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An exploratory study of language and gender in two online chat groups.

Table of content


II    Description of data

a)  The Corpora

1- Bloomfield Town Council meetings

2- Time to Dump Marion Crecco

b)  the lexicon

1- Kira hall's and Susan Herring's theoretical frameworks

2- Gender and style in 'Time to Dump Marion C'

3- Gender and style in 'Bloomfield Town Council Meetings'

4- Lexical choices in 'Time to Dump Marion C'

5- Lexical choices in 'Bloomfield Town Council Meetings'

6- Grammatical structure of 'Time to Dump Marion C'

7- Grammatical structure of 'Bloomfield Town Council Meetings'

III    Discussion and analysis

IV    Conclusion

V    Bibliography

About myself

Assumpta Foy is a graduate student in the linguistics department at Montclair State University. Born in the Republic of Cameroon (central Africa), I have extended my knowledge of the cultural differences that exist in the world's nations by visiting some of the world's countries. As a linguistics student, I am interested in undertaking research on discourse analysis and on the new modalities of communication known as Computer-Mediated Communication.

 The paper I am presenting here is one of the assignments fulfilled in APLN 526, course entitled Computer-Assisted Language Learning, instructed by Dr. Susana Sotillo, in spring 2000.  


I. Introduction

With the advent of modern technologies, people from the academia as well as those from all other social strata have dramatically shifted from the use of a face to face communication mode to a new form of communication known as ‘cyberchatting’. The latter is characterized as being timeless, placeless and bodiless. Consequently, this has drawn a lot of ink and paper on the part of researchers whose point of interest has been the investigation of the way language is used by cyberchatters. This has been also my motivation for studying the language of chatters in two discussion threads with one taking place in the township of Bloomfield (which is predominantly a working class town) and the other including people from other towns as well as ‘Bloomfieldians’.

In an exploratory study of language in these two threads, I used as background, the suggestions made by Hall (1996) as well as many other researchers concerning the appeal of this bodiless form of communication. Also I shall apply Herring’s (1994) theoretical framework in her article "Gender Differences in Computer-Mediated Communication: Bringing familiar baggage to new frontier". Finally and in-depth study of the lexicon shall be made possible by the use of TACT (Text Analysis Computing Tool).

I shall be guided in my study by the following questions: 1) what is the topic of discussion in each thread and does the topic choice reflects the social status of the participants? 2) What functions are accomplished by the chatters’ use of lexicon and 3) Does the use of lexicon reflects gender differences or are these differences apparent in the threads?

II.  Description of data

A.  The Corpora

1.  Bloomfield Town Council Meetings

The first thing I would like to say about this thread and which I deem important is that almost all of the postings are anonymous, hence this gives us the opportunity to see whether cyberchatters’ language alone can help the reader to guess their genders. Out of a total of 73 posted messages, only three have identifications (names) that could allow us to characterize them as male postings (these are from Paul Revere, Kenneth and Jim Treffinger). As far as it concerns the 70 others, it has been difficult to determine the number of participants as well as their gender because either they are posted under pseudonyms like (Freak show, just like you Vicki, just curious, wind in his hair…) or they have none at all (which I will refer to later by the number of the posting). This thread has a social discussion topic; participants here talk about their town leaders as well as the problems faced by the people under each town administrator. This has been a forum for lashing out what plagues the Town of Bloomfield. It serves as some sort of a mirror through which the Bloomfieldians should base their thoughts and reflections if they have to choose new representatives. People are very annoyed at the way the Town’s business has been handled by the previous administration, so they turn to the chat room to voice out their grievances and say why certain administrators are not worth serving the Town of Bloomfield.

2.  Time to dump Marion C

This is another thread that presents an anonymous characteristic. Out of the 70 posted messages, only two can leads us to think that their posters are males as the names indicate (Frank and Mr. Lock change). 18 have pseudonyms such as: Mickey Blue eyes, The leftie, concerned citizen, my opinion … and the rest have no identification. The topic of discussion here as the title shows, is a political one ‘that the time has come for Marion (Legislator) to get out of office, while some participants want her to be re-elected, others don’t. So each of these sides gives reasons for their stand. Though the discussion appears to have too many participants, at the beginning, somewhere in the middle till the end, it is held between two participants (the leftie and an anonymous chatter). Within this main topic, some sub-topics such as gay and lesbian marriages, abortion and death penalties are discussed. An important point to note here is that this thread includes chatters from Towns other than Bloomfield, which may be middle class or upper middle class individuals.

