Language Variation and Change

Research Article

The whole woman: Sex and gender differences in variation

Penelope Eckerta1

a1 University of Illinois, Chicago and Institute for Research on Learning, Palo Alto


Speaker's sex has emerged as one of the most important social factors in the quantitative study of phonological variation. However, sex does not have a uniform effect on variables or even on variables that represent sound change in progress. This is because sex is not directly related to linguistic behavior but reflects complex social practice. The correlations of sex with linguistic variables are only a reflection of the effects on linguistic behavior of gender — the complex social construction of sex — and it is in this construction that one must seek explanations for such correlations. Sociolinguists generally treat sex in terms of oppositional categories (male/female), and the effects of sex on variation are generally sought in linguistic differences between male and female speakers. However, because gender differences involve differences in orientation to other social categories, the effects of gender on linguistic behavior can show up in differences within sex groupings. Data on sound changes in progress (the Northern Cities Chain Shift) among Detroit area adolescents show that gender has a variety of effects on variables and that the significance of gender in variation cannot be reduced to notions of male or female speech as “more or less conservative.”