People have always loved the detective, Sherlock Holmes. In 2010, BBC launched a new show that took the original stories by Arthur Conan Doyle and placed them in modern day London. The show has been a sensational hit and is ramping up for another season in 2017. Of course, when something gains popularity, it also gains critics. The critics of BBC’s Sherlock have often taken issue with the writer’s treatment of female characters. Moffat, the writer, has been accused of writing lack-luster female characters that exist mainly for the use of the male characters and the plot. Because of this treatment of men as dominant, it is important to examine the way the female characters use language and if it aligns with the Dominance Model and Discourses that surround women.

The Dominance Model was developed by Robin Lakoff in 1975 and originally appeared in her book, Language and Women’s Place. Lakoff’s model laid out specific aspects of language use that indexes women and femininity. There are many aspects in Lakoff’s model. The full list includes hedge phrases, super polite forms, tag questions, italics, empty adjectives, hypercorrectness, feminine lexicon, uptalk, speaking less frequently, apologizing more frequently, modal construction, indirect commands, intensifiers, and lacking a sense of humor (Moore, 2003).

The episode of Sherlock used for data is “Scandal in Belgravia”. This episode was chosen because it has more female characters than the average episode, which makes it easier to collect a substantive amount of data. All of the data collected focuses on women’s conversation in numerous contexts with a variety of speaking partners. The eight women in the show are a range of socioeconomic statuses, but are all of the same racial background. One woman clearly identifies herself as gay.

The data collected focuses mostly on women speaking in numerous conversations, both male-female interactions and female-female interactions. This paper will display the data and analyze it using the concepts set forth by Lakoff’s Dominance Model to determine whether or not the female characters in Sherlock follow patters set forth by the model. Following this, the paper will briefly focus on how this ties into ideologies surrounding women in society and the problems with the use of the Dominance model in Sherlock. Then it will conclude with some suggestions of how to continue this research.


Data and Analysis

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*Other females” and “other males” are totals from characters that appear in 2 or fewer scenes.
To begin the analysis of the show, each qualifier for the Dominance Model was counted for both the male and female characters in the show. The collected data can be seen in Table 1. The reason for collecting both sets of data was twofold. First, it was an attempt to stop possible confirmation bias because it would allow the data to show how frequently both sexes were using each part of the language. Second, it would display trends that could be attributed to something other than gender.

Based on the data displayed in Table 1, there are several interesting trends worth noting. There are two parts of language that both males and females use nearly equally: hedge phrases and hypercorrect forms. Hedge phrases are utterances like “sort of”, “kind of” that are included in a sentence to soften it. Hypercorrect forms are utterances that have clear pronunciation and distinct attention to using proper grammar (Moore, 2003).  No hedge phrases appeared in the speech of both genders and hypercorrect forms appeared 18 times for women and 17 times for men. The characters using Standard English or Received Pronunciation (RP) model can explain the reason for this. “The Received Pronunciation model [is] hypercorrect” (Greenbaum, 1977). This means that speakers who use the RP accent tend avoid non-standard grammatical constructions and regional dialects. (Robinson). The characters in BBC’s Sherlock all speak with an RP accent, because it is the most television friendly, which means that they are much more likely to uses hypercorrect forms and avoid utterances that could be categorized as hedge phrases.

There are also parts of language in the Dominance Model that the male characters use more frequently than the female characters. These are super polite forms and apologizing. Super polite forms are phrases like “I’d appreciate it if…” that are usually added at the beginning of sentences to soften the request. Apologizing is counted when the character apologizes excessively (Moore, 2003). The male characters used super polite forms three times as often as their female counterparts and apologize excessively seven times as often. This would seem to be evidence that the characters do not follow the Dominance Model closely. However, when the discourse is observed more closely nearly all of these apologizes and super polite forms come from one character in one scene. In this scene Sherlock is pretending to have been mugged and is asking for help to satisfy his own goals of entering Irene’s house without suspicion. The conversation is as follows:

26 Sherlock:                Ooh. Um sorry to disturb you. Um I’ve just been attacked um and

27                                 um I think they (.) took my wallet and um my phone. Um please

28                                could you help me↑

29 Kate:                      I can phone the police if you want↑

30 Sherlock:                Thank you. Thank you. Could you please↑ (.) Oh would you (.)   31                                    would you mind if I just waited here↑ just until the come. Thank 32                                    you. Thank you so much. (.) Thank you.

In lines 26 and 30 we see two of the three instances of super polite forms, where Sherlock says, “Please could you help me?” and “Could you please? Oh would you, would you mind…” These utterances are not meant to be natural for the character, and rather are being used in an intentional manner to make the character seem less threatening. Likewise in like 26 is the first instance of Sherlock using apologizes. Shortly after this, Sherlock is invited inside and he apologizes several more times, accounting for half of the overall apologizes for the male characters in Sherlock, which can be observed in Table 2. Not only do the males use these more, at least half the usages are because they are associated with ideologies about how to seem less threatening or more submissive. This ties in to Lakoff’s explanation of the Dominance Model, because she describes it as keeping men in places of power and women in positions beneath them (Davies, 2010). By using “women’s language” Sherlock is able to make the other character in the scene apparently feel at ease.

Other than the four parts of the Dominance Model that do not follow Lakoff’s trend of being used mainly by women, the rest do fall into the expected trends. Most notably the frequency of speech is higher for men by 36%. This was found by counting the total number of lines in the conversation analysis that each gender of character had. This falls in line with Lakoff’s model, which states that women speak less frequently than men do (Moore, 2003). It is also important to note that this higher percentage is not because there are more male characters in the show. In this episode, there were five male characters with speaking roles compared to eight females. This does fit very well with Lakoff’s model.