B.  The lexicon

  1. Kira Hall’s and Susan Herring’s theoretical frameworks

In her article ‘Cyberfeminism’ in Computer Mediated–Communication: Linguistics, Social and Cross-cultural Perspectives, Hall suggests that the first important characteristic of cyberchatting is the fact that "it neutralizes physical distinctions of gender, race and sexual orientation and thereby enables participants to interact in what appears to be a conversation utopia", view that is also the point of departure for many other researchers in this field. Men use many silencing mechanisms to shut down women (these include among others, interruptions, avoidance, and eruptions of anger during their responses). On her part, Herring claims that women and men use different online styles. She proposes that male style is predominantly characterized by adversariality, which includes "put-downs, strong, often contentious assertions, lengthy and/or frequent postings, self-promotion, and sarcasm" (2). The style of women, she proposes, is characterized by attenuation which means their style includes "hedging and expressing doubt, apologizing, asking questions, and contributing ideas in the form of suggestions" (3). In other words, women are concerned with the "face" wants of their addressees whereas men are more willing to confront and even threaten the addressee’s face. However, she points out that within a group of chatters the non-dominant gender tends to adopt the style of the dominant gender (5)

    2.  Gender and style in ‘Time to dump Marion C’

Given the fact that our postings are anonymous, we thought that it would be better for us to read through the lines and identify some of the participants through the use of language. With this in mind, I would suggest that the first posting of this thread is written by a male because it says: ‘65323’ "…I think Ma’s beyond that point. But my wife isn’t. Don’t her people do anything to who gets this type of mail?" Though the identity is not revealed, the chatter known as ‘my opinion’ seems to be a female; her postings are characterized by the fact that ‘she is contributing ideas in the form of suggestions, and by asking questions’ her posting NR 66862 supports this point "… her concerns appear to have been limited to pet grooming, bellybutton piercing, tattoos, mandated parenting classes for parents smart enough to get out of bad marriages, my uterus, your uterus, your daughter’s uterus, and homophobia, how about taxes Marion, and why do you support a Bloomfield candidate for council who was listed in the newspapers for not paying hers.. how about more money for education Marion? Teacher’s salaries, books etc". This chatter which will later go on as ‘the leftie’, (contrary to what has been said by some researchers that females are ‘silenced’ by males in mixed chat groups), holds the discussion till the end of the thread. Even when she is interrupted by the only male who gives his identity ‘Frank’ 67567 when he says "do you want to use this tread to post information about TV 35 & Bob or are we all going to stop?", she still continues the thread on the given discussion topic.

    through the use of non-violent language contrary to the male’s posting in which he starts name-calling as in 67963 "it seems to me that if this brainiac who thinks that marriage is in place simply for the sake of bringing up children, into the world, I guess this same brainiac would certainly agree that if a man and a woman wanted to get married, but the woman was found to be infertile, I’m sure brainiac would agree that there is no reason for them to get married at all.." Another observation that we made based on our guess is that, contrary to the claim that male postings are often longer and that they tend to post more often, the female in this thread has the longest postings (NR 67995 and 68061) and posted more often than

    the male. However we have to point out that these findings are based solely on the use of language thus cannot be strongly sustained.

    3.  Gender and style in Bloomfield Town Council Meeting

As the previous one, this thread is also made up of anonymous postings, so our intuition and the knowledge we have about the use of language by male and female cyberchatters shall help us in understanding who is talking in these postings. With regard to the female type of language in the above mentioned theoretical framework, we would suggest that the first posting of this thread is sent by a male, because of its violent language and its direct attack to the female council woman, it goes thus, 75818 "then you won’t be impressed by Vicki’s brains either…she has NONE! Brass is no substitute for brains" and the same language continues in posting 75849. On the other hand, posting 76304 seems to be a female’s. It contains language that is forgiving and conciliatory in a way, it gives suggestions to Vicki in a question form (due to the long nature of this posting we won’t be able to insert it here). What I found interesting in this thread is the response to the above thread, given by someone that we would consider to be Vicki. If this is the case, then the language of this posting 76307 does not corroborate with that of the female as claimed by Herring. It is aggressive and violent: "I can keep this up as long as you. You and your cronies played the game and lost. Please don’t pretend that you are still in control. To the victors, go the spoils. Tale your demands and shove them." Given these characteristics, we would think that this is a male’s language.

