Archive for Language and gender

Sarah Koenig

Following up on our recent Vocal Fry discussion ("Freedom Fries"; "You want fries with that?"), Brett Reynolds wrote to suggest that "Sarah Koenig's vocal fry seems to be something new". As evidence, he suggested a contrast between a piece she did in 2000 ("Deal Of A Lifetime", This American Life #162, 6/23/2000) and one from 2014 ("The Alibi: Prologue", This American Life #537, 10/3/2014). Here are the opening passages from those two segments, along with another one from 2000 ("The Mask Behind The Mask", This American Life #151, 1/28/2000), her first for This American Life:

TAL #151
1/28/2000
TAL #162
6/23/2000
TAL #537
10/3/2014

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You want fries with that?

Following up on "Freedom Fries", it's worth pointing out that some of the most spectacular examples of creaky voice and vocal fry on This American Life don't come from the young women on the program, but from the host, Ira Glass. Here's the first half-sentence of his opening from the segment on vocal fry:

Ira Glass OK, so let's all just pause here for a second, for something that is so rare on public radio — or, you know, I guess anywhere, actually –

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Freedom Fries

On 1/23/2015, as part of a This American Life show on "What happens when the Internet turns on you?", Ira Glass took up an issue we've devoted a few posts to ("545: If You Don't Have Anything Nice to Say, SAY IT IN ALL CAPS — Act Two, Freedom Fries").

Recently, This American Life has been getting a lot of hate mail about the young women on our staff — listeners complain about their "vocal fry." […]

What's striking in the dozens of emails about vocal fry that we've gotten here at our radio show is how vehement people are. These are some of the angriest emails we ever get. They call these women's voices unbearable, excruciating, annoyingly adolescent, beyond annoying, difficult to pay attention, so severe as to cause discomfort, can't stand the pain, distractingly disgusting, could not get over how annoyed I was, I am so appalled, detracts from the credibility of the journalist, degrades the value of the reportage, it's a choice, very unprofessional.

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UM / UH update

Nine years ago, I stumbled on an unexpected fact about the filled pauses UM and UH ("Young men talk like old women", 11/6/2005). I found, as I expected, that older people tend to use UH more often than younger people do, and that males tend to use UH more than females. The surprising thing was that UM seemed to work in the opposite way, at least in the (large) American conversational-speech corpus that I looked at — younger people use UM more than older people, and females use UM more than males:

Last summer, some colleagues and I began a study of interviews with adolescents on the autism spectrum compared with neurotypical controls, and one of the features that we looked at was filled pause usage. We found a significant difference in UM vs. UH usage; and subsequently learned that some researchers from OGI had reported a similar finding in a poster at the 2014 International Meeting for Autism Research ("Fillers: Autism, gender, and age", 7/30/2014).

A couple of weeks later, this came up in coffee-break conversation at the Methods in Dialectology meeting in Groningen, and a few of the people sitting around the table in the break room immediately pulled out their laptops and started looking at other datasets. To our surprise, we found essentially the same pattern in the Philadelphia Neighborhood Corpus, in the (spoken part of) the British National Corpus, in the Edinburgh-Glasgow Map Task Corpus, and in collections of Dutch, German, and Norwegian conversational speech. This work has continued (for a partial progress report, see "UM / UH in Norwegian", 10/8/2014), and we hope to finish a journal paper on the topic over the holiday break. As part of the effort, I've looked a bit more closely at one of the datasets used in my 2005 post, and below I'll show you a few of the resulting pictures.

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Tim Cook, Bent Man

Last week, China was gaga over Facebook chairman Mark Zuckerberg for gamely, if somewhat lamely, speaking Mandarin before an audience of Tsinghua University students:

"Zuckerberg's Mandarin" (10/23/14)

In the days following his sensational performance at Tsinghua, while not universally showered with adulation (and Facebook is still blocked in China), Zuckerberg was generally acclaimed for his gutsy, good-natured effort to speak to Chinese people in their own language.

In stark contrast, poor Tim Cook (Apple CEO) was mocked by the Chinese netizenry for his declaration in Bloomberg Businessweek:  "So let me be clear: I’m proud to be gay…."

"Tim Cook Speaks Up" (10/30/14)

The resultant hullabaloo on the Chinese internet was instantaneous:

"Tim Cook Coming Out Has Turned China Into a Nation of 5th-Graders:  Despite the Apple CEO's good intentions, Chinese netizens can't seem to stop mocking iPhones for being gay. " (10/30/2014)

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Death before syntax?

Ursula K. LeGuin, "Introducing Myself":

What it comes down to, I guess, is that I am just not manly. Like Ernest Hemingway was manly. The beard and the guns and the wives and the little short sentences. I do try. I have this sort of beardoid thing that keeps trying to grow, nine or ten hairs on my chin, sometimes even more; but what do I do with the hairs? I tweak them out. Would a man do that? Men don’t tweak. Men shave. Anyhow white men shave, being hairy, and I have even less choice about being white or not than I do about being a man or not. I am white whether I like being white or not. The doctors can do nothing for me. But I do my best not to be white, I guess, under the circumstances, since I don’t shave. I tweak. But it doesn’t mean anything because I don’t really have a real beard that amounts to anything. And I don’t have a gun and I don’t have even one wife and my sentences tend to go on and on and on, with all this syntax in them. Ernest Hemingway would have died rather than have syntax. Or semicolons. I use a whole lot of half-assed semicolons; there was one of them just now; that was a semicolon after “semicolons,” and another one after “now.”

