The paper “A matter of style: subject variation and gender in conversational interaction” by María José Serrano and Miguel Ángel Aijón Oliva was recently presented at the Georgetown University Round Table on Linguistics (GURT 2012). It discusses some of the most recent findings on the relationship between sex/gender and linguistic variation within our research project.
Previous inquiries into language and gender have made it possible to conclude that, in general terms, linguistic usage is less conditioned by biological sexual factors than by sociological ones, and that the latter always work in conjunction with specific aspects of the communicative interaction. The notion of gender is constructed across discourse and is undetachable from contextualized practice and speaker creativity, among other factors. Therefore we consider it crucial to assume the complex and multidimensional nature of the relationship between discourse and gender as a necessary step towards its better knowledge.
Researchers should be familiar with the relevant social and ethnographic aspects of communicative performance and interaction, in order to move beyond traditional approaches based on the consideration of dialects or sociolects as discrete, static varieties, as well as on classic notions such as those of vernacular markers, linguistic loyalty, etc. As Natalie Schilling has recently stated, gender should be explained not as a given but as a way of performance.
In this paper the linguistic-communicative construction of gender is analyzed by focusing on the variable choice and expression of Spanish subject pronouns. Personal pronouns are –in most if not all languages– a powerful resource for the presentation of speakers and the shaping of their social identities. Their referents are most often human beings that constitute already-known information in discourse –otherwise they would tend to be formulated as full noun phrases–. In the case of the first and second persons, only pronominal expression is possible, which is probably due to the fact that they encode the direct participants in discourse, whose existence and identity are viewed as self-evident.
As has been observed in previous works within our project, expressed subjects should index a higher degree of subjectivity by stressing the presence of their referents in the scene and thus suggesting a more specific association of the content of utterances with them. On the other hand, subject omission would be more frequent in epistemic statements meant to be understood as general or non-contentious truths; that is, it should emphasize information and objectivity rather than argumentation and subjectivity. Such notions turn to be useful when it comes to describing and explaining formal-semantic differences between gendered ways of speaking.
The observation of the various interactional contexts reflected by the corpora under study indicates that female speech is particularly inclined to syntactic choices promoting objectivity –or, perhaps more precisely, downplaying subjectivity–, whereas the opposite tendency seems to characterize male communicative styles, which are more oriented to first-person indexation. It is somewhat more frequent for female speech to carry out a transition from the first to the second person in order to make some point. That is, women are slightly more inclined towards the indexation of their interactional partner (tú) in discourse, iconically involving him/her in the content discussed. This could be interpreted as a quantitative reflection of the collaborative or supportive orientation often attributed to female speech in gender studies. Such ways of speaking have been extensively recorded, and the notion that women tend to favor interactional co-operation over self-expression and imposition is widespread in gender studies.
However, the ultimate goal of this line of research should be to develop a theoretical basis for what might otherwise remain as a body of descriptive or even impressionistic observations. The scientific explanation of stylistic differences between gender groups will be made possible by the integration of sociolinguistic quantitative and qualitative approaches. Following this line, it is important to take into account the interactional motivations and effects of syntactic choices, and how they can be understood through the same underlying factors that motivate their statistical patterning. The cognitive meanings of linguistic choices co-exist with the social and psychological values of gender, and it is the interaction between both domains that gives rise to gendered communicative styles.