O’Barr & Atkins

William O’Barr and Bowman Atkins


Their Theory

The theorists William O’Barr and Bowman Atkins are known for developing the idea that language differences are situation-specific, relying on who has the authority and power in a conversation, rather than the gender of the people involved. This challenged the theory that Lakoff had presented, that variants in speech were due to gender, and in my opinion is much more accurate, since generalisations about gender seem to encompass too wide a variety of people to make a theory, regarding solely gender, valid. A simple example to explain their theory may be that in an interview situation, if a man were interviewing a woman, then perhaps the man would seem more assertive in the conversation, not due to his gender, but simply because he has more authority in that circumstance.

O’Barr and Atkins studied courtroom cases for 30 months, observing a broad spectrum of witnesses, and examining them for the ten basic speech differences between men and women that Lakoff proposed. These differences or “women’s language” components consisted of; hedges, empty adjectives,  super-polite forms, apologising more, speaking less frequently, avoiding coarse language or expletives, tag questions, hyper-correct grammar and punctuation, indirect requests and using tone to emphasise certain words. O’Barr and Atkins discovered that Lakoff’s proposed differences were not necessarily the result of being a woman, but of being powerless. They used three men and three women to prove this. The first man and first woman both spoke with a high frequency of “women’s language” components. The woman was a 68-year-old housewife and the man drove an ambulance, suggesting stereotypically that power and control would perhaps be lacking from their lives. Pair number 3, a doctor and policeman respectively, both testified as expert witnesses, suggesting that the power they experienced in their jobs and lives meant that they had less components of “women’s language”. Man and woman number 2 fell between the first two pairs in the frequency of hedges and tag questions in their speech, ie. “Women’s language” components.

From this study, O’Barr and Atkins concluded that the quoted speech patterns were “neither characteristic of all women, nor limited to only women”. According to the researchers, the women who used the lowest frequency of women’s language traits had an unusually high status. They were well-educated professionals with middle class backgrounds. A corresponding pattern was noted among the men who spoke with a low frequency of women’s language traits. O’Barr and Atkins tried to emphasise that a powerful position “may derive from either social standing in larger society and/or status accorded by the court”.

Following this research, another study investigated the language used by participants in legal proceedings (judges, attorneys etc). It was hypothesised that the language of judges, who hold the most power in the courtroom, would contain the least number of women’s language features, specifically “politeness”. Tape recordings from two California courtrooms were transcribed and coded. The results supported O’Barr and Atkins’ findings, but not the hypothesis proposed. It is suggested that judges, regardless of sex, use a great deal of politeness to redress the many face-threatening acts that they must perform as part of their careers. The findings indicate that future research on gender difference in language usage should move from the documentation of sex differences towards an examination of underlying social and situational factors.


My Data: A conversation between a mother and daughter about what the daughter will venture into as a career after university

M: So, what do you think you’d like to do after uni?

S: Erm (1) maybe work.. at first in a zoo or something | | before

M:                                                                                   | | Really?

S:                                                                                                   Well I’m doing zoology so I have to  do something with animals (2) If I’m changing my degree to like  | | biol (inaudible speech)

M:                                                                                                     | |I thought you were doing general | |biology

S:         | | yeah but you have honours in something(1) you have biological sciences and honours in a particular (1)

M:                | |right

S:                 | |subject area

M: And you want to do it in zoology

S: Yeah well the other ones are like pharmacology and stuff and I don’t really want to do that (2) or you can do ecology but that would mean changing course again and I don’t really want to change course to just ecology I wanna have it a bit of biology (1) so then it’s biology and then its zoology

M: Mmm do you think you might end up as a zookeeper?

S: Maybe hopefully we’ll do more fun stuff than zookeeping. I don’t | |know

M:                                                                                                          | | You think you’ll travel the travel the | |world?

S:             | | Well that’s why me and Becca want to go to Madagascar (1) so we can see the lemurs (1) but yeah. I mean obviously like we’ll have to get a little job at first.

M: Yeah

S: Like in a zoo or in an animal sanctuary or something mmm

M: You think you could work at the animal sanctuary down the road?

