Gender and Language Change:

The Case of Early Modern Women


By Suzanne Grégoire

© 2006


…whatever the particular sources of the change, and whether they are regarded as vernacular or prestige innovations, women play an important role in establishing changes as components of the standard language.

-Janet Holmes, 1997 (qtd. in Nevalainen & Brunberg 110)


1.   Introduction

Sociolinguistic studies have long observed that women use more forms of standard language than men, so much so that the stereotype of women’s hypercorrect language has emerged as somewhat of a universal principle in the field. By extension, sociolinguists have also recognized women’s important role in the initiation and dissemination of language change. Earlier studies identified women as the leaders of linguistic changes that that spread from above the level of public consciousness and involved new prestige forms emanating from the upper ranks of the social strata. In contrast, men were found to lead changes in vernacular forms spreading below the level of public awareness. However, recent studies have shown that women’s role in language change is more complicated. William Labov’s theory of the gender paradox asserts that while women adopt prestige forms of language proceeding from the upper ranks and from above the level of public consciousness at a higher rate than men, they also use higher frequencies of innovative vernacular forms occurring below the level of public awareness than men do (Labov 1990:213-15).


How have sociolinguists arrived at these theories about women’s central role in language change, and further, can they be applied to a historical study of the role played by women in the standardization of the English language during the early modern period? Section 1 will introduce the subject of gender and language variation, while section 2 will outline the major sociolinguistic paradigms of gender and language change. Section 3 will then consider the application of these modern sociolinguistic “universals” to specific language changes taking place during the early modern period.


1.2   Gender as a Sociolinguistic Variable

In the 1960s, sociolinguists began to do research on gender and sex and its relationship to language. Specifically, these studies have mostly centered around the differences in speech behaviour of men and women at the phonological level, and the conversational styles of men and women in discourse. Studies of gender-specific variation are diverse and often contradictory, depending on such factors as researchers’ assumptions about sex and gender, the methodology, and the samples used. Eckert and McConnell-Ginet have summed up the varied positions in stating:

women’s language has been said to reflect their…conservativism, prestige consciousness, upward mobility, insecurity, deference, nurture, emotional expressivity, connectedness, sensitivity to others, solidarity. And men’s language is heard as evincing their toughness, lack of affect, competitiveness, independence, competence, hierarchy, control. (qtd. in Wodak & Benke 127)

However, despite divergent claims, gender variation has emerged as a major field of sociolinguistic study.


1.3.1   Gender and Linguistic Change

An important consequence of gender differentiation in language is linguistic change. Aspects of linguistic variability are of interest to sociolinguists who attempt to chart how the language used by individuals and groups in various social situations can vary in patterned ways. Language variation serves to distinguish the speech of different social groups (social variation), as well as the speech of an individual in different contexts (stylistic variation). Over time, these variations may lead to language change, which occurs when a new linguistic form, used by a particular sub-section of a speech community, is adopted by other members of the community and accepted as the norm. Sociolinguists now recognize that not only linguistic variation between social groups, but also gender differences in speech play an important role in the promulgation of language change.


1.3.2  Early Assumptions

Early dialectologists were among the first to recognize that gender plays a role in language innovation. Dialectologists were often trying to record a rural dialect before it died out, and were thus aware that linguistic changes were taking place; their observations about the social origins of these changes are interesting with regards to gender. For example, in 1946 August Brun, a specialist in the Provençal dialect, observed that older members of the community over fifty spoke mainly Provençal, as did younger men, but women under forty-five spoke mainly French. He claimed that because younger women did not speak Provençal with their children, the dialect was disappearing (Coates 172). Brun suggested that women play a crucial role by adopting language change and using it to bring up the next generation. Gauchat’s 1905 study of the dialect of Charmey, a remote village in Switzerland, drew similar conclusions: younger members of the village were beginning to use newer phonetic variants, and further, among the younger generation, women used the newer forms more frequently. Gauchat argued that women’s innovativeness was driving the changes (“women welcome every linguistic novelty with open arms”) and that the changes were propagated by women in their role as mothers (qtd. in Coates 173). The examples from dialectology reveal that women have long been represented as initiators of linguistic change. However, contemporary sociolinguistics has shown that this is an overly simplistic scenario – some innovations are clearly associated with men rather than women.


