Gender Voices in Electronic Discourse: A Forum in Ukrainian

Alla Nedashkivska, University of Alberta

The paper analyzes one of the newest forms of human interaction, electronic discourse. This form of communication provides an opportunity to observe some aspects of oral discourse in written form. Interesting aspects regarding electronic discourse are the relative anonymity of interlocutors, the uninhibited expression, and often the depersonalized nature of interaction. In addition, a text in an electronic discussion, albeit usually directed to a specific recipient, is intended to be heard by others. The focus of the present analysis is on language and gender in electronic communication in Ukrainian. The study, delineating the overall pattern of electronic interaction, addresses questions of differences and similarities in the ways females and males express themselves on the Net.

The data for the present investigation is collected from the discussion forum activated on the Ukrainian television site "1+1". The forum is organized into various topics, which grow out of various television programs, often extending beyond the TV boundaries and addressing other hot topics of Ukrainian society. The present analysis concentrates on topics that are of general interest to both genders and in which both females and males participate more or less equally. Thus, they portray mixed-gender communication. An example of such a forum is a discussion of the program Pershyj Mil'jon "The First Million", which is a patented version of the popular American show "Who Wants To Be a Millionaire". The choice of these data allows control for: the setting (the Net), the topic of discussion, familiarity of the interlocutors (known through electronic communication only), and gender (known from either overt reference or from the context). Factors of age, education, social class are also comparable as those who have access to the Internet in Ukraine tend to fall into the educated, middle class, late teens-early 30s age category.

Each forum, a collection of short texts on the same topic, is subjected to text analysis. Features that are discussed for each forum are: presentation of self, address forms and references to the addressee, topic introduction, development and topic shift, voicing and supporting of an opinion, presenting and responding to an argument, questioning, as well as the structure of greetings text-initially and -finally. Factors that influence linguistic choices will also be addressed. In particular, the relationship between the speaker's point of view and its linguistic encoding will be analyzed (the category of point of view and its linguistic expression is discussed in Kuno 1986, Yokoyama 1995, and Zaitseva 1995). The study will test two contrasting hypothesis: a) the language of electronic discourse is egalitarian and democratic due to non face-to-face interaction and the relative anonymity of participants, and b) electronic discourse, similarly to both oral and written modes of communication, could be hierarchical and power-based with noticeable gender differences in linguistic choices. Based on the preliminary findings, there are differences in the way females and males express themselves on the Net. However, these differences are not bound to the choice of linguistic forms, but rather to the message they carry and the point of view they encode (e.g., the use of the second person singular address form ty 'you' signals different points of view in female and male communication).

Earlier studies on gender and electronic discourse claim that an electronic form of communication breaks gender barriers and the traditional patterns of contributions from females and males are changed (Graddol and Swann 1989). However, other studies (Herring, Johnson and Dibenedetto 1992, Herring 1993, Sutton 1994) call into question the claim that computer communication levels out the differences. These studies show the presence of power-based and hierarchical language patterns in English. In particular, men use strong assertions, self-promotion, authoritative orientation, challenge and sarcasm, while women use apologies, questions, personal orientation and explicit justification in their discourse (Herring 1993: 8). In addition, males utilize the adversarial forms of interaction whilst women do not tolerate such expression (Sutton 1994: 506).

The task of the present analysis is to test which findings could be extended to electronic communication in Ukrainian and whether there are culturally specific issues that flourish in Ukrainian electronic discourse.