Archive for Language and gender

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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RBF

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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The Female Brain movie

Silas Lesnick, "An ensemble cast has come together for Whitney Cummings’ The Female Brain movie", comingsoon.net 8/17/2016:

Black Bicycle Entertainment has today announced the ensemble cast for their upcoming The Female Brain movie, which marks the directorial debut of Whitney Cummings. Cummings herself will also star in the film, which she co-wrote alongside Neal Brennan, adapting the nonfiction book by neuropsychiatrist Louann Brizendine. […]

The Female Brain movie aims to comically detail the inner workings and complex power of brain chemistry among couples at different stages of their relationships. […] The film’s story follows five couples struggling through various stages of their relationships: whether it’s finding the right romantic balance; parenting; overcoming commitment issues; expressing emotion; or simply admitting to being useless around the house.

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The love organ of many names

British comedian Richard Herring is the author of a 2003 book entitled Talking Cock: A Celebration of Man and his Manhood, so he naturally seized upon the republicization opportunity provided by the recent story of the world's first successful penis transplant. He made it the topic of his weekly humor column in The Metro, the trashy free newspaper that I sometimes reluctantly peruse in my constant search for linguistic developments that might be of interest to Language Log readers.

In a bravura display of diversity of lexical choice, Herring contrived to use a different euphemism for the anatomical organ every time he could find an excuse for mentioning it, which, believe me, was a lot. And he left me pondering a serious lexicographical question: just how many euphemisms are there for the appendage in question?

[Unusually, this post is restricted to adult males. Please click "Read the rest of this entry" to confirm that you are male and over 18.]

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Sentence meaning and speaker meaning

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Annals of singular 'they': another case with known sex

Karen Thomson, a Sanskritist and antiquarian bookseller living in Oxford, wrote to me to point out the following very significant example of singular they in a Financial Times interview with TV writer and director Jill Soloway:

People will recognise that just because somebody is masculine, it doesn't mean they have a penis. Just because somebody's feminine, it doesn't mean they have a vagina. That's going to be the evolution over the next five years.

You see what makes this not just a dramatic claim in terms of sexual politics but a linguistically very revealing example?

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Alien encounter

I read Ancillary Justice, the first book in Ann Leckie's Imperial Radch series, at some point in the spring of 2014, and so I was not at all surprised to find Brad DeLong referring to her as "an extremely sharp observer […] author of the devastatingly-good Ancillary Justice", in a blog post "Ann Leckie on David Graeber's "Debt: The First 5000 Mistakes": Handling the Sumerian Evidence Smackdown", 11/24/2014, where he quotes at length from her blog post "Debt", 2/24/2013.

And if you haven't read Ann Leckie's trilogy, you should do yourself a favor and start doing so right away. But this is Language Log, not Science Fiction Book Review Log or Unreliable Economic History Log, so why am I bringing up Ann Leckie now?

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More on "mother" (focus on India)

A little over a year ago, I wrote about "The concept of 'mother' in linguistics " (6/25/14).  In that post, we looked at the use of the notion of "mother" for language studies in Ugaritic, Moabite, South Arabian, Phoenician, Aramaic, Syriac, Arabic, Greek, Latin, and Chinese.

Although I had a nagging recollection to the contrary, I stated:  "So far as I am aware, the notion of 'mother' does not have a similar function in Sanskrit phonology."  Although I wrote that, it bothered me ever since, inasmuch as I did remember from my Sanskrit studies of nearly half a century ago that "mother" did figure in Indian theories of language, but I just couldn't remember exactly what it was.

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The great creak-off of 1969

In a comment on yesterday's post about Noam Chomsky's use of creaky voice ("And we have a winner…", 7/26/2015), Tara wrote

At the risk of sounding like I missed the joke: creakiness in a speaker Chomsky's age is much more likely to be physiological in origin than stylistic. I checked older footage of Chomsky, and he does seem to have been quite a bit less creaky in the 60s than today. But more importantly, listen to William F. Buckley in the same recording! I suspect that Noam has been out-creaked.

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