2.   Sociolinguistic Methodology


2.1.1   The Standard Paradigm

Early sociolinguistic research was primarily concerned with social class differences, but recent studies have addressed other social variables such as ethnic group, age and gender to assess their role in language variation. However, classic quantitative studies examined the relationship between linguistic variation and social class and revealed clear social stratification in language, giving rise to the related concepts of prestige and stigma. Prestige is associated with the language used by the social group from the highest standing. Members of a given speech community will collectively acknowledge that a particular variety – the standard dialect – is more ‘correct’ than others. Stigma is conversely associated with non-standard forms, and may be overt, (e.g. ‘dropping’ initial /h/) or it may be beneath the level of public consciousness. Non-standard varieties are often referred to as the vernacular (Coates 47).


2.1.2   Stable Linguistic Variables

The classic pattern of social stratification in language is one in which the upper middle class (UMC) uses the highest proportion of prestige variants, and the lower working class (LWC) uses the least. Further, each social class group is revealed to use a higher proportion of prestige forms in formal speech and a lower proportion of prestige forms in informal speech. In this type of model, social stratification is maintained, such that proportional usage of the prestige form appears in a clearly demarcated and descending order from UMC to LWC. This regular pattern is typical of a stable social variable, that is, a linguistic variable not involved in change (Coates 50).


2.1.3   Linguistic Variables Undergoing Change

In the case of linguistic variables undergoing change, a different pattern emerges: studies have shown that the lower middle class (LMC) uses more prestige forms in formal speech than any other group, scoring even higher than the UMC. However, in less formal styles the LMC uses less of the prestige variant. This behaviour on the part of the LMC is known as hypercorrection, and seems to result from the sensitivity of the LMC to social pressures: their insecurity, caused by their position on the borderline between the middle and working classes, is reflected in their concern with speaking ‘correctly’. When a linguistic variable is undergoing a process of change, the LMC is hypersensitive to the new prestige variant, and makes a conscious effort to use it more in formal situations (i.e. when paying more attention to speech) than any other class (Wodak & Benke 133; Coates 51).


2.2   The Sex/Prestige Pattern

In the case of gender, it has been established that in many speech communities female speakers will use a higher proportion of prestige forms than male speakers. Women tend to use fewer stigmatized forms than men, and in formal speech they are more sensitive to prestige language than men. In the case of linguistic variables in the process of change, it appears that LMC women are particularly sensitive to new prestige variants, and exhibit an even greater degree of hypercorrection than displayed by the LMC generally. This phenomenon is referred to as the “Sex/Prestige Pattern” (Coates 53-4; Wodak & Benke 133).


2.3.1   The Labovian Tradition

The Sex/Prestige pattern is most famously explored by William Labov in his studies of New York City and Martha’s Vineyard. In New York, Labov found that men’s pronunciation varied very little between formal and less formal speech, while women’s pronunciation varied a great deal. Female speakers displayed a greater degree of style-shifting, and moreover, women were using new advanced forms in casual speech, and thus initiating change (Coates 175). However, in Martha’s Vineyard Labov discovered a different pattern: men, not women, were initiating change. Labov examined changes in dipthongs (/aw/ as in house and /ay/ as in white were becoming raised and centralized). He concluded that there was no conscious awareness among the islanders that these sounds were shifting, since he found no variation between different styles of speech (i.e. individuals did not vary their pronunciation depending on the context). Labov found that the centralized dipthongs were used mostly by men (specifically fishermen) aged 31-45, and that the dipthongs were in fact a reversion to older and more conservative phonological forms. Labov argued that the dipthongs were used by fishermen as a sign of solidarity: use of the variants symbolized identification with the island and its values, and a rejection of the new incoming summer visitors (Coates 175).


2.3.2   ‘Change from above’ vs. ‘Change from Below’

In order to resolve his findings that both men and women initiate linguistic change, Labov made the distinction between conscious and unconscious change, or what he termed ‘change from above’ and ‘change from below.’ In keeping with the Sex/Prestige pattern, he argued that women lead changes that come from above the level of social awareness, and involve the new prestige forms of higher-ranked social groups, whereas men initiate changes which spread from below the level of social awareness, and away from the accepted norms towards the vernacular.


