If you’re a native English speaker, then you may not ever have noticed your gender affecting the way you speak – at least, in terms of the words you use. However, this is not true across all languages. In this blog post, uTalk’s Language Guru, Brian, set out to find some languages where women in particular have a specific way of speaking and has even found a few reasons as to why that might be.
Japanese is unusual among major world languages because men and women are expected to speak differently! In Japanese women’s speech is known as onna kotoba (女言葉, “women’s words”) or joseigo (女性語, “women’s language”). A man who uses feminine speech, even grammatically correct sentences with perfect pronunciation, might be considered effeminate or homosexual. In general, the form of Japanese spoken by men, particularly in informal contexts (yes, besides gender-based language, Japanese also makes a distinction between formal and informal speech) is often perceived as rough, vulgar and abrupt, while feminine speech is considered more polite, deferential, or softer. Formal language is the same for both men and women.
Some distinctive features of women’s speech in Japanese
Women speakers use specific pronouns like atashi meaning “I” while men would use boku or ore to mean the same thing. Anata is the standard formal Japanese word for “you”, but women uniquely use this to address their boyfriends or husbands, equivalent to “dear” in English. Women might soften their sentences by ending them with particles such as wa, wa yo and wa ne. Men on the other hand, prefer the more abrupt yo, zo and ze which can sound crass and rude when used by women. Also, a common ending meaning “I wonder…” is kashira when said by women but kanaa when said by men. When speaking with friends and close relatives, a man might end his sentences with da (it is) while a woman might simply drop it. A man might say that a meal was umai while a woman might use the more formal-sounding oishii (both umai and oishii mean “delicious”).
Society and culture
These differences are completely normal in Japanese society. A learner of Japanese will encounter this while watching TV (but not from watching newsreaders or clips of politicians making speeches as formal language in Japanese is gender-neutral), in manga, video games and in the speech of characters in novels. Also, as anyone who has ever taken public transport in Japan might have noticed, public announcements made by women tend to be deliberately done at a much higher pitch than the announcers’ normal speaking voices. This is because a higher pitched voice is considered to be more feminine and gentler and thus the more formal the language, the more likely a female Japanese speaker is expected to raise the pitch of her voice!
Other parts of the world
This phenomenon is not restricted to Japanese. In Siberia, speakers of the indigenous Chukchi language also have separate men’s and women’s dialects. Very often, an R sound when used by men becomes a C or TS in the same word when pronounced by women. Hence, “to fight” is pronounced as maraw by Chukchi men and macaw by Chukchi women. “Mosquito” is mren for men and mcen for women. For “yes”, men say ee while women say ii.
In Thailand, it is considered polite to end one’s sentences with khrap (only used by men) or kha (only used by women). In Khmer, “yes” is cha when said by women and baat when said by men.
Semitic languages such as Arabic make obligatory distinctions both when talking to men and women and when talking about them. In Levantine Arabic, “You can go” is fiik truuH when said to a man and fiiki truuHi when said to a woman. “I love you” is baHibbak when speaking to a man but baHibbik when speaking to a woman.
Casual spoken Basque – a language isolate spoken in Northern Spain and Southwestern France – has special verb forms for speaking with men and women (note that these forms are only used in very informal situations and would be considered rude if used with strangers or in situations requiring one to show respect). The formal Basque sentence “Mary is young” would be “Maria gaztea da” while the same sentence when spoken casually with a close female friend would be “Maria gaztea dun”. While speaking to a close male friend, it becomes “Maria gaztea duk”.
Different language, different culture, different outlook
Speakers of European languages often struggle with languages like Japanese or Arabic that express gender distinctions in different and often mystifying ways. These distinctions are often deeply tied to the cultural norms and history of a particular country.
The truth is, just like every other aspect of language learning, these differences are part and parcel of the whole experience and learners who make an effort to use the correct forms of a language are always met with respect and deep appreciation by native speakers.