Robin Lakoff

Robin Lakoff was born in 1942, she was a professor of linguists at the University of California, and her most famous work was the subject of women’s language where she believed women’s speech can be distinguished in certain features. Lakoff wrote various books such as ‘The logic of politeness’s in 1973 which Lakoff argued governs conversations, she devised the ‘politeness principle’ in 3 maxims

  1. Don’t impose
  2. Give options and
  3. Make your receiver feel good


Other areas of interest that she studied were ‘The ranking of power’ in 1990,’ Language war’ in 2000, ‘What you can do with word’s’ in 1977. ‘Father knows best’ in 1993 and Taking power in 1990.

I found the main area of interest in the work that Lakoff was most famous for, her theories on gender discrimination through language.  Lakoff was one of the first serious linguists to look into the social implications of the differences in men and women’s use of speech. She analysed the links between language, gender and power in her novel ‘Language and women’s place’, where she questions who holds the power and how they use it. Lakoff argued that language is fundamental to gender inequality and it could contribute to the lack of women’s power in two areas- Language used about women and the language used by women.  Lakoff claimed that there were certain features of women’s language that gave the impression women are weaker and less certain than men are. Women’s language was distinguished in a number of ways including

  1. Hedging- uncertainty and lack of authority e.g. ‘sort of’
  2. Super polite forms – ‘If you don’t mine please may you..’
  3. Hypercorrect grammar and pronunciation- e.g. women avoid ‘ain’t’ or double negatives
  4. Tag questions – show that women want approval from their utterances e.g. ‘I’m coming with you, all right?’
  5. Speaking in italics – women use exaggerated intonation or stress for emphasis, expresses uncertainty e.g. ‘I am very frustrated with you’ 
  6. Empty adjectives approval- Lakoff claims that if a man uses these terms he appears more feminine as it damages his masculine prestige e.g. ‘divine, lovely, adorable, delightful and sweetie’
  7. Use of implication- Lakoff claimed women use this because they do not feel the authority to give orders e.g. ‘it’s cold in here, isn’t it’ instead of ‘shut the window’
  8. Special lexicon- Lakoff states that such words are trivial and evidence of the fact that women have been allowed control over unimportant things e.g. purple of blue women would say ‘lilac’ or ‘violet’
  9. Question intonations in declarative statements- women raise the pitch of their voice at the end of statements expressing uncertainty e.g. ‘Dinner’s in half an hour?’

10.  Sense of humour lacking- Lakoff argued that women don’t joke as much or understand jokes.

11.  Speak less frequently – men speak more often than women, proves women to be less certain of themselves.

12.  Indirect speech- ‘Wow, I’m so thirsty’ instead of asking for a drink.

13.  Avoid coarse language of expletives

14.  Apologies- ‘I’m sorry, but I think that… ’


The study between language and gender caused many debates and research. Linguists argue that the differences are universal, inherent, biologically determined or even leaned behaviourists. Lakoff’s interest in the features and characteristics of men and women’s language made her look into the social implications of speech in her book. In this she analysed and explained the variation of speech and gender, in which her theory questioned whether language contributed to women’s status in Western Europe and their lack of power. Robin argued that women’s language is polite and gives the impression that women are weaker and less certain than men, justifying the treatment of women as having low status and men’s treatment towards women.

I tested Lakoff’s theory by recording a conversation between a man and women and analysed the differences in the way they spoke, she states that there are certain features which men and women use separately which show gender inequality e.g. the way women use super polite forms such as ‘Would you mind’.  I tested whether she was correct that there are differences in men and women’s speech and if so does that contribute to women’s lack of power. My hypothesis was that there is no syntactic rule in English that only women may use and that her theory can’t apply to society today. My first experiment was when I recorded a conversation between my sister and father to test Lakoff’s theory, he’d just come in from work and they were sat down at dinner.

In my conversation both the man and woman didn’t use certain features but there was a mixture response. I found that women use hedges more in my conversations e.g. when my father asks are you ok, my sister replies ‘yeah, kind of, bit tired though’, yet the male still uses hedge phrases. Both people in my recordings raised their voices in utterances when they wanted to draw attention to it. Also like Lakoff said, question intonation in declarative statements e.g. ‘you’re coming back at half twelve?’ yet this was spoken by the male character in the conversation. My sister used the only tag question in the dialogue- ‘you went to the beach, didn’t you?’ which didn’t prove that women used them more as the conversation was brief and tag questions were only used once. Neither speakers used superpolite forms, but this could be because of their close relationship, whereas if it was a more formal situation these may not have been used more often, nor did each spokesman use hypercorrect grammar or empty adjectives. I used another testing of my aunt and uncle in a conversation, I found the male speaker using more italics and frequent use of implication e.g. ‘I’m really hungry’ and the majority of jokes came for from the female speaker.

I found that Lakoff’s theory couldn’t argue that women use certain features in language, in society today people are from different places, different ages and are in different situations therefore speak in a dissimilar way applying to these factors and it can’t necessarily be tested through one conversation between a male and female. Like my hypothesis stated, my research found that there is no rule in English that only women use more often, yet there are certain features which allow speakers to appear less assertive and lack confidence. I believe that language can contribute to lack of power and status in society, O’ Barr and Atkins  were linguists who questioned Lakoff’s theory’s and believed that speech behaviour can be a reflection of social status yet I don’t believe that all characteristics Lakoff claimed were features of women.






 D Ng


5 thoughts on “Robin Lakoff

  1. this article was written by a student in response to a text book explanation of Lakoff’s theories (if they can be called such) on “women’s language”

  2. thanks aggslanguage for your reply, but i still in need for the writer’s name to mention it in my research exactly as blue said,,if you know it please put it here…thanks

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