Women Talk Differently From Men, and That's Actually a Really Good Thing

Pygmalion would be far more accurate if Eliza were male and Higgins female.
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Pygmalion would be far more accurate if Eliza were male and Higgins female.
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Art Credit: Jessica Rose Smith

Like, I was wondering what you thought of my proposal? We've all heard it and most of us have winced. Women, of course, get a bad rap for their speech mannerisms. But are they really worse than men’s?

A couple years ago, as actress and filmmaker Lake Bell was promoting her comedy In A World about the male-dominated voice-over industry, she chastised women for falling victim to the so-called “sexy baby vocal virus.” The “virus,” in her view, consisted of high-pitched talking and vocal fry. This criticism blended easily enough with discussions of uptalking—speaking with a rising intonation that can make declarative statements sound like questions—to generate one of those mini shame sessions that seem to occur almost daily in modern media. More than one brave commentator noted the irony of a feminist telling women they should talk more like men. But the notion somehow prevailed that this virus was on the rise, causing an epidemic of women who go around talking like bimbo sex slaves.

I, too, have been thinking about how women talk, or rather what sociolinguistic research says about female-male differences. Women, it turns out, are not the embarrassing little sister in the story of language change. Instead, they are the early adopters and the leading edge of innovation.

Matthew J. Gordon, a sociolinguist at the University of Missouri, says, “One of the strongest tendencies is for women to take the lead when language changes spread in a community. There are exceptions, but most studies have found that women are in the forefront of change; they use the innovative forms at higher rates than do men. Of course another way of stating this is to say that men lag behind when changes are active in a community.”

So, if one gender has to be cast as the vocal underachiever, it is almost certainly men.

Linguists have identified various speech tendencies that distinguish men and women. And these two in particular stand out. Women are, first off, are more innovative, more inclined to pick up on and adopt changes that are occurring more broadly in pronunciation. And, secondly, they are more correct in their speech—meaning women are more aware of what is considered correct and prestigious in pronunciation, and they’re more likely to apply that knowledge.

The opposite is true as well: Men tend to be more conservative, that is, more slow to pick up on sound changes going on around them, and they tend to be more casual in their speech.

These statements might sound like sweeping generalizations, but they have held up surprisingly well across a variety of studies in English and non-English-speaking countries. Also, they involve differences of degree, which are sometimes modest but surprisingly persistent.

Nevertheless, there's a familiar presumption that women's speech needs correcting, possibly by men. Consider My Fair Lady, the musical based on George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, perhaps the most famous comedy about speech ever written. In the opening scene, Henry Higgins is standing in an outdoor market in London. He is surreptitiously following a young woman, Eliza Doolittle, who is selling flowers, and taking notes on her speech as she talks with potential customers.

Soon Higgins is exposed, but he is able to establish that he is a phonetician, an expert in the sounds of human speech. From just a few words, he can determine which part of the city any Londoner comes from. And the very next day, Eliza shows up at his door, seeking lessons in how to talk like a lady. On a bet, Higgins accepts the challenge.

You probably know the rest. After some vocal exercises with Professor Higgins, Eliza is ironing out her Cockney vowels and, as many of us remember from My Fair Lady, hitting all her flat As as she elatedly sings, “The rain in Spain falls mainly in the plain.”

Shaw based the Higgins character, in part, on a real-life phonetician Henry Sweet. And Eliza’s linguistic makeover from guttersnipe to classy dame yields a delicious parody of formal speech.

In a note to the actress playing Eliza, Shaw was very specific. He insisted that the character now speak “with pedantic correctness of pronunciation and great beauty of tone.”

Though still a brilliant comedy of manners, Pygmalion could stand to be updated. The play’s sexual politics are only part of the problem. (Actually, I would say its retrograde sexual politics are not a problem at all, and may even add to the pleasures of the play, but let’s hold that thought.) The issue here: Shaw’s masterpiece is linguistically out of date.

I would even say that if you were to rewrite Pygmalion today, you would make Higgins a woman and Eliza a man. The first thing to do, however, would be to consider the research, which, at times, is rather Higgins-like.

One November day in 1962, sociolinguist William J. Labov, went undercover to study where and when New Yorkers dropped their Rs. “I was dressed in middle class style,” he later wrote, “with jacket, white shirt, and tie, and used my normal pronunciation as a college-educated native of New Jersey.”

He was pretending to be a shopper and his study subjects were employees at three department stores in Manhattan. The method was extremely simple. Labov would ask where a specific department was, one that he already knew was on the fourth floor. In response, the store employee would say, “fourth floor.”

And then, to collect a second, more careful pronunciation of the same two words, Labov would lean forward and say, “Excuse me?” causing the employee to say more emphatically, “fourth floor.”

After this, Labov would hurry over to another spot where he could jot down his data on sex, race, approximate age, and especially how and whether the employee pronounced the R sounds. R-ful speech was, he knew, considered classier in New York, though R-less speech was very common. Interestingly, class was central to understanding who did and did not drop their Rs.

According to Professor Gordon, who is the author of Labov: A Guide for the Perplexed, “Labov showed that the employees at stores catering to the higher end of the class scale such as Saks pronounce their Rs more than employees at Macy's and other stores targeting the middle and lower ranges of the socioeconomic spectrum.”

Labov’s New York City study also examined New Yorkers’ attitudes toward their own speech. The result was that women from New York were more cognizant of their accents, which they loathed and—to a much greater extent than men—tried to correct. Men, by comparison, were less ambivalent about their accents.

When it came to the R sound (and other variables including the G sound at the end of –ing suffixes, and the substitution of the D consonant for TH in words like "the"), women actually over-reported their own use of the more prestigious pronunciation. When they read a passage aloud, women corrected their own speech to reflect such preferred pronunciations at a greater rate than men did. Women also expressed more anxiety about others noticing their New York City accents. Women were overall more sensitive to and self-conscious about newly prestigious sounds in their native speech.

Of course, when we speak unselfconsciously, we all drop some Rs and some Gs. And there is something to be said for a more casual approach to speaking. I personally find it much easier to say what’s on my mind if I don’t think about pronunciation. But then again, I’m just a man, in a world where men take their privilege for granted and women go around accusing themselves of not sounding serious.

In reality, ladies, your speech is something to be admired. It’s not all “like” and “um.” It’s more prim and proper than that, and it is worth studying and respecting. And, perhaps to your surprise, it needs far less correcting than it gets.