“Well, quite!” Gendered language in the novels of Jane Austen (research digest)


Reading time: 4 minutes

In this digest, we look at how one researcher has explored the use of a particular lexical item in the speech of male and female characters in Jane Austen’s novels.

The question of whether men and women speak differently is one that’s been hotly debated for many years. Current thinking in linguistics suggests that male and female speech styles are not driven by biological differences. Instead it is argued that speakers construct and perform gendered identities for themselves, which may either draw on or challenge perceived stereotypes. The idea is that gender is something that speakers and writers ‘do’ as part of a more or less deliberate projecting of identity. But how might these ideas be explored in literary representations of gendered language? In a recent study on the use of the adverb ‘quite’ in three Jane Austen novels, Victorina González-Díaz of the University of Liverpool demonstrates how Austen plays on eighteenth and nineteenth century stereotypes of female speech in the construction of her characters.

González-Díaz starts by tracing how research in linguistics has demonstrated that there are five main functions of ‘quite’:

  • as a manner adverb, indicating how something happened (this use of ‘quite’ disappeared in the Middle English period)
  • as a maximiser, synonymous with ‘entirely’, ‘completely’ eg ‘That is quite true’
  • as a scalar degree modifier, suggesting a point on a scale eg ‘He is quite old’
  • as an emphasiser indicating a writer or speaker’s opinion on an expression, synonymous with ‘honestly’, ‘truthfully’ eg ‘That is quite what happened’
  • as a response particle commenting on something that has already been said eg ‘Teachers should be paid more’ said the Secretary of State ‘Quite!’ replied the union leader.

González-Díaz explores late eighteenth and early nineteenth century uses of ‘quite’ and finds that the maximiser function of ‘quite’ tends to occur most frequently, while use of ‘quite’ as a scalar-degree modifier, emphasiser or particle response are less frequent. Reviewing the prevailing eighteenth century attitudes towards standards, notions of correctness and prescriptivism, she concludes that ‘quite’ used as a maximiser would have been considered the default and therefore ‘correct’ function, whilst the others would have been viewed as linguistic novelties and therefore corruptions.

Gender - well quiteGonzález-Díaz then analyses frequencies of each of the functions of ‘quite’ across narration and characters’ speech in Pride and Prejudice (early career), Mansfield Park (mid career), and Emma (later career). Her analyses show that across all of the novels there is frequent use of maximiser, scalar degree and emphasiser forms of ‘quite’ with relatively few if any examples of response particle use. However, and more interestingly, González-Díaz highlights the difference between use of ‘quite’ between male and female characters. While male characters used ‘quite’ on fewer occasions and where they did, used the conventional maximiser function, female characters not only used ‘quite’ generally more frequently, but often used the more novel scalar degree and emphasiser functions. They therefore could be said to use more linguistic novelties but crucially, also display a greater versatility in using ‘quite’ in functionally different ways depending on the contexts they spoke in.

González-Díaz contextualises these findings by explaining that the novels work as literary representations of gendered identity since in the eighteenth century, standard and correct forms of language were often associated with male speech; in contrast, linguistic novelties would have been associated with female language. So, we have the beginning of the kind of gendered stereotyping that persisted well into the late twentieth century – and some might argue still persists in the twenty-first!

To conclude, González-Díaz argues that Austen was probably very conscious of this kind of stereotyping and exploited this for her own literary effects. Rather than drawing on her experience of natural speech, Austen was able to integrate contemporary stereotypes about male and female language into her novels in order both to draw attention to them and, given the versatility of female characters, to provide some ironic comment on these crude distinctions about male and female speech!

This is a digest of the following article: González-Díaz, V. (2014) ‘’I quite detest the man’: Degree adverbs, female language and Jane Austen’, Language and Literature 23(4), 310-330.

Taking it further

You can use this research digest to support your teaching of AQA’s AS and A-level English Language and Literature specifications in the following ways.

  1. Ask students to explore the distribution of a particular lexical item or discourse marker across male and female characters in the novel they are studying (Imagined worlds, A-level; Views and voices, AS). What patterns emerge? Do authors play on stereotypes of male and female speech? What interpretative effects might these have?
  2. When studying dialogue, either represented (Imagined worlds, A-level; Writing about society, A-level; Dramatic encounters, A-level) or natural speech (Remembered places, AS and A-level), students could look at male-female interaction. You could introduce them to some of the main ideas from sociolinguistics around gendered language and ask them to explore any connections between real and literary representations of discourse.
  3. Remembering that explorations of language and gender can also focus on male language, explore the construction of male identities in the poetry of John Donne or Robert Browning (Poetic Voices, A-level; Views and Voices, AS), in material from the AQA Anthology (Remembered Places, AS and A-level) or in any of the dramatic texts on the specification (Dramatic encounters, A-level).
  4. The activities above could form a personal investigation on a literary text and some non-literary data (Making Connections, A-level) that explores representations of gender, speech styles, idiolects, the construction of identity and so on.