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Paralinguistic Differences between the Sexes (“Vive la différence!”)

All languages exhibit differences between the speech of males and females, extending in differing degree across grammar, including phonetics and stylistics. In Japanese, for instance, women’s speech is markedly different from that of men, to the point that women resort to a special subset of grammatical categories when speaking (for example, the consistent use of the passive mood instead of the active that is characteristic of honorific language for both sexes).

When speaking, both men and women do other things with their bodies beside utter words: they gesticulate with their hands, raise their eyebrows, open their eye sockets beyond normal size, take sharp intakes of breath, hunch their shoulders, nod their heads up and down or side to side, etc. Among speakers of contemporary American English, the paralinguistic gap between males and females has been widening for some time: women’s speech today is accompanied by much more paralinguistic behavior than is that of men. All one need do to be convinced of this is to spend some time observing women talking––particularly to each other and without the participation of male interlocutors––preferably without their being aware of being observed.

What these various paralinguistic features mean is a difficult question to answer, although there have been numerous attempts to catalogue and analyze them in the sociolinguistic and semiotic literature (incl. whole monographs devoted to these phenomena). From the point of view of semiosis, the paralinguistic signs are iconic indexes, but it is not at all clear if there is a pattern informing the gestures that accompany speech. Some speakers clearly evince paralinguistic idiosyncrasies, i. e., movements that are peculiar either to them alone or to them as members of certain groups (like families). But overall, when it comes to American females of all ages, these movements are much more frequent, specialized, and overt in their behavior than they are in the paralinguistics of males. This is the sort of behavior that tends to confirm the cliché about women being generally more “expressive”––or even “emotional”––than men. Vive la différence!

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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