Archive for Language and gender

Male aunty

Joel Martinsen came across this snapshot a couple of days ago:


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"She was probably male"

In "The future of singular they" (3/8/2013), I noted that some people assign the traditional English pronouns he, she, they (and it?) in non-traditional ways, depending on the preferences of the person referred to rather than on the traditional criteria of number, animacy, and primary sexual organs. And the number of conceptual categories involved  is potentially much larger than four, as discussed in "58 Facebook genders" (2/18/2014).

Ann Leckie's 2013 novel Ancillary Justice depicts a situation in which the traditional relationships of language and gender are modified in an interestingly different way.

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Skim listening

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58 Facebook genders

Facebook Diversity 2/13/2014:

When you come to Facebook to connect with the people, causes, and organizations you care about, we want you to feel comfortable being your true, authentic self. An important part of this is the expression of gender, especially when it extends beyond the definitions of just “male” or female.” So today, we’re proud to offer a new custom gender option to help you better express your own identity on Facebook.  

We collaborated with our Network of Support, a group of leading LGBT advocacy organizations, to offer an extensive list of gender identities that many people use to describe themselves. Moreover, people who select a custom gender will now have the ability to choose the pronoun they’d like to be referred to publicly — male (he/his), female (she/her) or neutral (they/their).  

We also have added the ability for people to control the audience with whom they want to share their custom gender. We recognize that some people face challenges sharing their true gender identity with others, and this setting gives people the ability to express themselves in an authentic way.

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Annals of over-interpretation

Some useful framing for the Ingalhalikar et al. paper I wrote about earlier today – Christian Jarrett, "Getting in a Tangle Over Men's and Women's Brain Wiring", Wired 12/4/2013:

[L]et’s set this new brain wiring study in the context of previous research. Verma and her team admit that a previous paper looking at the brain wiring of 439 participants failed to find significant differences between the sexes. What about studies on the corpus callosum – the thick bundle of fibres that connects the two brain hemispheres? If women really have more cross-talk across the brain, this is one place where you’d definitely expect them to have more connectivity. And yet a 2012 diffusion tensor paper found “a stronger inter-hemispheric connectivity between the frontal lobes in males than females”. Hmm. Another paper from 2006 found little difference in thickness of the callosum according to sex. Finally a meta-analysis from 2009: “The alleged sex-related corpus callosum size difference is a myth,” it says.  

OK, one last thing. I don’t know if you saw it, but earlier this year another study involving hundreds of participants used a different technique (resting state fMRI) to examine connectivity in the brain, this time for the purpose of seeing if some people have more left-brain functional hubs and others have more right-brained hubs (they don’t). This obviously isn’t the same focus as the new PNAS paper, but if men and women’s brains really are wired up differently to optimise them for map reading or multitasking etc, you’d think there’d be some important sex differences in the way functional hubs are lateralised (distributed to one side of the brain or the other). In fact, “no differences in gender were observed,” the authors said.  

In conclusion – Wow, those are some pretty wiring diagrams! Oh … shame about the way they interpreted them.

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The degendering of the third person pronoun in Mandarin

One of the first things a student learns when studying Mandarin is the third person pronoun, tā. This was originally written 他 (with "human" radical), and it stood for feminine, masculine, and neuter — "he", "she", and "it". During the early 20th century, however, some bright folks — undoubtedly in emulation of European languages — thought it would be a good idea to introduce gender into the Chinese writing system, so 她 (with "female" radical) came to be used for the feminine and 它 (with "roof" radical) for the neuter. I always thought that rather odd, because no attempt was made to differentiate the three forms in speech, only in writing, hence 他, 她, and 它 were still all pronounced tā.

Well, it's not quite right to say that no attempt was made to differentiate the three forms in pronunciation, since there was a half-hearted effort to introduce yī for feminine and tuō for neuter, but it didn't catch on.

Beyond 他, 她, and 它, there are also 牠 (with "bovine" radical) for animals and 祂 (with "spirit" radical) for deities, etc. All of these were — and still are — pronounced tā.

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Pekingese put-downs

This will be the first of two successive posts on Pekingese.  This one is about insults that, on the surface, seem as though they should be praise.

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Mr. and Ms. in Chinese

Didi Kirsten Tatlow is trying to trace the roots of the word xiānsheng 先生 (lit., "one who was born earlier / first / before" –> "sir; mister / Mr.; teacher; gentleman; doctor / Dr. [dated]").  She writes:

Today of course it's applied to all men, women being nǚshì 女士 ("Ms.; lady; madam"); once upon a time I believe it meant a teacher. Yet a woman considered especially smart may be given the honorific xiānsheng 先生 (!).

Am wondering about its origins and when/how it came to be applied to all men, and whether perhaps it came from the Japanese, like many other terms in modern times (i.e., post 1911 or even earlier?).  Does anyone have any light to shed, with references?

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Manning's pronouns

Bradley Manning, just recently sentenced for leaking classified documents to Wikileaks, has released a statement announcing, "I am Chelsea Manning. I am a female." Manning also gave instructions on his-now-her preferred personal pronouns:

I hope that you will support me in this transition. I also request that, starting today, you refer to me by my new name and use the feminine pronoun (except in official mail to the confinement facility).

