Gender-specific Language in the Presentation of Political Talk Shows

Pragmatic Analysis of Maybrit Illner and Frank Plasberg

Essay 2011 23 Pages

Communications - Intercultural Communication


Tabel of Content

List of Graphs

List of Tables

List of Abbreviations

1 Introduction

2 Theoretical Background: Female Talk vs. Male Talk
2.1 Deficit Approach
2.2 Dominance Approach
2.3 Difference Approach or Two Cultures Theory
2.4 Dynamic, Social Constructionist or After Difference Approach

3 Pragmatic Analysis of Female and Male Presenters of Political Podium Discussions

4 Conclusion

Reference List


List of Graphs

Graph 1: Duration of Turns

List of Tables

Table 1: Dimensions of presentation and their operationalisation for the analysis

Table 2: Activity Dimension 1

Table 3: Activity Dimension II

Table 4: Critique Dimension

Table 5: Substance Dimension

List of Abbreviations

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1 Introduction

Men and women do not only look different, they literally are different from scratch (Gates: 2008). But does this difference also apply to language and talk? 'Women talk more than men!’ - Everybody has already heard of the myth that women are more talkative and use 20,000 words a day, whereas men get by with just 7,000 (Talbot: 2003). However, this has been contradicted by the University of Texas - there is no gender that is more talkative. Moreover, according to the studies, women speak on average 16,215 words and men 15,669 words a day (Mehl et al.: 2007). Language starts in people’s heads, but since the areas and sizes of the different brain parts in women’s and men’s heads are completely unequal it nevertheless is logical that male and female language differs. A female brain has its own relatively big ‘Gossip Lobe’, whereas the male brain has only got a somewhat smaller ‘Guy Talk’ area (see Fig. 1).

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Figure 1: The male and the female brain (Lenard: 2010)

According to the amount of research that has been conducted in this field there are major differences between male and female language. Tabloid newspapers and talk shows tend to suggest that women swear less than men or that women are the more gossipy gender. These assumptions are internalised by the vast majority of the population, but are they really true (Coates: 2004)? Or is all that nonsense? The German publishing group Langenscheidt published a dictionary with the title 'German-Woman / Woman-German’ which has especially been created for men so that they can interpret women’s messages correctly. This again shows that male and female language varies.

Hence, this work deals with the pragmatic1 analysis of gender differences in language based on a comparison of two German talk show presenters. The working definition of gender, based on West and Zimmerman (1987), Butler (1990) and Fausto-Sterling (2000), is as follows: Gender is nothing people are born with, nor something people have. It is something that people do; something people perform. In comparison to sex, which is the biological categorisation primarily based on reproductive potential, gender “is the social elaboration of biological sex” (Eckert, McConnell-Ginet: 2003, p.10). Consequently, labelling someone as a woman or a man is a social construction. According to Fausto-Sterling (2000) biology might help to define sex, but it is only the beliefs about gender that are able to define the sex.

For the second chapter of this work, which covers the theory, more precisely the four different approaches to language and gender, existing literature on gender and language, gender role and language differences are examined. The third chapter then deals with the analysis of hartaberfair’s presenter Frank Plasberg and Maybrit Illner. Furthermore literature on political talk shows and the general use of language in TV shows will be examined. Finally, the work concludes with a short review and further perspectives.

2 Theoretical Background: Female Talk vs. Male Talk

Not long ago sociolinguists started paying attention to gender. However, research on the topic that men and women speak differently had already been conducted in 1664. Back then, Wilhelm Breton published a dictionary (‘Dictionnaire Caraibe-Francais’) on the basis of ‘exotic’ indigenous tribes which contained an extensive glossary with words that had exclusively been used by women and those words which only men had used (Ahrens: 2006). Based on that, one assumed that men and women, especially in different cultures, speak completely different languages. However, it was one and the same language which only showed differences within it (Gräßel: 1991). Consequently, the terms ‘women language’ and ‘men language’, as they are being used by scientists such as Trömel-Plötz, should be rejected, since they do not exist as such. Linguistic differences, as they appear, are simply a reflexion of societal differences; Coates (1986) argues that as long as society sees men and women as unequal and different, the differences in women's and men's language will continue to exist.

Gender and Language research has gone through a radical change over the last forty years. The approaches researchers developed are as follows: the deficit, the dominance, the difference and the social constructionist or dynamic approach, which will all be explained in the section below.

2.1 Deficit Approach

A systematic discussion about the context of gender and speech behaviour started in American linguistics in the mid 70’s. In 1973, it was Robin Lakoff who firstly “introduced the term ‘women’s language’ in” an article called ‘Language in Society’, which later became the title of a chapter in her 1978 published book. Two years after she had introduced the term she published her book ‘Language and Woman’s Place’ which is still an extremely influential work on gender and language (Crawford: 1995). Originally, gender-specific differences have been described from a male perspective, whereupon the male speech behaviour was seen as the norm. The most famous exponent is the British linguist Jespersen, who, in 1925 characterised the English language as absolutely masculine, as the language of grown-up men, which does not contain anything childish or feminine. This traditional idea argued that the term ‘male language’ and ‘language’ are congruent and that therefore speech features offemale speakers differ in every way (Peters: 1999). According to Claudia Schmidt (1988) women’s syntactic form of speech, is more primitive than the male one. Moreover, female speech is lacking, their trains of thoughts are incomplete and glibness belongs to the general traits of women. Schmidt explains this as follows: Women’s eloquence is being brought forward because their vocabulary is smaller and closer to the centre of the language.

