Skip menu Return to home page



Bleak Water

Night Angels

Only Darkness

Silent Playgrounds

The Last Room

Short Stories



The Forest of Souls


About me


Creative writing




Language is a given of the human race, so much so, that we take it for granted. It is part of our system for communicating, and we rarely stand back from it, take it apart and observe it closely. We don't use - or need to use - language that way. But language is more than simply a means for communication. It is one of the things that makes us human. It is one of the most important ways in which we encode our thoughts - our beliefs, our ideas and the concepts by which we live our lives. Writers and philosophers have speculated about the relationship between language and thought. Wittgenstein said "the limits of my language mean the limits of my world," and George Orwell, in Nineteen-Eighty-Four famously postulated a world in which certain thoughts and concepts would be impossible, because the language in which to conceive of these was eliminated.

But language is not thought. Language is fascinatingly complex, imprecise, irrational and in may ways illogical - blackberries are black, but strawberries are not straw; alcoholics are addicted to alcohol, but chocoholics are not addicted to chocohol, nor workoholics to workohol. We adapt language, alter language and create new language to make it meet our requirements. The problems that language might present to a computer are not problems that confront the human mind.

There is, however, a case for saying that language reflects thought. The beliefs and prejudices of a community can often be encoded in language. Twenty years ago, it was not unusual for a physically disabled person to be referred to as a 'cripple,' (with no derogatory intent) because in our society at that time, people with physical disabilities were seen in that way, and society was organised in ways that reinforced that view. It took and still takes strong action and lobbying to change such attitudes.

Similar things may happen in the way that gender differences are coded in language. Modern western society has reduced the status of women over a long period. Some feminists blame this sexist thought on sexist language. The use of the word 'man' as a generic term for people, and the prevalence of the pronoun 'he' are cited as examples of this in the way that they exclude women from the picture. However, this is not sexist language governing thought, it is sexist thought becoming encoded in language.

In Old English, the word mann meant 'person' not 'male individual'. There were several words that meant 'man' in the sense that we use it today, including wer (which comes down to us as werewolf) and guma. Words for 'woman' included wif and cwene. At one time, 'man' meant 'person.' Sexist thought turned 'person' into 'male'.

Several years ago, I did a small study of popular romantic fiction. I was interested in the ways in which men and women were presented in these very popular books. Interesting patterns of stereotype emerged: women were invariable characterised by words denoting physical weakness, lack of maturity, lack of power, lack of rationality and physical beauty; men by words denoting physical strength, maturity, power and physical beauty. The language was often structured to make men the more active and more dominant characters, and to reinforce the submissive role that these novels seemed to require of the female characters. Two aspects of the language that I looked at were the use of adjectives to describe male and female characters, and the way sentences were structured in scenes where the hero and the heroine were interacting.

In the corpus I studied, the most frequent adjectives used to describe female characters were:

The ones used most frequently for male characters were:

Similar stereotyping could be found in the sentence structure. Sentences link actors with actions and often with targets of the action (as in the dog bit the postman or vice versa). Grammatical structure can reflect a power relationship. The texts I studied frequently used the S V O form: Subject (actor), Verb (action), Direct Object (target of action) in which the male character was the actor and the female character was the target of the action.

I came to the conclusion that romantic fiction represents a stereotype of men and women, not just in the story lines but in the way the language is structured.

So does crime fiction, another very popular genre of fiction operate the same stereotypes? Do these texts reinforce an image of male and female that still, to some extent, pervades our society? The sample analysed for this article is very small, and can only be seen as indicative of trends that would be worth further analysis.

Agatha Christie is often called the Queen of Crime. She was, and still is, one of the most popular writers within the genre and probably more than anyone established and popularised a specific form of crime novel - the whodunit. She is often dismissed today as unrealistic, incredible, out of touch with the social problems of her time and irrelevant to today's society. However, an analysis of her texts suggests that she is a more subtle writer than she is credited with being.

Christie's Miss Marple novels have as the protagonist an elderly unmarried woman who has lived all her life in an archetypal English village, and who acts as an amateur detective using her knowledge of human nature, usually derived by extrapolating from behaviour within the village to the outside world, to solve crimes. Christie presents two images of Miss Marple. One is a stereotype of the elderly single woman as both weak and redundant. The adjectives used most frequently to describe her are:

However, it is important to note that these descriptions never come from Christie herself as narrator - they are always mediated through the eyes of another character. The other image of Miss Marple is presented via another range of adjectives:
Again, it is not the voice of the author that gives us these views, it is the voice of observing characters.

