy syntactically present in the coding of gender in the known pronoun systems. All those languages that make up some gender distinction in the second person also follow one in the third with every language that makes a gender distinction in the first also makes one in the second and third person (Berg: 41).

Such a functional-pragmatic explanation supports the notion that a typical communicative situation consists of a speaker and a listener who is spatially and temporally contiguous finds no need to distinguish verbally between a male and a female addressee. But such a notion would be applicable only when three interlocutors are present while useful only when the two addressees are not of the same sex. Visual identities are important in identifying the gender of the speaker, because only special circumstances allow using a masculine or a feminine ‘you’.

Gender neutrality is often taken as functionalist accounts being put forward to explain language change, the following logic is applied. It starts with the assumption that the linguistic system must satisfy a number of antagonistic constraints simultaneously with a constant pull of war among these competing principles, and it is this dynamics which keeps the system endlessly in motion. Sometimes one force wins while showing strength in comparison with another, and sometimes another. Such developments are captured by the hypothesis of limited optimization where one functional principle gets at a higher status in comparison with another. A pertinent example in this case is the visibility of the plural marker on nouns. Therefore it fulfils two economical principles of shortness and generality.

Pragmatic Aspect

According to Green (1996) “Pragmatics takes into account all sorts of means of communication inclusive of nonconventional, nonverbal, non-symbolic ones” (Green: 3). Pragmatic approach highlights the way language is used to be well understood and depends upon the intention of the speaker and the context in which the communicative act is performed. This context varies according to the utterance and understanding of the speaker and the listener and may thus require strategies to cope with the contingencies of the situation.

Pragmatics involve some believes and intentions on part of the speaker, i.e., reflexive beliefs, straightforward usage of language, etc. Speakers’ whether male or female, reliance on the extra linguistic context is quite heavy. The main reasons for this reliance allows speakers complete freedom to express by saving their effort, to be more flexible, and, somewhat surprisingly, to be more precise. A paradigm example according to Cutting (2002) is the set of deictic terms which owe their existence to the mere fact that language is customarily realized in spatial and temporal contiguity of the interlocutors. A deictic term can only be understood in circumstances where listeners have availed themselves of the requisite non-linguistic clues such as the gaze or the pointing of the speaker. Usually, this information is available for the fact that speakers are well aware of the listeners’ perspective.

Indirect speech acts constitute one of many forms of politeness usually found in feminine conversations. That is why it is said that indirectness is directly linked with politeness because directives are more often expressed as interrogatives than imperatives. Particularly in cases where people do not show any familiarity with each other and this is the main reason for why women are more polite than men. An example is the sign of “Thank you for no smoking”, which expresses more politeness than the one that says “Do not smoke” (Cutting: 20).

There is a lot of difference between spoken and written language varying upon the situation and are partially independent of each other. Pragmatic perspective cannot be ignored with effects of pragmatic principles extend not only to the lexicon but also to syntax.

Many syntactic explanations agree at the discourse level of which two of them are word order and dislocation. According to Berg (1998) “The principle usually followed is that speakers intend to create certain effects by deviating from so-called default patterns” (Berg: 45). These deviations create confusion between syntactic and pragmatic systems where rules which used to have a pragmatic function may develop into syntactic rules. This is what Berg (1998) calls “evidence for the claim that an area as abstract as syntax is open to pragmatic influences and that, implicationally, pragmatics provides one valuable account of linguistic structure” (Berg: 45).

Linguists who work in a generative tradition acknowledge that meaning is one of the concerns of grammar. This is agreed by latest textbooks that generative syntax grammar is not just a set of principles establishing the formation of words, phrases or sentences, but those rules which convince us how to interpret or assign a particular meaning to words, phrases and sentences (Blakemore: 15). On this behalf a student must be forgiven when he reads and assumes structural aspects of meaning to be linked with the theory of meaning that is meant to be the domain of generative grammar has anything to do with the theory.

There is a visible distinction between the process of decoding messages and the process of making inferences from evidence and this is what we call as the basis of difference between semantics and pragmatics. In semantics, the process is performed by an independent linguistic system in which the grammar is dedicated to the performance of mappings between a utterance and a semantic representation for that utterance. However the pragmatic process is the inferential process that integrates the output of the decoded message with contextual information in order to deliver a hypothesis about the speaker’s informative intention (Blakemore: 60).

Gay versus lesbian linguistics

While analyzing a discussion of gay male speech, Keith Walters and Rusty Barrett in 1994 found out that there is nothing specific to gay male speech in terms of its grammar or linguistic system but that there is a unique, conventionalized set of meanings attached to some of the linguistic resources used by gay men. They discovered that such discussion acted as the exploitation of some conventionalized meanings that becomes indexical of ‘gay male’. While other researchers headed for explicit explanation of dealing with lesbians, they predicted their model to account for the speech patterns of lesbians. Their model examined language from a position that took into consideration axes of social difference for which Livia & Hall (1997) suggested that “they as such predicted that it is specifically the ways in which linguistic resources are used, rather than a set of linguistic tokens that are unique to a speech community, that index a given identity” (Livia & Hall: 238).