Looking at the question of gender and style in all two threads, we would say with some reserve that the use of lexicon has portrayed some gender differenciations to a certain extent. Gender differences have not been apparent in both threads given their authorless nature. This I would think is due to the nature of the discussion topics. Both deal with delicate political issues that are directly concerned with individuals so the chatters prefer flaming and lashing out to whomever they wanted to without revealing their identities and at the same time giving some concrete facts to the public. In some sense, we would say that both threads have fulfilled the function of online communication as claimed by Hall to be able to neutralize "physical distinction of race, gender, and sexual orientation" there enabling participants to interact freely.

4. Lexical choices in ‘Time to dump Marion C’

As we earlier mentioned, the participants in this thread are giving their points of view why the state legislator should be voted out or in office. People give their different positions as far as her political ambitions are concerned. Dealing with a political issue that embodies social problems, their vocabulary reflects their topic of discussion. For instance, a frequency of words count gave us the following words tokens: Out of a total of 5012 words and 1274 of different words, time occurred 71 times, dump 63 times, subject 61 times, people 36 times, marriage 20, majority 19, gay 18, abortion 16, children 12, right 12, constitution 8, money 7, and the verbs to read and to think 8 times each (a complete list is attached). A further study of the lexicon revealed a quasi absence of swearing words, slang and colloquial expressions in this thread. All in all, we had just one instance of swear word which indeed is not really used as violent. 67869 "…a gay couple living together doesn’t bother me at all. When they are given marital status, it bugs the hell out of me…"

5.  Lexical choices in Bloomfield Town Council Meetings

The lexical choices of the participants in this thread clearly reflect the topic of discussion. Their vocabulary includes words related to the council as well as problems plaguing the Town of Bloomfield. Out of a total of 4653 words and 1070 of different words, we had (without taking into consideration the high occurrences of words from the title of the thread) 16 of the verb to like, 15 of the modifier must, 15 of people, 14 of the verb to know, 13 administrator, 10 meeting, 8 mayor, and check, gang, phone, township each have 7 occurrences. We would like to say that the words that have low occurrences also reflect the topic of discussion. We noticed a fair use of colloquial language as in 77218 "why are the gang of five so in love with the current labor attorney…" , slang words as in 77021 "we have the best Town administrator that has ever served in Bloomfield. This guy that Marion is trying to get in (Larry s. ) has his nose so far up her ass hole if Marion ever stops quick we will need a 18 wheeler to pull him out…" Its study shows a low variation of swear words but a fairly high variation of slang and colloquial language (to caricaturize individuals). This might be due to the fact that the topic of discussion concerns a group of people and how they run the Town, swear words would be used more often (as studies have shown) when participants are engaged in a topic that involves the participants themselves.

6.  Grammatical structure of Time to dump Marion

Looking at the grammatical structure of this thread, we focused on two forms of nominalization (by suffixation and by –ing) and the use of passivisation. Out of a total of 102 –ing forms only six are cases of nominalization. The result for the nominalization through suffixation were as follows: 31 –ity/ities, 19 –ment/s, 75 –ion/s. This high frequency use of nominalizations by suffixation collocates with the language of politics that always ends in some form of –tion or –sion as well as –ity. This also shows that the lexical choice of the participants reflects their topic choice. We did not find any case of passivisation in this thread. This could be due to the fact that most postings are anonymous and consequently the chatters in a way are not afraid to voice their opinions. All of them make use of the active voice. A look at the syntactic structure of the thread revealed that this is a highly intellectual chat group. Not too many errors were found and where they were, their authors corrected them immediately as in 67017 "amen and amen she will get now support from me and my voice reigns imperial" and she says later "no, support….I type too fast". The sentences are well structured and present a logical development of ideas. This shows that this chat group consist of people who are well read and who discuss a serious topic which we think has had an impact on that particular election.

7.  Grammatical structure of Bloomfield Town Council Meetings

Out of a total number of 108 –ing/s, only 5 are instances of nominalization. From nominalization through suffixation, we had –15 –ion/s, 3 –ness 15 –ity/ities and 14 instances of –ment/s. This is a relatively poor thread as far as the use of nominalization is concerned, I would think this could be attributed to the fact that it is in a working class town and the participants don’t show a high level of education. They discuss their town’s problems in basic terms with no word creativity. Also, we noted some deficiency at the level of sentence structures in this thread. Many sentences are not syntactically correct it is the case with 77617 "why must you repeat yourself twice? Nothing of what you say is worth posting once! Vicki, - you’re agenda and hatred is as transparent as stretched out spandex…" We also noticed many typographic errors that lead us to suggest that the people of this chat room don’t take the discussion seriously, they use the session for flaming mostly. As the previous thread, this one does not also show any use of the passive voice, I suggest that this is absent because the posters claim responsibility for their actions though they don’t reveal their identities which is certainly the characteristic of every cyberchatter if not of the majority.