Continuing this theme is the usage of uptalk. Lakoff did not develop the term uptalk; it developed in the 1980’s in association with the Valley Girl style of speech Uptalk is when someone ends their utterance with a rising tone (Moore, 2003). In RP accents, uptalk is not considered to fit the hypercorrect form, however, since about 40 years ago the speech pattern has started to enter the British English lexicon. Most often when something new enters a language, the women are the first to use it (Bradford, 1997). This could lead to several conclusions about the frequency of which the female characters in the show use uptalk compared to the men. One conclusion could be that the younger women are using uptalk more frequently as it could still be in the process of incorporation to the language. This would explain why the women use it two times as often as men, because “it permeates the speech of young males only after becoming well established among females” (Bradford, 1997). This ratio could be representative of the shift from females using it to males using it. Looking at Table 2, Mrs. Hudson uses uptalk second to Irene. As a ratio to their lines, Mrs. Hudson uses uptalk 35% of the time, while Irene only uses it 7% of the time. Mrs. Hudson is well past what would count as a “young female”, however, this can still be aligned with the idea of uptalk incorporating into the culture. Like Bradford explains, the speech pattern must be “well established among females” before moving to males. If Mrs. Hudson is speaking with uptalk, then it has integrated with females of all ages, which means that men would start to use the pattern as well. This would suggest that the use of uptalk by the characters in Sherlock is more of a shift in the language rather than a feature of Lakoff’s Dominance Model.

The part of the model that is used more frequently by the female characters is empty adjectives. Empty adjectives are adjectives that are soft and hold little meaning, such as “lovely” or “wonderful” (Moore, 2003). These adjectives are used nine times by the female characters and only once by the males. As seen in Table 2, Mrs. Hudson accounts for more than half of the empty adjectives used by the female characters.

223 Mrs. Hudson:       Lovely↑ Sherlock that was lovely↑

224 John:                     Marvelous

Compared to John’s use of “marvelous”, which is not an empty adjective, Mrs. Hudson’s adjectives are meaningless.  “In contrast to male adjectives, they are noticeably devoid of any connotation of power” (Crosby, 1997). This ties in to Lakoff’s model perfectly, as she focused on the power dynamic between men and women, which means specific parts of the language in Sherlock do follower her model.

The last part of the model that is worth talking about is the female characters lacking a sense of humor. Despite not being used frequently, it is a pervasive ideology that women cannot be funny or have a sense of humor. The first place this happens is when Molly is speaking with Mrs. Hudson at the Christmas party.

255 Molly:                   How’s the hip↑

256 Mrs. Hudson:       Ooh it’s atrocious but thanks for asking
257 Molly:                   I’ve seen much worse (.) but then I do post-mortems↑

258                              (.)

259 Molly:                   Oh god (.) sorry.

260 Sherlock:              Don’t do jokes Molly.

261 Molly:                   No. Sorry. (.)

Here Molly makes a joke on line 257. Instead of writing the characters to laugh at this joke, there is a pause by all the characters at the party, shown on line 258. It is made very clear that it is believed that Molly doesn’t have a good sense of humor when Sherlock tells her not to tell jokes on 258. The next time this happens is when Irene and Sherlock are talking.

509 Irene:                    Oh Mr Holmes (.) if it was the end of the world (.) if this was the 510                                 very last night (.) would you have dinner with me↑

511 Mrs. Hudson:       Sherlock↑

512 Irene:                    Too late.

513 Sherlock:              That’s not the end of the world. That’s Mrs Hudson.

Irene misses this joke entirely. While she is not telling the joke like Molly was, she still displays a lack of humor. This is important to talk about, because in both cases the female characters could have been written to have a sense of humor. In Molly’s case, the characters could have chuckled instead of pausing, and Irene could have received the joke.


            Even though Lakoff’s model has been criticized for essentializing because it didn’t include people from a variety of backgrounds, it fits the characters in Sherlock because they are all relatively in the class she focused on. The more problematic part of applying Lakoff’s model to modern characters is that there have been numerous studies disproving the use of women’s language in reality. This is because of “the form and function problem, [which] maybe glossed as follows: how far is it possible to identify a recurrent form with some specific communicative function or meaning?” (Cameron, 1988). Like Cameron says, and later proves in her work, the forms declared as women’s language can act in many different ways and perform many different functions besides simply maintaining society’s power structure or softening women’s speech. Because of this, it is problematic to use Lakoff’s version of women’s language in Sherlock because it doesn’t accurately represent the way that women interact with people, and the instances in Sherlock do not fully represent all of the potential linguistic uses of each form. Instead they only follow the Dominance model’s expectation of submission. Likewise, it is suspicious that a male writer who is known for writing incomplete female characters writes characters that fall into this pattern. While some of the occurrences happen because of the way the actors choose to present the part, others happen because the writer has chosen to write the characters in that way. This is especially noticeable when the female characters are shown to be humorless. They could have been written to receive a positive response to their joke or have received the joke better, but they were not. This is important because this reflects ideologies that people have about women because it is scripted and not an accurate representation of how actual women would speak.

            Despite the characters in Sherlock breaking a few of the rules of women’s language, it is clear that they tend to follow the Dominance model. When they failed to follow the model it was in cases where there were other circumstances influencing the way they were speaking: RP English, linguistic shifts in the use of uptalk, and characters acting to manipulate another character. In all other cases, the requirements for the model were met. Women used the other forms more frequently than men and had few lines than their male counterparts, which were all used to reinforce the male-dominant power structure and soften the speech of the female characters.


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