S: Noo cause that’s volunteer (1) mm | |I dunno

M:                                                        | | yeah but there should be some (inaudible)

S: No cause it’s like a volunteer centre

M: Yeah but they’ll have a manager

S: Yeah but (1) I don’t really want to be a manager cause that’s just (.) being a manager (.) not being an animal person (slight laughter) (2) so I dunno (.) maybe I can see if Tom will give me a job in the safari park (1) which obviously won’t happen (.) cause he’s not the manager he just works on the children’s rides

M: he doesn’t have any contact with the animals?

S: No, well he drives past them (.) then waves at them (3) but umm yeah that’s what I’m going to do


I used two women in this conversation as a way of comparing the similarities in the speech of two women on quite an equal level of power. As a conversation between a mother and daughter (my mother and sister) about the daughter’s future career, it could be expected that my mum might have slightly more power in the conversation, since as a parent she would want to influence my sister’s decision. However, it could also be argued that my sister, as the one asserting what she wants to do after university, could have the most authority in the conversation. Therefore, taking both of these ideas into account it should be expected that each person should have spoken a similar amount of “women’s language” traits.

Aside from the typical language traits of women, the conversation seems to be rife with overlapping in speech, which supports the idea that both participants are on an equal level of power, both fighting to take control of the conversation. Person S seems to dominate the conversation with her volume of speech, but person M also seems to have some control as she asks questions, so as to keep the conversation flowing in a certain direction.

The conversation seems to lack tag questions completely, which are very typical traits of “women’s language” in speech, which again suggests equal footing in the conversation. Being at a more-or-less equal level may mean that each participant doesn’t really need reassurance that the other is listening, since they just expect it of each other, due to their close relationship.

In the conversation, person S seems to hesitate much more than person M, as in ‘but umm yeah’ which perhaps suggests uncertainty on the part of person S about what to say, possibly due to the fear of person M disagreeing. On the other hand, person M seems to simply blurt out questions, without many hesitation indicators, although at the opening of the conversation, ‘so, what do you think you’d like to do after uni?’ uses many examples of hedging around the subject, with the long-winded way of asking what person S wants to do as a career. This could be due to the slightly forced nature of the conversation, in that it was being set up and recorded, but on the other hand, this slight hedging could be because of person M’s ignorance of what person S wants to do as a career, and therefore is uncertain about how to approach the subject.

Person S can also be seen to be controlling the conversation’s direction despite person M’s use of questions. The example ‘so we can see the lemurs’ is a good example of a topic shift, and when person S realises she has moved away from person M’s question, she then re-shifts the topic back by saying ‘but yeah. I mean we’ll obviously have a little job first’. This could suggest that person S has control of the conversation, shifting and re-shifting the topics, yet another interpretation could be that person S feels she has to shift the topic back again, suggesting that person M has the most power. The use of the exclusive ‘we’ involves both person S and ‘Becca’ and so suggests that perhaps person S does not want the blame for her decisions to be completely on her and therefore involves her friend in her decision to get ‘a little job first’, as a way of avoiding any direct conflict with person M. Also, the adverb of modality ‘obviously’ could be seen as an attack on person M, since S is implying that the other person would be quite ignorant to think that anything but what she is saying could happen, but I personally feel that the ‘obviously’ is a way of protecting herself, since saying this means that she cannot be questioned in what she is saying, as if again she does not want conflict.

Lakoff’s proposal that women use italics in language, ie. Tone to emphasise certain words, is supported here in participant S, who puts stress on certain words such as ‘again‘ and ‘just‘ to highlight the important parts of what she is saying. However, since Lakoff’s proposal is suggested for all women, I believe it is more proved wrong from this than right, since participant M doesn’t stress any words in the entire dialogue, possibly because she has more power in the situation.

As a whole I think the conversation seems to support O’Barr and Atkins’ theory. Although different variations of ‘powerful’ features of language may be present in each participant’s speech, it is mainly M, as a parent, who seems to have the control, in that her daughter does not want to disappoint her. This does suggest that the way people speak does depend on who has the authority in conversation, as opposed to their gender, since if all women spoke in the same way, then my sister and mother would be showing the same features of ‘women’s language components’ which just isn’t the case.

A Wright


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