In Martha’s Vineyard the change in pronunciation was taking place below the level of social awareness and was led by men responding to covert pressure from their peers. Labov terms this phenomenon “covert prestige”: working-class men were adopting nonstandard variants which served as “solidarity markers” to emphasize certain group values such as “masculinity” (Wodak & Benke 135). On the other hand, women in New York were using a higher degree of prestige variants imposed from above.


Women’s greater use of prestige language has been differently explained by sociolinguists, either in terms of economic and social factors, or for reasons of status and power. Social and economic explanations look at social networks and ‘market forces’ and compare the exposure of men and women to standard speech forms. It has been suggested that working class women may be more exposed to standard speech at work and have more incentive to modify their speech than men. Alternatively, the “power and dominance approach” suggests that because women are generally granted less status and power than men, they attempt to secure or signal their social status linguistically by using prestige language forms (Nevalainen & Raumolin-Brunberg 111; Wodak & Benke 135-40).


2.3.3   The Gender Paradox

However, as more research became available, these conclusions have proved less straightforward. Many sociolinguists argue that all social classes can be innovative, and women’s influence cannot be limited to conscious processes alone (Nevalainen & Raumolin-Brunberg 111). In an influential paper (Labov 1990), Labov qualified his original argument to suggest that gender differentiation is independent of social class at the beginning of a change, but that interaction develops as social awareness of the change increases. He formulates two basic principles: 1. in linguistic change from above, women adopt prestige forms at a higher rate than men; 2. in linguistic change from below, women use higher frequencies of innovative forms than men do (Nevalainen & Raumolin-Brunberg 111). These two principles show contrasting tendencies in the way men and women advance linguistic change. Labov calls it the gender paradox: “women conform more closely than men to sociolinguistic norms that are overtly prescribed, but conform less than men when they are not” (Labov 2001: 293; Nevalainen & Raumolin-Brunberg 112).


Generally speaking, these two principles suggest that women are more active in promoting linguistic change. Most research agrees that women play an important part in supralocalization, i.e., “the spread of a linguistic feature from its region of origin to neighbouring areas” (Nevalainen & Raumolin-Brunberg 112). Strictly localized linguistic features tend to be preferred by males, whereas variants used by females often gain supralocal status.


3.   Gender and Language Change in the Early Modern Period


3.1   Historical Sociolinguistics and Gender

Sociolinguistic research has produced strong evidence for the influential role of women in language variation and change in present-day speech communities, however, the role of women in the historical development of the English language is less clear. Recently, historical sociolinguists have sought to assess the extent to which modern sociolinguistic “universals” about gender and language change hold true in a historical context. To what degree does the “Sex/Prestige” pattern or the “Gender Paradox” apply to earlier English? Were localized forms preferred by men in the early modern period the same way they tend to be today? Also, were high-frequency variants preferred by women, and do these become supralocal? Did women promote standard speech forms earlier than men?


3.2.1   The Corpus of Early English Correspondence (CEEC)

Historical studies of women’s role in language change have been conducted by Terttu Nevalainen and Helena Raumolin-Brunberg, who in 1993, along with the Sociolinguistics and Language History team at the University of Helsinki, compiled an electronic collection of personal letters, the Corpus of Early English Correspondence (CEEC). The corpus covers the period between 1417-1681 and contains 6,000 letters written by nearly 800 individuals (Nevalainen & Raumolin-Brunberg 9). Through data drawn from the corpus, Nevalainen and Raumolin-Brunberg examine the supralocalization of a number of grammatical features that became part of Standard English during the period. Their study addresses the role of multiple social variables in language change, one of which is gender.