While there are several styles from which lesbians appear to draw ‘lesbian’ language, it is important to note that ‘styles’ refers to a set of stereotyped assumptions about a set of linguistic features and their associated social connotations, rather than actual linguistic practice. Mary Bucholtz and Kira Hall in 1995 noted that however, that there is nonetheless a stereotype concerning the ways in which women speak, and it is this stereotype that women either aspire to or reject thus, the stereotype has taken on a conventionalized social meaning that is recognized by a large number of speakers. However interaction of tropes as proposed by Livia & Hall (1997) possesses four styles in order to construct lesbian language.

  1. Stereotyped women’s language – this is presented by a large stock of words related to specific interests that leads to collectivism and are generally relegated to ‘woman’s work’ and are used as tag questions like ‘kinda’, ‘wanna’ etc. Followed by hypercorrect grammar such language utilizes super-polite form with lack of humor as women usually don’t tell jokes.
  2. Stereotyped nonstandard language – associated with working class, such language usually depicts urban males and is used as cursing, characterized as postvocalic or deletion with respect to region, non-normative consonant, contracted forms for instance ‘gonna’, ‘I dunno’ etc, ethnically marked with vowel quality varying from region to region.
  3. Stereotyped gay male language – characterized by wider pitch usage, it follows hypercorrection with the presence of phonologically non-reduced forms, the use of hyper-extended vowels and lexical words usage.
  4. Stereotyped lesbian language – cursing is there with the use of narrow pitch range and generally ‘flat’ intonation patterns, too much use of expressions such as ‘bite me’ and ‘suck my dick’ which are normally associated with men and their anatomy and are characterized by lack of humor and joking (Livia & Hall:240).

As a matter of interest all four tropes are considered to be in lesbian language, and presents stereotyped women’s speech to be deserved in a particular discussion because it can be used both in positive and negative aspects. Lesbians can adopt the stylistic features associated with stereotyped women’s language, or they can consciously reject those features. For example one of the most salient stereotypes about lesbians’ speech patterns, for instance, concerns the use of ‘flat intonation’ with extreme fluctuations.

Difference in gender neutrality has been the focus of attention through centuries. Yet there is a lot to be done on the actual relationships among verbal behavior and stereotypes. There is still a need for the features of language to be understood not in the narrow sense but on a broader spectrum where other features of the use of language in styles of conversation depend on the difference of setting and role. The contrasting speech of masculine and feminine may be in contrasting styles, associated primarily or often with men and women, but some research still describes those evidences that unnoticeably relate to status and power, essential to be found in features associated with women, such that they may be found also in the speech of men occupying positions of low status or little power.

Work Cited

  1. Berg N. Thomas, Linguistic Structure and Change: An Explanation from Language Processing: Clarendon Press: Oxford, 1998.
  2. Blakemore Diane, Relevance and Linguistic Meaning : The Semantics and Pragmatics of Discourse Markers: Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, England, 2002.
  3. Canary J. Daniel and Dindia Kathryn, Sex Differences and Similarities in Communication: Critical Essays and Empirical Investigations of Sex and Gender in Interaction: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates: Mahwah, NJ, 1998.
  4. Cutting Joan, Pragmatics and Discourse: A Resource Book for Students: Routledge: London, 2002.
  5. Fay A. Elizabeth and Macedo Donaldo, Eminent Rhetoric: Language, Gender, and Cultural Tropes: Bergin & Garvey: Westport, CT, 1994.
  6. Frawley William, Linguistic Semantics: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates: Hillsdale, NJ, 1992.
  7. Green M. Georgia, Pragmatics and Natural Language Understanding: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates: Mahwah, NJ, 1996.
  8. Livia Anna and Hall Kira, Queerly Phrased: Language, Gender, and Sexuality: Oxford University Press: New York, 1997.
  9. Malrieu, Jean Pierre, Evaluative Semantics: Cognition, Language, and Ideology: Routledge: London, 1999.
  10. McConnell-Ginet, Sally “Prototypes, pronouns, and persons” In: Ethnolinguistics: Boas, Sapir, and Whorf revisited, ed. by M. Mathiot: 63-83. The Hague: Mouton, 1979.
  11. Romaine Suzanne, Communicating Gender: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates: Mahwah, NJ, 1999.
  12. Poynton, C. Language and gender: making the difference. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.
  13. Schulz, M.R. “The semantic derogation of woman” In B. Thorne and N. Henley (eds), Language and sex: difference and dominance. Rowley, MA: Newbury House, 1975: 64-75.
  14. Weatherall Ann, Gender, Language and Discourse: Routledge: London, 2002.

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