News organizations are struggling today with the pronominal quandary in reporting on Manning's new transgender identity. On Slate's XX Factor blog, Amanda Marcotte writes:

The transition is already awkward. Earlier today, the New York Times headline on a Reuters story on Manning's announcement danced around gender pronouns: "Manning Says Is Female and Wants to Live as a Woman." Clearing up the grammar for an updated headline just made the situation worse: "Manning Says He Is Female and Wants to Lives as a Woman." Well, if "he" is female, then isn't the word "she"? Manning has finally had a chance to express her gender preferences. Since most journalists had a notion this was coming, using confusion or surprise as an excuse for those headlines isn't an option.

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Biology, sex, culture, and pitch

Human secondary sexual characteristics include a  large difference in the pitch* of the voice, caused by a large difference in the average size of the larynx. This larynx-size difference is about five to seven times larger, in proportional terms, than the average difference between the sexes in height or other linear dimensions (about 50-60% compared to about 8-9%). It translates to a difference of about 70% in median pitch values, on average, between adult females and adult males. This difference is about 4.5 times the within-group standard deviation in such median values, which is a large enough effect that median pitch alone (for comparable speech samples) can be used to classify the sex of human adults quite accurately.

On the other hand, normal individuals can and do vary the pitch of their voice by a factor of two or more, depending on things like degree of vocal effort or physiological arousal, prosodic variation, or desire to imitate someone with a naturally higher or lower voice.

This sets the stage for an interesting and fraught interaction between the biology of sex and the cultural construction of gender, which is the background for Lake Bell's claim that there's a "vocal trend" of "sexy baby vocal virus talking".

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"Sexy baby vocal virus"

For the past few weeks, Lake Bell has been working hard to promote her new  movie In a World… NPR set the stage this way ("'In A World …' Is A Comedy About, You Guessed It, Voice-Over Artists", NPR All Things Considered 7/26/2013):

Lake Bell has acted in the movies It's Complicated, What Happens in Vegas and No Strings Attached. She's been on television, on HBO's How to Make It in America and the TV series Boston Legal. And she is now starring in a movie she has written and directed. It's called In a World … — as in that instantly recognizable phrase that kicks off so many movie trailers.

In a World … is a comedy about doing voice-overs for those trailers, and Bell's character, Carol, is to movie trailers roughly what Rocky was to boxing. Underneath the comedy, it's a moving story about female empowerment — though Bell tells NPR's Robert Siegel that she doesn't like to be preached to. "I "I always hope that, you know, if I do have a message, that perhaps it is with a good sense of humor and not too soap-boxy. Just a little suds on you, to get the message across."

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He / she / it / none of the above

I missed this article in the Chinese edition of China Daily when it first appeared on June 20, 2012, but it raises an issue that is sufficiently important to warrant addressing now that William Steed has kindly called my attention to it:

"Qián Jīnfán:  84 suì hòu kuà xìngbié 'rénshēng de cànlàn qī cáigāng kāishǐ'” 钱今凡:84岁后跨性别 “人生的灿烂期才刚开始” ("Qian Jinfan:  'the most glorious period of a person's life only begins' after age 84 when one transcends gender")

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An invented statistic returns

Catherine Griffin, "Why Women Talk More Than Men: Language Protein Uncovered", Science World Report 2/20/2013.

You know all the times that men complain about women talking too much? Apparently there's a biological explanation for the reason why women are chattier than men. Scientists have discovered that women possess higher levels of a "language protein" in their brains, which could explain why females are so talkative.

Previous research has shown that women talk almost three times as much as men. In fact, an average woman notches up 20,000 words in a day, which is about 13,000 more than the average man. In addition, women generally speak more quickly and devote more brainpower to speaking. Yet before now, researchers haven't been able to biologically explain why this is the case.

Eun Kyung Kim, "Chatty Cathy, listen up: New study reveals why women talk more than men", Today Show 2/21/2013:

Women have a gift for gab, and now they can silence their critics with science.

New research indicates there’s a biological reason why women talk so much more than men: 20,000 words a day spoken by the average woman, according to one study, versus about 7,000 words a day for the average man.

Women’s brains have higher levels of a “language protein” called FOXP2, according to a study conducted by researchers at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

The stimulus for these little nuggets of nonsense was J. Michael Bowers, Miguel Perez-Pouchoulen, N. Shalon Edwards,3 and Margaret M. McCarthy, "Foxp2 Mediates Sex Differences in Ultrasonic Vocalization by Rat Pups and Directs Order of Maternal Retrieval",  The Journal of Neuroscience, February 20, 2013. More on Bowers et al. later — this morning, I'll just take up the "previous research has shown that women talk almost three times as much as men" business.

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The he's and she's of Twitter

My latest column for the Boston Globe is about some fascinating new research presented by Tyler Schnoebelen at the recent NWAV 41 conference at Indiana University Bloomington. Schnoebelen's paper, co-authored with Jacob Eisenstein and David Bamman, is entitled "Gender, styles, and social networks in Twitter" (abstract, full paper, presentation).

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Chinese terms of address for single ladies

When I started to learn Mandarin nearly half a century ago, it used to be that xiǎojiě 小姐 ("miss") was a polite way to refer to or address a young, unmarried woman. You could also extend xiǎojiě 小姐 ("miss", lit., "little elder sister") to convey other, related meanings, such as lǎo xiǎojiě 老小姐 ("old maid / miss"), xiǎojiě píqì 小姐脾气 ("petulant; flirtatious; coquettish"), and so forth. Gradually, however, xiǎojiě 小姐 ("miss") evolved to the point that it often came to be used in a jocular or facetious manner.  Furthermore, when used by itself, xiǎojiě 小姐 may be applied to prostitutes, so one must be careful when referring to someone with this word.  It seems that there is no longer a broadly accepted, relatively respectful term of address for a young, single woman.

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