III.   Discussion and analysis

    As suggested earlier, the cyberchatters of The Bloomfield Town Council Meeting are all Bloomfieldians, this stand is supported by the fact that in the thread, all of the participants give some facts and details about their Town representatives, these include things like their dressings (wearing of spandex), the restaurants that they visit and many more. All of these chatters we will assume reside in Bloomfield and could be characterized as a working class or a lower-middle class population. Their topic of discussion reflects the type of activity that could be carried out by a working class people; that is, the discussion of social problems and the ways to remedy the prevailing situation or to better it. The postings of the participants were not too long and they consisted of simple constructions. Some of the participants did not even show any particular interest in the topic of discussion, they talked about the eating habits of some of the Town representatives like this posting illustrates ‘from wind in his air, did they eat? Or did they graze? None of these people are shy on the table, especially when somebody else is picking up the check!’ and further when he is scolded by one of the chatters he says ‘I could care less who eats what, when, where, with whom, how much in what bowl… I’ M MAKING A JOKE! I am not saying that all of the participants in this thread are not serious but that they all make up a good example of a working class town with all types of people included, in a nutshell, the topic choice (town related issues), the discussion and the chatters clearly reflect a typical working class environment.

The other thread, Time to Dump Marion C, is an example of a middle class or an upper middle class society. As we pointed out, this thread consists of people from towns other than Bloomfield. I would think this is one of the reasons why they have a serious discussion topic that draws all the participants’ attention. All the participants stay focused on the topic and even if they divert from it, they are given reason for their stand. For instance, when one says s/he does not want Marion in office, s/he supports his or her arguments with related topics like freedom to gay marriages and the like. Chatters here use complex sentences, they have lengthy postings, and their arguments are logically structured. The participants seriousness and the high level of education coupled with the high degree of facts knowledge and rationality, are just some few of the pertinent aspects of this thread that allow us to suggest that this is likely a middle class environment. The relatively low occurrence of the –ing nominalization in this thread may reflects their level of education and may show that they are responsible for their actions though they post anonymously.

The lexical choices made by all participants in both threads help to achieve a certain writing style. Their basic strategic function is to make their voices heard by the representative either in the council or in the Assembly. They want to have an impact in the coming elections, this by giving certain facts about the candidates to the public.

IV.    Conclusion

Our analysis of ‘time to dump Marion Grecco’ and ‘Bloomfield town council meeting’ has revealed certain pertinent findings. Firstly, we found that the participants in both chat groups are discussing political topics that are concerned with some members of society. The reason why most of the postings are anonymous is that the chat group or cyberchatting is used as a medium to air out their grievances. This finding falls in line with Kira Hall’s stand as it concerns the function of this form of communication (we earlier mentioned it). We found that the topic choices reflected the social classes of the participants with the middle class showing a higher level of instruction as well as seriousness in the discussion and the working class showing some degree of education but with less seriousness into the discussion.

The participants' use of lexicon has helped them to air out the deeds and misdeeds of the candidates. Also their choice for not posting their identities portrays the fact that people are neutralized in cyberchatting (even though there are means of knowing who posts what) as this poster says,

‘From Bloomfield spy: …to 007, - don’t guess!!! Because you do not know what you are talking about. I have nothing to do with the "Norton gang" nor do I have anything to do with the "Crecco, BOE and Gary Troupe". So stop your guessing. You have not a clue as to who I am."

As far as the gender differences are concerned, we found that these were not apparent in either of the threads just from looking at the authors of the postings but nevertheless, with the aid of theoretical frameworks, we were able to trace some gender differences in both threads. Women’s postings were made up of ‘soft explanatory’ language while male’s showed some violent language. Also some female postings were longer than the males. To end this study, I would say that these findings are just tentative, because with no clue, the texts that we deemed to be female’s may as well be posted by a male.


Biber, Douglas, Susan Conrad, and Randy Reppen.(9198) Corpus Linguistics.

Investigating Language Structure and Use. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Herring, Susan (1994) "Gender Differences in Computer-Mediated Communication:

Bringing Familiar Baggage to New Frontier"