In some cultures, females and males speak different language varieties[1].

  1. When retelling, for example, what a man said, would a female say it in the male variety or translate it into the female variety?
  2. Would a male do the same when retelling what a female said?
  3. Would behavior change depending on who is listening?
  4. Can the genders speak each other's varieties at all?

[1] I'm not sure if 'language' is the right word for this. I'm having an extremely hard time searching stackexchange or google for information about this topic, presumably because my word choice is too generic.

I don't actually have great examples, just an inkling for various things I've read in the past. My assumption is that women speak language A and men speak language B, but perhaps the distinction in practice is much less severe than I imagined. I just found the Lakota example: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lakota_language#Enclitics

Probably not the best example to try and hear differences: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3fdaG7ULqAo

The example that got me thinking about this was a language in which the women could essentially hum and still be understood. (It made the news recently because it seemed to refute Chomsky or something.)

I suppose it makes sense for men to learn the women language from their mothers? At what point do boys start to use male words and grammar, or are they constantly corrected to speak that way? (if that is indeed real and not a faulty assumption on my part).

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    Two things: You wrote an asterisk in the first line, was there supposed to be a note? And also, the last question is different from the overall subject. I'd suggest you to remove it from here and ask a separate question.
    – Alenanno
    Commented Mar 31, 2012 at 18:45
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    Well, I'm talking about two different situations. (1) In Japanese, there are male and female variants of the same language. Everyone understands and can use both variants, but in practice people do use the gender-appropriate one most of the time. (2) In some communities that speak a minority language, men are more likely than women to learn the majority language. For instance, for many years, women who spoke K'ichee' tended to be monolingual, and K'ichee'-speaking men tended to learn at least a bit of Spanish. (This is less true now; today, almost all K'ichee'-speakers are bilingual.) Commented Mar 31, 2012 at 23:19
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    The example that you are thinking of that's been in the news recently is Pirahã, which apparently has such complex and distinctive prosody (tone, stress, and intonation) that when mothers hum the language to their children, the children can apparently comprehend it. This is not the women speaking a different language to the men, or even a different variety of the same language - they're just humming the language. Commented Apr 1, 2012 at 8:59
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    Is everything after the [1] the note?
    – Alenanno
    Commented Apr 1, 2012 at 15:31
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    Garifuna is the language I was thinking of: Parts of Garifuna vocabulary are split between men's speech and women's speech, i.e. some concepts have two words to express them, one for women and one for men. Moreover, the terms used by men are generally loanwords from Carib while those used by women are Arawak. Commented Oct 15, 2013 at 16:31

3 Answers 3


A bit late, but may be useful. Several years ago, I read an interview in a celebrities' magazine to a Garifuna singer who was coming to Mexico. After the mandatory chat about his career, his success with his tour, last disc, etc. the interviewer complimented him about his near-perfect Spanish. To which he casually commented her "yeah, people always say we Garifuna are good for learning languages - I speak just as good English and French. I attribute it to the fact we're raised having to learn 2 languages". The reporter had never heard of the fact so pressed him to speak a bit more of it. I still recall some things of what he said, for that interview impacted me deeply:

  • He referred to them as 2 different languages, though from what I've read afterwards they're considered more as 2 variants of the same language - probably that's the self-perception of the Garifuna people.
  • As a child, he had been punished when he dared speak in the man's tongue. He had to use the women's for he wasn't considered a man yet
  • He was expected to switch to using only the men's language after puberty
  • A woman could use the men's tongue when speaking to her husband or when retelling something a man had said, or a man could use the women's language when speaking with his wife or a dear relative like a mother or sister. Usually, though, both sexes were expected to speak in their own language and the other side was expected to understand, and then reply in their own tongue.
  • He also mentioned in passing the pressure there was for picking up a Garifuna girl as wife, and how in the end it was a good choice to pick spouses from the community "for outside girls don't understand a lot of things about us" - perhaps this strong tendency towards endogamy reinforces the linguistic situation.

I once read there are a few other examples of sexual diglossia in the world, some other tribes in Africa and the Amazon, and they usually arise just like the Garifuna: when a bunch of men from one tribe/ethnic group pick up girls from a different one as wives, and for some reason neither group completely abandons their tongues. Some African tribes even added a 3rd language to the mix: the "warriors' language", used only by men in times of war to avoid an enemy's eavesdropper to understand a meeting on strategy or the discussions in mid-battle.


There may be several aspects of what you're asking:

  • In languages with gender-related inflections (e.g., all Slavic languages), words may conjugate not according to a speaker's gender;
  • In languages with polite particles and honorific pronouns (e.g., Thai), the speaker may use those not according to their social/gender status (comparing to listener's);
  • In languages with distinction between "high" and "street" language. For example, Thai has different words for "to eat": ทาน [tʰaːn], formal versus กิน [kin], informal;

All cases occur when the speaker uses direct speech.

Let's see what happens in each case.

As far as I know, all Slavic languages retain gender-related inflections according to the original subject, as in Russian:

  • Direct speech: она сказала: "я пошла за пивом"
    ("she said [past, fem.]: I went [past, fem.] for beer")
  • Indirect speech: она сказала, что она пошла за пивом"
    ("she said [past, fem.] that she went [past, fem.] for beer")

Polite particles
Thais often prefer shorter sentences, and the direct speech is grammatically simpler as it omits "that". However, when re-telling someone's words may lead to misunderstanding of polite particles of a social class (that the final speaker doesn't belong to). Two examples below are spoken by a make speaker re-telling female's words:

  • Direct: เธอ พูด ว่า สวัสดี คะ (she said, "hello [polite particle, fem.]")
    note here there's no masculine polite particle, so Thais often use the second way to say the same
  • Direct: เธอ พูด ครับ ว่า สวัสดี คะ (she said [polite particle, masc.], "hello [polite particle, fem.]")
  • Indirect: เธอ พูด สวัสดี ครับ (she said hello [polite particle, masc.])

Low language by high-level speakers
Usually it is prohibited to use such words for speakers of a high social class, so they use indirect speech to indicate (but not reproduce) vulgar words.

There are even examples in English. Imagine a situation when two people with high social status (and hence using "high" language among themselves) discuss someone else's rude behavior:

Can you imagine that? He said to me, "f%ck off" on an important meeting, so I never work with them anymore.

Using an indirect speech, the whole picture is different:

Can you imagine that? He was so rude to me on an important meeting, so I never work with them anymore.

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    The Slavic examples are actually a bit more complex. Sure, in direct or indirect speech, there's no problem. You simply retain the gender inflection of the subject. But it becomes more difficult in hypotheticals. Imagine a woman telling a man: "What if you had to give birth?" What inflection does she choose? Feminine or masculine? There's no single answer and in real life it leads to frequent conversational repairs. You have to decide if you treat the 'you' as generic or deictic and then prioritise the gender of the interlocutor or the real situation. Commented Feb 6, 2014 at 8:24

In my anecdotal experience, in Japanese:

1) In a retelling situation, the speaker would usually avoid gender-marked words or syntax but rather use gender-neutral equivalents.

2) same as 1).

3) Of course! Quoting literally would for instance be favored in order to produce a comical effect, and disfavored if the aim was to transmit objective informations. Also, the implication of the teller in the story would be crucial (a woman would very rarely, for instance, literally quote her husband towards a social inferior of said husband). But there is nothing mysterious in that at all: the same phenomenon is at play when someone reports the speeches of someone else with a very different social position.

4) Yes, and I would be extremely skeptical of claims that any language could have mutually non-intelligible gendered dialects, for rather elementary reasons of biology, sociology and linguistics.

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