Expressing uncertainty as a gender-specific use of language: a glance at Estonian data

Liina Lindström
Pärtel Lippus
University of Tartu

The study of gender-specific use of language is a matter of wide interest in different aspects, especially in gender studies and feminist movement, but also in linguistics (see e.g. Lakoff 1973; Tannen 1994). Acknowledging the gender-specific scope of the linguistic variability could hint to different socio-cultural patterns. For example in English it has been shown that female speakers tend to express uncertainty more frequently than male speakers and this can be seen in the frequency of combining first-person singular pronouns with perceptual or cognitive verbs (e.g. Newman et al. 2008).

While in the Estonian society the different position of genders is greater than in most Western European countries (Gender Equality Index, 2013), the gender-specific issues are almost not studied in Estonian linguistics. As a consequence of the unbalanced gender status in Estonian society we expect the insecurity that the female Estonians experience in their every-day life to be reflected in their verbal communication. But rather than diving deep into fine-grain discourse analysis, we aim to demonstrate the tendencies to sociolinguistic patterns with very basic frequency-based observations. Similarly to the findings from English (Newman et al. 2008), we expect male speakers to make statements as they were given facts and female speakers to stress their personal opinion.

In this paper we take a look at five different modal expressions that are used as hedges in English (Newman et al. 2008). These expressions add uncertainty to the statement thereby soften or reduce its force. Firstly, we look at three different variations of modal adverbials marking self’s opinion: minu meelest, minu arust, ‘in my oppinion’, and minu jaoks ‘for me’. Secondly, ma ei tea ’I don’t know’ expresses not knowledgening, however, it is used often as a modal particle. The frequent use of it may indicate that in the speech situation the speaker is lacking of self-confidence, and thus female speakers could also use it more frequently. Finally, the confirmation asking particles eksju and onju ’isn’t’, which are somewhat similar to English tag-questions that also are thought to be more idiomatic for female speakers (Lakoff 1973), as asking for confirmation is another expression of uncertainty.
The data comes from the University of Tartu Phonetic Corpus of Spontaneous Speech ( The dataset comprises transcriptions of spoken dialogues recorded from 69 speakers (34 male and 35 female; about 30 minutes each; about 200 000 words in total). The occurrences of the five expressions under study were analyzed as a function of speaker’s gender and age, and the interlocutor’s gender and age.

The results show different patterns for all observed expressions. The constructions minu arust and minu jaoks are used by younger speakers regardless of their gender, while minu meelest is used more by female speakers. The use of expression ma ei tea revealed a more complex pattern: there is no general gender difference, but both male and female speakers use it more when speaking to a partner of their own age and gender. The particle onju is more frequently used by young female speakers, while eksju in the corpus seems to be idiomatically frequently used by a small number of speakers.

Gender Equality Index – Country Profiles, 2013.
Lakoff, R., 1973. Language and woman’s place. Language in Society, 2(01), p.45.
Newman, M.L. et al., 2008. Gender Differences in Language Use: An Analysis of 14,000 Text Samples. Discourse Processes, 45(3), pp.211–236.
Tannen, D., 1994. Gender and discourse, New York: Oxford University Press.