“Gender and Sociolinguistic Variation” by Penelope Eckert

Main Contention?

There is more to language than its referential function, instead we need to consider the social identity and revealing which comes with our communication. Language and communication is something which makes us who we are and reveals our identity. For some, they speak more standard forms whilst others use vernacular forms, however this is not accountable due to gender, instead we need to consider other factors altering how we speak.

The author is suggesting that we need to look past gender as the reason for our language variation and usage of standard and non standard forms and accept other factors such as class, the topic being talked about and who they are talking to.

Penelope Eckert is arguing against the idea that language use is purely based on gender, men speak in one way and women speak in another way. For Eckert, this couldn’t be any more wrong. “We clearly cannot talk about gender independently” surmises well her attitude that we need to look further than gender for the reasons behind our language variation. We cannot categorise that typically women use Standard English and men use vernacular, this is an unfair assumption.

Examples used by the author?

  • There is both a local based language and a suburban language in all areas. It appears that it is harder to tell where someone is from if their language is close to standard language, regardless of their gender. We tend to mix and match our use of standard and vernacular English.
  • It does appear, from the use of the standard and vernacular forms “walkin’” and “walking”, as well as “talkin’” and “talking” that women are more conservative and use the standard forms walking and talking, and it appears men are more likely to use the non standard vernacular forms.
  • Even when looking at negation in language, men are more likely to use double negatives it seems, such as “I didn’t do nothing”. We cannot disregard these findings and examples as they do suggest that conservatism for women over men is a viable argument, however we just cannot completely attach them specifically to one or the other gender.
  • Looking at Jocks, the high class socialisers and Burnouts, the working class looked down on people in America, it appears that Burnouts are typically closer to the vernacular language, whilst Jocks use more standard forms. This does not bear any relevance to their gender as both female and male findings for both Jocks and Burnouts suggest that language variable use has more to do with our social grouping. This investigation was conducted by looking at the phonological variant sounds [ae], [uh] and [ay].

We need to consider all three factors of gender interaction, social category local orientation in regards to phonological variation.

What Theorists are commented on?

In Eckert’s piece she refers to a few Theorists and how they support her own findings and work.

  • The work of LABOV is commented on and in particular the study of Martha’s Vineyard. Martha’s Vineyard looked at a fishing community who stuck close to the local vernacular English form as they were more of tradition. By looking at Labov’s work, Eckert is saying that vernacular language can be associated with local issues not just the place. The fishermen stuck close to their vernacular language as they were proud of it and didn’t want it to be infected with the more standard form which the tourists spoke who came to the Island close of Massachusetts. The vernacular form was used more readily as people were proud of it and wanted to show the “stuck up” tourists who they were.


Eckert refers to this in her piece, tying to show that we stick close to our local language as we want to be ourselves and be original, rather than be forced by an oppressing standard form. This happens regardless of our gender.


  • Boltanski and Bourdieu’s work developed by Sankoff and Laberge is also shown in Eckert’s work as she support their belief that what is right to use depends on the market you are in. If your non standard vernacular language suits the work you do and the environment you are in, you will be more inclined to use it as it serves your language needs and people understand it. This again bears no reference to your gender. Just because you are a women, it doesn’t mean you will then shy from vernacular forms, you will use the best form of Language which suits your conditioning.

There would be no point in particularly using standard forms for the sake of it if the people around you are using vernacular English.


  • Peter Trudgill is also mentioned and goes against what Eckert is saying as Trudgill states that in Norwich; generally women did use a more conservative form of language. However he feels this is because women tended to be outside the rest of society and generally didn’t work, whilst men were at work, subject to greater language variation. Women tended to stay in the confinement of their homes in the day and didn’t mix as much as the men did and therefore as a result used a more standard form of language. This is a viable reason as to how gender may be linked with language variation, but it shows the reasoning that because men tend to be the breadwinners of a family and go to work more so than women, they pick up a vernacular English form as they hear it more often.



  • The Belten High School study, that social stand reflects our use of standard and non standard grammar reflects our language use can also be referred to the work of Jenny Cheshire. Jenny Cheshire said that our aim in life and our interest reflects our use of standard and non standard forms. Those boys and girls who had more inspiration and drive to get somewhere used a standard form of grammar whilst those who were less inspirational and more likely to live in one place for the rest of their life were likely to use stronger vernacular forms of language.


This is what is reflected in Eckert’s study of Jocks and Burnouts. The Jocks want to have popularity; they try to achieve a good reputation whilst the Burnout are less bothered about such issues. However, Jenny Cheshire’s work does disagree slightly with Eckert’s. Jenny Cheshire said it was those who wanted to talk about makeup, about trivial issues and fighting that were the non inspirational people. However from Eckert’s work, it is those who want to talk about such issues who use the better standard form of English which suggests they may get somewhere in their life.


Important Quotations

  • “there is an apparent relation between gender, social category and urban- suburban orientation”

We need to consider the alternative factors to gender being the pure reason as to why we interact and use language differently. Social positioning and where we live and grow up in hold a large influence on how we talk. More so than gender alone. Eckert is trying to have us realise that there is a bigger picture, we cannot just assume gender to be the only factor influencing our use of standard and vernacular language forms but as the coordinating clause “and urban-suburban orientation” shows we have to look at where people live.

  • “We clearly cannot talk about gender independently”

As I have said above, Eckert then reiterated her point in her conclusion paragraph and said that we have to look further than gender. As the adverb of emphasis “clearly” suggests, we must begin to look at the bigger picture and see that gender is not “independently” the only factor influencing our standard/non standard grammar. Using the first person inclusive plural pronoun “We” groups all people together to believe that none of us can really say that gender is the only reason we all talk differently.

  • “But women are vernacular speakers as well”

This coordinating clause is emphasising that men can speak Standard English and they can speak well and speak with true grammar forms. It is not just women who use a standard form of grammar, highlighting that there is definitely more to our language use than our gender.

  • “has led many researchers to treat gender as secondary”

Findings of many researchers, including the work of Labov, Trudgill and Cheshire makes it seem that for sure there are reasons other than gender as to why we need to accept standard and non standard forms.

  • “women’s usage is considerably more standard”

The adverb of degree “considerably” highlights how far women are aware of their language and how far they go to ensuring they use true English forms.

  • “women are status conscious or polite, men are rough and down-to-earth”

This shows us that there is certainly a difference between male and female interaction. The use of the descriptive adjectives “conscious” and “polite” describes women well whilst men are described as “rough” and “down-to-earth”. The adjectives are complete opposites and provide a clash in description. It suggests women do mind how they are perceived and because of that are very aware of the English they are using, whilst it seems men are not bothered how people look at them.


I do agree with Eckert and I feel she is right to say that language variation is not just because of our gender. Instead it appears that we are divided over our language use by social groupings since both men and women can talk in a certain way and can adopt vernacular or standard forms dependent from where they come from.

Evidence supporting the author would include that of Bernstein who says that there is an elaborated code and a restricted code. We can flip between either codes and no code is ever specific to one gender and instead we can use either depending on our conditioning and context. As Eckert is trying to say, neither one gender talks in a certain way, instead we need to appreciate that language is a lot more flexible, from time to time we may adopt vernacular or standard forms, they are there for us to choose regardless of gender.

However Bernstein does say that the codes can be chosen by anyone of different classes. Class does not restrict how we talk, therefore, as Eckert did mention, maybe we should base our language form on the context of the conversation, not gender and maybe not even our social classification.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s