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Women modifiers

Maddie York, "Why there are too many women doctors, women MPs, and women bosses", The Guardian 10/17/2014:

I am a subeditor at the Guardian. I am a woman. I am not a woman subeditor. But “woman” and its plural seem to be taking over the role of modifier, so that now, there is no such thing, as far as much of the media is concerned, as a female doctor, a female MP or a female chef. Instead you hear or read about a woman doctor, a woman MP and so on. […]

As far as the Guardian style guide is concerned, it is simply wrong to use “woman” and “women” in this way, because, it says, they are not adjectives.

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Combating stereotypes — with stereotypes

Laura Starecheski, "Can Changing How You Sound Help You Find Your Voice?", NPR All Things Considered 10/14/2014:

Just having a feminine voice means you're probably not as capable at your job.  

At least, studies suggest, that's what many people in the United States think.

There's a gender bias in how Americans perceive feminine voices: as insecure, less competent and less trustworthy.  This can be a problem — especially for women jockeying for power in male-dominated fields, like law.

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UM / UH in German

We've previously observed a surprisingly consistent pattern of age and gender effects on the relative frequency of filled pauses (or "hesitation sounds") with and without final nasals — what we usually write as "um" and "uh" in American English, or often as "er" and "erm" in British English.

Specifically, younger people use the UM form more than older people, while at any age, women use the UM form more than men do. We've seen this same pattern in various varieties of American English and in John Coleman's analysis of the spoken portion of the British National Corpus, and we found the sex effect in the HCRC Map Task Corpus, which involves task-oriented dialogues among college students from Glasgow in Scotland.

It was even more surprising that Martijn Wieling found the same pattern in a collection of Dutch conversational speech.  And to make the puzzle more puzzling, Joe Fruehwald's analysis of the Philadelphia Neighborhood Corpus, which includes recordings across several decades of real time, suggests an on-going change in the direction of greater overall UM usage, as well as a life-cycle effect within each cohort of speakers. And Jack Grieve's analysis of Twitter data indicates a pattern of geographical variation within the U.S.

For additional details, see "Young men talk like old women", 11/6/2005; "Fillers: Autism, gender, age", 7/30/2014;  "More on UM and UH", 8/3/2014; "UM UH 3", 8/4/2014; "Male and female word usage", 8/7/2014; "UM / UH geography", 8/13/2014; "Educational UM / UH", 8/13/2014; "UM / UH: Lifecycle effects vs. language change", 8/15/2014; "Filled pauses in Glasgow", 8/17/2014; "ER and ERM in the spoken BNC", 8/18/2014; "Um and uh in Dutch", 9/16/2014.

Now Martijn Wieling has found the same pattern in German. His guest post follows.

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400 years of referential inequality

In "More fun with Facebook Pronouns", I noted that Facebook posts by males use masculine rather than feminine pronouns about 70% of the time, while female facebookers are much closer to a 50/50 split between masculine and feminine pronominal reference (48% masculine, to be exact). Tanja S. commented that

The discrepancy between male and female use of cross-sex pronouns is also present in the British National Corpus (1990s British English) and in the Corpora of Early English Correspondence (where we analysed English letters from 1600 to 1800).

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More fun with Facebook pronouns

Class discussion of the Facebook pronoun data brought out some interesting points.

We started by looking at the relationship between first-person singular pronouns ("I", "me", "my", "mine") and first-person plural pronouns ("we", "us", "our", "ours") as a function of the age of the poster. Here's the ratio of FPS/FPP frequencies:

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Sex and pronouns

Andy Schwartz recently gave me a copy of word counts by sex and age for the Facebook posts from the PPC's World Well-Being Project. So I thought I'd compare some of the Facebook counts to data from the LDC's archive of conversational speech transcripts. As a start, here's a comparison of rates of pronoun usage in the PPC Facebook sample and in the transcripts of the LDC's Fisher English datasets (combining Part 1 and Part 2).

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ER and ERM in the spoken BNC

From John Coleman:

Inspired by your recent Language Log pieces, I tried an analysis of "er" vs "erm" in the Spoken BNC. These are the two main transcriptions for filled pauses labelled as "UNC" in the Claws-5 tagset and also "UNC" in the richer set of pos labels used in BNC. I.e. they are distinguished from items labelled as ITJ / INTERJ, in which the few tokens of "uh" and "um" are classified. These "uh"s are almost all in "uh huh" meaning "yes", and many of the "um"s and "mm"s are also in contexts where the "yes" sense is clear. So I disregarded the ITJs and restricted the analysis to UNC "er" and "erm", which are far more numerous in any case. As these are mostly nonrhotic dialects one can interpret "erm" as just schwa + nasality, with no implication of rhoticity; ditto for "er".

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