3.2.2   Advantages & Disadvantages

Nevalainen and Raumolin-Brunberg stress that this kind of historical study provides the rare advantage of being able to study the process of language change in real time (i.e. a diachronic study across time) as opposed to modern sociolinguistic studies which must analyze present-day data in apparent time, (i.e. a synchronic study of “differences in usage by successive generations of speakers”) (Nevalainen & Raumolin-Brunberg 27). Nevertheless, the study does present some challenges. In attempting to assess the degree to which women instigated and spread language change, women’s different social roles must be considered. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, women’s social position and access to the public domain was often severely restricted. Most challenging to the study is women’s lack of education; the average level of female literacy, and of writing in particular, was extremely low. This inequality is clearly reflected in the corpus: women represent only 20 per cent of the total letters, and the vast majority are from the upper social ranks, the nobility, and the gentry (115). However, the CEEC data does provide the opportunity to test the theory of gender advantage in language changes that spread throughout the country during the period.


3.3.1   The Results

Within the study, fourteen changes are analyzed and the general pattern that emerges is one in which women are found to lead the process of linguistic change in the majority of cases. In 8 out of 14 examples, women adopt new language variants earlier than men and in 3 cases an initial male advantage switches to female advantage; however, in 3 particular cases men score ahead of women. Three changes led by women are discussed below: the generalization of the object pronoun form you in the subject function, the diffusion of the short possessive determiners my and thy, and the diffusion of the third-person singular suffix -(e)s. In contrast, one change led by men is also provided: the replacement of multiple negation with single negation.


3.3.2   Women Ahead of Men:


Replacement of Subject ye by you

Until the later sixteenth century, the role of the second person plural pronoun was shared by you and ye, with ye in the subject form, and you in the object form (e.g. King James Bible: “Ye have not chosen me; I have chosen you”). During the sixteenth century, the case distinction breaks down, and ye is subsumed by the object form you. Nevalainen and Raumolin-Brunberg’s data show that the fairly rapid decline of ye is markedly and consistently promoted by women from the early sixteenth century onwards (Nevalainen & Raumolin-Brunberg 118-19). However, Nevalainen and Raumolin-Brunberg also indicate that you ‘spread from below’ the level of public consciousness as a vernacular form. The origins of the change are intriguing, as they do not fit into the Sex/Prestige theory that women self-consciously adopt of changes ‘from above’.


My and Thy

A gender advantage also appears in the dissemination of the short possessive determiners my and thy which replace mine and thine. However, in contrast with the spread of ye, the difference between male and female usage of my and thy is less stark, which may be explained by the fact that the change progresses from the lower social ranks, which are overwhelmingly represented in the data by men, especially for the period in which this change takes place (Nevalainen & Raumolin-Brunberg 119-20). Within their own group, upper-ranking women consistently spread the form as it arrived.


Third-person singular suffix -(e)s versus -(e)th

The early modern period witnesses the generalization of the third-person singular present-tense suffix -(e)s (e.g. hath vs. has). This is a long process, beginning as early as the tenth century when -s is first introduced, and ending with the most resistant forms, hath and doth in Late Modern English. The data reveals a clear gender differentiation by the sixteenth century, with women leading the change (Nevalainen & Raumolin-Brunberg 122-24). Nevalainen and Raumolin-Brunberg point out that although they are using the same sample of individuals, the change for -s is less striking than with the subject you. The reason may be the difference in the social orientation of the two processes. Unlike you which spread from the higher and middle ranks, -s spread from the lower literate ranks towards the middle and upper ranks. One of the significant characteristics of the two suffixes is that they became associated with register differences in the evolving standard language: -(e)th with formal and literate styles, and -(e)s with informal and oral language. So for example the dental fricative -th was retained in the Authorized Version of the Bible and the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. The rise of -s is coming both from the lower ranks, and from informal speech, however, it is interesting to observe that it is nevertheless being spread by women.


3.3.3   Men Ahead of Women:


Decline of multiple negation

One instance of a change that is consistently promoted by men is the disappearance of multiple negation (e.g. “I’l never be so lasie no more but rise by five a cloke rather than mise wrighting any more” 1677, Mary Stuart) (Nevalainen 2000: 50). By 1600 the change was completed for men, but only nearing so for women. The process was socially stratified and was led by professional men, and especially social aspirers. It was also a change from above the level of social awareness. A gender difference also persisted within the upper ranks, where upper-rank men used multiple negation significantly less than upper-rank women. As Nevalainen and Raumolin-Brunberg observe, this presents an interesting difference from current linguistic practice: in present-day speech communities where multiple negation is found, it is more sharply stratifying for women than for men, and in all social classes women use it less than men (Nevalainen & Raumolin-Brunberg 128-29). They suggest that “when multiple negation became a stable social variable in the late modern period, a switch in its gender affiliation must have taken place resulting in the Sex/Prestige pattern we know today” (129).


