Department or Program

Cognitive and Linguistic Sciences

Additional Department or Program (if any)

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Primary Wellesley Thesis Advisor

Andrea Levitt


How has the gender divide in humor—the widespread belief that men are funnier than women—arisen? Some theories in evolutionary biology provide compelling explanations for why it is more crucial for men than for women to be funny. I offer an alternative sociolinguistic perspective on the formation of this divide that focuses on the frequent association of women with a less powerful speech style, and how it may be changing. I investigated responses to jokes told by men and women using powerful and powerless styles. Hypothesis 1 was that jokes attributed to male speakers would receive higher ratings of competence, influence, and funniness than those attributed to women. Hypothesis 2 predicted that speakers using powerless language would receive lower ratings on the three attributes than those using powerful language, except for female speakers, who would receive higher ratings (Carli, 1990; Parton et al., 2002). As a reflection of possible changes over time in perception of powerless speech, Hypothesis 3 predicted that older participants would give lower ratings to speakers using powerless speech than those using powerful speech. Hypothesis 2 was strongly supported, but neither speaker gender nor participant age had a significant effect on ratings. The prediction that female speakers using powerless rather than powerful speech would receive higher ratings received some indirect support; female speakers using a powerless style received higher ratings than male speakers. Results suggest that the features of powerless speech have a significant effect on how joke tellers are perceived.