Lakoff’s deficit is slightly different: She states that contributions made by women containing a 'we'- or 'l'-phrasing are seen as less factual rather than subjective or even cognitively less efficient. In addition, women’s most common feedback-signals ('mhm', eye-contact, nodding etc.) are being interpreted as consent and recognition of greater competence on the male part, as well as their authority. Considerate conversational behaviour with regard to breaks or the rising to speak are classified as a sign of lacking self-confidence, insufficient assertiveness or expertise (Lakoff: 1973). The described speech behaviours and their ratings often coincide with prevailing stereotypes of desirably feminine behaviour such as passiveness, tolerance, softness and subordination on the one side, and male role stereotypes such as intelligence, competence, dominance and wisdom on the other side (Peters: 1999). Certainly, Lakoff was not the first theorist who described female communication as handicapped, limited and maladaptive (Thorne et al.: 1983).

However, researchers no longer see this approach as current, nevertheless society and especially assertiveness training for women still think that women should try to become more male (Coates: 2004).

2.2 Dominance Approach

In the early 70’s Labov, Hymes, Trudgill and others pointed out that the gender of the speaker influences the sociolinguistic variation. Feminist linguists such as Lakoff, Trömel-Plötz, Guentherodt and Pusch interpreted the different speech behaviours of gender as a symptom in a sexist-patriarchal society, in which women are being oppressed because of their gender. Oppression in this context means that women do not have the same opportunities and chances as their male contemporaries. These chances include training opportunities, professional activity and career opportunities, earnings, and professional, social and legal status. An example is, in West Germany a legal term of 'head of household existed well in to the 1970s. The husband was able to limit his wife's contractual capability with regard to larger purchases and acquisition. The oppression of the women could be seen in the gender-specific role clichés (for example the woman as the mother and housewife, the servant, the dependent) in which women had been constrained (Ayaß: 2008). These clichés are also connected to the corresponding behaviour and language norms, which differ from the male norms.

2.3 Difference Approach or Two Cultures Theory

In her book ‘You Just Don't Understand: Men and Women in Conversation’ (1991), Deborah Tannen laid the foundations for this approach which underlines the difference of female language; more precisely that men and women are part of two different subcultures (Coates: 2004; Turner: 1990). Consequently men and women come were born and grown up in different cultures within which they have different ideas about their expectations, themselves, their place in society and in the world and consequently, also a different sense of conversations (Goddard, Meân: 2009). The defined characteristics by Lakoff and other sociolinguists should not be assessed as negative or positive; they in point of fact show the linguistic strengths of women. Although the female linguistic style is seen as socially inferior, women nevertheless should not acquire the male linguistic style. They should rather become aware of their own abilities and develop their own language; it is strictly being rejected to see an advantage in imitating male language (Tannen: 1994).

2.4 Dynamic, Social Constructionist or After Difference Approach

Over forty years ago the predominantly essential paradigm “categorised speakers primarily according to their biological sex” (Holmes: 1997, p.195). This has mainly been done by using quantitative methods. It abandoned the dominance and difference by not seeing female language from the point that they are either being deficient or oppressed (Goddard, Meân: 2009). The most recent approach is the fourth approach which emphasises the "dynamic aspects of interaction" (Coates: 2004, p.6) and gives the opportunity to combine the benefits of survey and ethnographic approaches (Holmes: 1994). As already mentioned in the introduction, West and Zimmerman (1987) stated that gender should be 'done’, instead of being something that people 'are’. In this context Crawford (1995) came up with the claim that gender should be seen as a verb instead of a noun. Additionally, Crawford argues that what is needed is a judicious, critical, reflexive and self-questioning usage of various approaches.

These approaches have flexible boundaries and researchers might have not only been influenced by a single theoretical perspective. One thing that has definitely changed over the years is the way linguists see gender. It is no longer purely static; gender is in fact is being ‘performed’ every time people speak. As already mentioned earlier, the deficit approach is out of date, whereas the other three approaches all yield precious insights into gender differences’ in language (Coates: 2004).


1 “Pragmatics studies the use of language in human communication as determined by the conditions of society” (Mey: 2002, p.6). According to Crystal (2003) pragmatics is “a term traditionally used to label one of the three major divisions of SEMIOTICS (along with SEMANTICS and SYNTACTICS). In modern LINGUISTICS, it has come to be applied to the study of LANGUAGE from the point of view of the users, especially of the choices they make, the constraints they encounter in using language in social interaction, and the effects their use of language has on the other participants in an act of communication” (p.364).


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Interpersonal Communication Gender Gender specific Language Political Talk Show Maybrit Illner Frank Plasberg Pragmatic Analysis Show




Title: Gender-specific Language in the Presentation of Political Talk Shows