Christie's writing is the art of secrecy, and the way in which she depicts Miss Marple, firstly as the world might expect her to be, then as she is in her role as nemesis, reflects this aspect of the novels. It also presents a concept of women that is almost medieval - beneath the 'weak' exterior lies something dangerous.

However, Miss Marple is hardly the central figure in a romance. How does Christie depict women in the situations in which romantic fiction places them? Romantic confrontations between men and women are infrequent in Christie's novels. Where they occur, they often reflect this core of secrecy and deception. Christie is aware of the expectations of romantic fiction. She describes a male-female confrontation in the Hercule Poirot novel Hickory Dickory Dock through the eyes of two characters who are clearly familiar with the conventions. The language is familiar. The female is described as agonised, adoring, anxious. The male is stern, avuncular, peremptory. The sentence pattern is familiar from romantic fiction as well: He took her hand, he drew her hand through his arm, he helped her to her feet. But the context subverts the language. This scene is partly a joke shared by observing characters/Christie/reader, and instead of the expected romantic denouement, we get a murder. The woman becomes next victim.

The sub-genre within crime fiction of the 'hard-boiled' noir narrative was the domain of male writers until women such as Sarah Paretsky, Sue Grafton, Val McDermid began writing books about women investigators who were as tough and conflicted as the heroes of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett.

Much of the descriptive detail in these texts come from adverbial rather than adjectival description. Where adjectives are applied to the female protagonists, an interesting picture emerges. Paretsky's heroine, V. I. Warshawski is:

The men are:
The strong woman lives a noir life.

Romantic scenes in these novels - to the extent that they occur - tend to balance sentence types between male and female characters. More male-female encounters in these texts tend to be violent. In a lot of fiction, violent encounters between men and women can be almost pornographic in their depictions, and often follow the SVO patterns of romantic fiction. In these novels, though this pattern occurs in violent scenes, more frequently the woman as target of the violence is distanced in the structure. Thus in Paretsky's Burn Marks, the sentence "He yanked my arm" follows the expected pattern, but further descriptions of this violent encounter do not: "the blow he aimed at my head"; "shouting abuse at me"; "he aimed another fist at me":

The heroines of these novels are depicted as tough and able to look after themselves, but they are not intended to be super-heroes. They become the targets of violence and are damaged by it, but the structures used in the examples given above make the attacking man the direct target of his own violence, and the woman the secondary target.

Finally, it might be useful to look at the ways in which male crime writers depict women. This analysis looks at a small sample from the work of two writers, Andrew Vachss and Ed McBain, both of whom write in the 'hard-boiled' tradition mentioned above.

Both writers have different representations of good and bad women. Adjectives applied to evil females include:
Vachss: nude, wheat-coloured, enormous (breasts), thin,
McBain: long-nosed, thin-lipped, bespectacled, dumpy, mournful, wistful.

Good females:
Vachss: trusting, soft-voiced, sweet-smelling, wasp-waisted, little-girl,
McBain: long (hair), deep (suntan), firm, swelling (breasts), soft, curving (shape)

In romantic scenes, the female is frequently the initiator of sexual actions:
Vachss: She came back to the couch, pulling her bra over her head...
McBain: ...she bent over swiftly, her tongue darting.
Many of the sentences in these scenes are descriptive of either the woman's physical attributes or of her actions. The male character is absent in the structure, or distanced:
Vachss: her breasts stood straight up; she wiggled her rear; she rammed herself back against me.
McBain: She brought her head up to the pillow, stretched her legs and rolled in tight against him.

These analyses are taken from a very small sample, and the texts used were selected to provide the widest contrasts. Even so, the analysis suggests at once that crime fiction is more complex than romantic fiction, certainly in the way gender roles are depicted. This brief analysis suggests there may be significant differences in the way that writers from sub-genres within the field represent gender, that male and female writers may present these aspects in different ways, and that there have been changes over time.

© Danuta Reah, 2006