Archive for Language and gender

Don't splain me, bro!

A week ago I posted Don't skunk me, bro!, which riffed on Jonathon Owen's post Skunked Terms and Scorched Earth on Arrant Pedantry. Jonathon's post had discussed Bryan Garner's practice of declaring that certain expressions should be avoided because they are supposedly "skunked". Garner uses that term to refer to expressions that are in the process of undergoing a hotly disputed change of meaning, with the result that, in Garner's words, "any use of it is likely to distract some readers".

Shortly after posting "Don't skunk me, bro!", I got a message on Twitter from Tcherina (@grammarguidecom): "Glad to see you taking up the 'skunked' issue. I got bullied and splained when I tweeted Jonathon's piece [i.e., the post that had prompted mine], which I thought was very good."

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Zombie factoid check

It's been a few years since I checked for references to the invented "science" of gender differences in talkativeness — and a scan of recent news articles for "words per day" turns up a steady drip of replications.

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Linguists and change

In recent years, a rapid and important cultural change in the understanding of gender has been taking place in American society and beyond. A Harris poll from this year, reported in a Time Magazine cover story, found that “20% of millennials say they are something other than strictly straight and cisgender, compared to 7% of boomers”. At the University of Pennsylvania, many staff members specify preferred pronouns in their email signatures, and introductory meetings for first-year students often start by asking everyone present to specify their pronouns. Many schools, including Harvard, ask undergraduates to choose their pronouns upon registration. Several states have added the option of X as a third gender category on official government documents. At the same time, gender identity has become a polarizing issue in political debates, and gender non-conforming people are more at risk of violence and suicide. We offer this summary for readers who haven’t been in the midst of this change themselves or had a front row seat on it, as some of us have.

Cultural change, personal vulnerability, generational difference, political hostilities, and changes in language use with grammatical implications, all in play. What could possibly go wrong?

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On when listening is better than talking: A call for contemplation and empathy

The following is a reply from Emily M. Bender, Natasha Warner and myself to Geoff Pullum’s recent posts (A letter saying they won, 12/4/2017; Courtesy and personal pronoun choice, 12/6/2017).

Respected senior linguist Geoffrey K. Pullum recently used the widely-read platform of Language Log to remark on the fact that his grammatical tolerance of singular they only goes so far (A letter saying they won, 12/4/2017). For Pullum, singular they cannot be used in reference to a personal name; example sentences such as Kimi said theyi were going to the store are ungrammatical for him. This fact is not in dispute, nor is the fact that this is a salient grammaticality judgment for Pullum. What is in dispute, however, is the appropriateness of a series of choices that Pullum has made in reporting this grammaticality judgment. Those choices have clearly hurt people. The following is an effort to explain the hurt that these choices have caused and to give Pullum — and everyone from his defenders to those who don’t see what all the fuss is about — another opportunity to respond with contemplation and empathy as opposed to defensiveness and continued disrespect.

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Lin Tianmiao's "Protruding Patterns": sexism in Chinese characters

Article by Sarah Cascone in Artnet (October 16, 2017):

This Artist Gathered 2,000 Words for Women—and Now, She Wants You to Walk All Over Them:  Lin Tianmiao's installation at Galerie Lelong puts contemporary language on top of antique carpets."

Here's an example of Lin's work:

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Guys and gals: Or, why the "Chinese" are called "Han"

In the comments to "Easy versus exact" (10/14/17), a discussion of the term "Hànzi 汉子" emerged as a subtheme.  Since it quickly grew too large and complex to fit comfortably within the framework of the o.p., I decided to write this new post focusing on "Hàn 汉 / 漢" and some of the many collocations into which it enters.

To situate Language Log readers with some basic terms they likely already know, we may begin with Hànyǔ 汉语 ("Sinitic", lit., "Han language"), Hànyǔ Pīnyīn 汉语拼音 ("Sinitic spelling"), and Hànzì 汉字 ("Sinograph, Sinogram", i.e., "Chinese character").  All of these terms incorporate, as their initial element, the morpheme "Hàn 汉 / 漢".  Where does it come from, and what does it mean?

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David Bonderman no longer talking for Uber

J.P. Mangalindan, "LEAKED AUDIO: Uber's all-hands meeting had some uncomfortable moments", 6/13/2017:

Uber held an all-hands meeting on Tuesday, during which the board announced that CEO Travis Kalanick would take a leave of absence. Furthermore, management shared recommendations from the law firm Covington & Burling on how the embattled ride-hailing startup can fix its culture after complaints of sexual harassment. […]

While speaking, Huffington pointed out that Uber was adding a woman to its board, Wan Ling Martello.

“There’s a lot of data that shows when there’s one woman on the board, it’s much more likely that there will be a second woman on the board,” she said around six minutes into the recording.