3.4   Conclusion

Nevalainen and Raumolin-Brunberg’s findings agree with other sociolinguistic studies that have maintained that women are instrumental in language change. However, some major differences with contemporary sociolinguistic studies also emerge. The data suggest that in the early modern period women lead language change regardless of the social origins of the process. Some of the changes observed, such as the spread of my and thy and the third-person singular -s, progress from the lower literate end of the social hierarchy, rather than from the higher ranks. In these instances, the gentle and noblewomen in their data must have been among the first to adopt these forms and spread them within their own class. Nevalainen and Raumolin-Brunberg propose that these findings could suggest that gender was a more decisive influence on language change than social class (Nevalainen & Raumolin-Brunberg 131).


In cases where the change seems to have occurred below the level of social awareness, as with the word you, women also lead the change, in contradiction with the Sex/Prestige pattern. However, when the change proceeds from above the level of social awareness, as in the instance of multiple negation, the process was systematically led by men in the upper and middle sections of society. This indicates the most significant difference between the early modern period and the present: early modern Englishwomen did not promote language changes that originated from the worlds of learning and professional use, which were beyond their access. The contemporary sociolinguistic commonplace about women’s hypercorrect language has emerged as a universal principle, such that Richard Hudson has stated:

In any society where males and females have equal access to the standard form, females use standard variants of any stable variable which is socially stratified for both sexes more often than males do. (qtd. in Nevalainen 2002: 186)

Hudson’s qualification is significant: “where males and females have equal access to the standard form,” women use more prestige forms. However, in the early modern period, women’s access to learning and to the professional world from which prestige forms were emanating was severely limited. The Sex/Prestige pattern is thus a contemporary theory which reflects women’s greater access to education. Women today may use more forms of standard language, but this was not necessarily the case in the early modern period. Nevertheless, women were still leading the way in language changes emerging from outside of professional and public institutions.










Bibliography and Further Reading


Language and Gender


James, Deborah, “Women, men and prestige speech forms: a critical review.” Victoria L.

            Bergvall, Janet M. Bing & Alice F. Freed, eds. Rethinking Language and Gender

Research: Theory and Practice Freed. London & New York: Longman, 1996, 98-



Coates, Jennifer, ed. Language and Gender. Oxford: Blackwell, 1998.


------. Women, Men and Language: a Sociolinguistic Account of Gender Differences In

Language. 3rd Edition. London & New York: Longman, 2004.


Eckert, Penelope. “The whole woman: sex and gender differences in variation.”

Language Variation and Change 1 (1989), 245-267.


------. Linguistic Variation and Social Practice. Oxford: Blackwell, 2000.


Labov, William. “The intersection of sex and social class in the course of linguistic

            change.” Language Variation and Change 2 (1990), 205-254.


 ------. Principles of Linguistic Change. Volume 2: Social Factors. Oxford, UK &

Cambridge, USA: Blackwell, 2001.


Milroy, James & Milroy, Lesley. “Mechanisms of Change in Urban Dialects: The Role of

Class, Social Network and Gender.” International Journal of Applied Linguistics

3, no. 1 (1993), 57-77. 


Wodak, Ruth & Benke, Gertrude. “Gender as a Sociolinguistic Variable: New

Perspectives on Variation Studies.” Florian Coulmas, ed. The Handbook of

Sociolinguistics. Oxford: Blackwell, 1997, 127-150.


Early Modern Women and Language Change


Nevalainen, Terttu. “Gender Differences in the Evolution of Standard English: Evidence

from the Corpus of Early English Correspondence,Journal of English

Linguistics 28, 1 (2000), 38-59.


------. “Language and Woman’s Place in Earlier English.” Journal of English Linguistics

30, 2 (2002), 181-199.


Nevalainen, Terttu & Raumolin-Brunberg, Helena. Historical Sociolinguistics: Language

Change in Tudor and Stuart England. London: Pearson Education Ltd., 2003.