Language is one of the fundamental tools we use to navigate the world, but we often don’t think about all the minute nuances that make up our experience in language. The field of linguistics helps bring attention to the variety of small aspects of language and their interactions that underlie our everyday conversations. 

Linguistics research often focuses on how language is used differently by people of different demographics and intersectionalities. One class at U of T that helps bring attention to the gendering of language use is JAL355H1 — Language and Gender, a joint anthropology and linguistics course. 

JAL355H1 spotlights the ways gender affects our experiences of language and how the usage of language is gendered in society. Among discussions about gender and language, two topics from JAL355H1 that exemplify the kind of issues the course addresses are the study of interruptions and the structure of interactions in a conversation. 

How interruptions work in language

In a conversation, when one person speaks, they provide places where it is appropriate for other speakers to join the conversation, called “transition relevant places.” Transition relevant places are points in the conversation at which it feels natural to change speakers — such as at the end of a sentence. 

When someone begins to speak at a transition ‘irrelevant’ place, linguists call this overlap. One type of overlap is cooperative overlap — when a person in the conversation interjects short affirmative words like “yep” or “uh-huh” that don’t change the flow of the conversation. The other type of overlap is interruption. Interruption is a hijacking of the conversation at a non-transition relevant place, which diverts the conversation to the interrupting speaker. 

The gendering of interruption in research about language is conflicted in scientific literature. Some early research by linguists Don H. Zimmerman and Candace West in 1975 found that interruptions occurred more in men’s conversations with women than in conversations with other combinations of genders. More specifically, men interrupted conversations with women more often than with men.

However, in the 1990s, other linguists found differing or inconclusive results, with the effect of interruptions changing due to factors such as setting or the social positions of the conversation participants. Essentially, participants thought of interruptions differently if they were in a business meeting or a conversation among friends. 

Specifically, when linguists Kristin J. Anderson and Campbell Leaper were reviewing studies on the effects of gender on interruptions, they found these gendered effects were greater in more intrusive interruptions, as in those that were the most successful at commandeering the conversation, compared to non-intrusive interruptions. 

Gender affects what we hear

We’ve all heard about how women or gender-diverse people might present an idea in a meeting to receive no acknowledgment, but the second a man says the same idea, the room celebrates it. Linguistics can explain this using a part of speech act theory, which breaks an utterance down into three components: locutionary, illocutionary, and perlocutionary acts. 

A locutionary act refers to the exact words of a statement — essentially, what you said. An illocutionary act is what you meant by the statement, or what action you wanted to compel from the listener. Together, locutionary and illocutionary acts form “uptake,” which is your ability to get your point across.  

A perlocutionary act is what the listener thought you meant, and it determines whether you were successful in getting your message across. Specifically, perlocutionary acts determine “discourse updating,” which constitutes the conversation being redirected to include the new information from the statement. 

For example, if I tell my dog “sit” — a locutionary act, I mean for him to sit, which is an illocutionary act, and if he listens to me and sits, he understands my meaning and performs the requested action, demonstrating a perlocutionary act.  

Uptake and discourse updating can both be affected by gender. Uptake can sometimes depend on the listeners’ perceptions of what the speaker is saying in the conversation. Listeners’ perceptions are also based on the genders of the participants, which means the conversation is filtered through the listener’s own biases about gender

Discourse updating can also be affected by gender; if listeners in the conversation do not take the speech of women, gender-diverse people, or other minoritized speakers as equally valuable as men, then the conversation may not be updated to include ideas or statements coming from those women, gender-diverse people, or otherwise minoritized speakers. 

Gender acutely and directly affects how we hear and are heard by the world around us. Linguistics and courses like JAL355H1 can help decipher the numerous interactions that make up our everyday lives and unpick the systems of language that surround us. Further, looking at linguistic phenomena such as interruptions or speech act theory can help us understand how we interact in conversations and describe problems we might face, continuing to show how we navigate the world using the fundamental tool of language.