“Actually what it shows is it’s much likely to be more talking,” Uber board member David Bonderman said.

“Oh. Come on, David,” Huffington responded.

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Age, sex, and f0

I've recently been working with Naomi Nevler and others from Penn's Frontotemporal Degeneration Center on quantifying the diverse effects in speech and language of various neurodegenerative conditions. As part of an effort to establish baselines, I turned to the English-language part of the "Fisher" datasets of conversational telephone speech (LDC2004S13, LDC2004T19, LDC2005S13, LDC2005T19), where we have basic demographic information for 11,971 speakers, including age and sex. These datasets comprise 11,699  short telephone conversations between strangers on assigned topics, or 23,398 conversational sides, with a total duration of 1,958.5 hours. The calls were recorded in 2003.

For this morning's Breakfast Experiment™, I took a look at age-related changes in pitch range, as quantified by quantiles of fundamental frequency (f0) estimates. We have time-aligned transcripts, so after pitch-tracking everything, I can extract the f0 estimates for each speaker, combine them across calls if the speaker was involved in more than one call, and calculate various simple statistics. Here are the median values for the 90th, 50th, and 10th percentile of f0 estimates by decade of age from 20s to 70s. Values for female speakers are in red, and for male speakers in blue:

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What a woman can't do with their body

Mark Meckes noticed a tweet about an interview with Emma Watson, who was being discussed in this Language Log post, and mentioned it in a comment thereto. It was completely off topic (and thus violated the Language Log comments policy), but I felt it was too interesting to be left languishing down there in a comment on a post about preposition doubling, so I'm repeating it here, where it can have its own post:

If you think @EmmaWatson is a hypocrite, maybe consider you shouldn't be telling a woman what they can and can't do with their own body.

Two occurrences of singular they (they and their), with the phrase a woman as antecedent!

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The craven feminine pronoun

The Times Literary Supplement diarist who hides behind the initials "J.C." makes this catty remark (issue of January 6, 2017, page 36) about Sidney E. Berger's The Dictionary of the Book: A Glossary of Book Collectors:

"Predictions were that the Internet would do away with dealers' catalogs and it is true that many a dealer has gone from issuing catalogs to listing her whole stock online." Bookselling and book collecting are among the world's stubbornly male pastimes — deplorable, no doubt, but less so than the use of the craven pronoun throughout The Dictionary of the Book (Rowman & Littlefield, $125).

J.C. (who, Jonathan Ginzburg informs me, is widely known to be an author, book dealer, and bibliophile named James Campbell) is objecting to the use of she as a gender-neutral pronoun. And you can just guess that a snooty writer in TLS who quibbles about other people's grammar choices would hate singular they. J.C. would probably regard it as "abominable", the way Simon Heffer does. Which can only mean that he advocates use of the traditional practice of he as the gender-neutral 3rd-person singular pronoun, the one that The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (CGEL) calls "purportedly sex-neutral he (see pp. 491–493).

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"Comrade" between communism and gaydom

In "Call me comrade … party requires members to resurrect Maoist term to signal equality:  Outdated greeting seen by analysts as a distraction and unworkable in today’s world" (SCMP, 11/13/16), Sidney Leng writes:

A written guideline requiring Communist Party members to once again address each other as “comrade” is an outdated resurrection of Maoist rhetoric and unworkable in today’s world, analysts said.

In the latest guideline on cadres’ political conduct issued earlier this month, the Party brought back an old political etiquette that used to be closely associated with the country’s revolutionary period, when calling each other comrades created a sense of equality and closeness similar to that of siblings.

“All cadres should now greet each other as comrades within the Party,” the guideline states.

In modern times, however, such outdated greetings could lead to confusion, since the term comrade, or tongzhi in Chinese, is also used to refer to homosexuals.

Politically, analysts said, the revival of the term was just another sign of Xi’s continued push to centralise his authority.

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A Sanskrit tattoo in Hong Kong

This is Yau Wai-ching 游蕙禎 (b. 1991), a member of the localist political group Youngspiration and a newly elected member of Hong Kong's Legco (Legislative Council):

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Lisa Feldman Barrett, "Hillary Clinton's 'Angry' Face", NYT 9/23/2016:

When Hillary Clinton participated in a televised forum on national security and military issues this month, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, Reince Priebus, tweeted that she was “angry and defensive the entire time — no smile and uncomfortable.” Mrs. Clinton, evidently undaunted by Mr. Priebus’s opinion on when she should and shouldn’t smile, tweeted back, “Actually, that’s just what taking the office of president seriously looks like.”

The implication of Mr. Priebus’s comment was a familiar one: A woman making stern-looking facial movements must be angry or upset. A man who looks the same, on the other hand, is focusing on the important matters at hand.

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