Archive for Language and gender

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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And we have a winner…

Back in February, Arika Okrent asked "What is vocal fry?", in her column at Mental Floss. And she pointed out that

People’s voices naturally drop in pitch at the end of phrases, and in many speakers, it will drop into the fry zone at that point. The evidence that it’s a female thing is also anecdotal. Plenty of men fall into vocal fry. For instance, Noam Chomsky has it pretty bad.

As an example, she embedded Ali G's interview with Prof. Chomsky a decade ago, which we linked to back in 2006 ("Ali G in the land of colorless green ideas", 4/21/2006):

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Cameron v. Wolf

Naomi Wolf, "Young women, give up the vocal fry and reclaim your strong female voice", The Guardian 7/24/2015:

What’s heartbreaking about the trend for destructive speech patterns is that yours is the most transformational generation – you’re disowning your power.
[T]he most empowered generation of women ever – today’s twentysomethings in North America and Britain – is being hobbled in some important ways by something as basic as a new fashion in how they use their voices.

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More Pinker peace creak

Yesterday ("Pinker peace creak") I followed up on Breffni's reference to vocal fry/creak  in the speech of the young woman who introduces Steven Pinker's talk at the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize Forum. And indeed, in her first 40 words (16 seconds of audio, 8.3 seconds of voiced speech, 1,653 f0 estimate) I found three clear examples of phrase-final period-doubling.

But then, for a bit of balance, I took a look at the start of Pinker's talk — and found three clear examples of phrase-final period doubling in his first 21 words (12 seconds of audio, 5.2 seconds of voiced speech, 1048 f0 estimates).

Since the introducer does seem to exhibit the period-doubling phenomenon in a more striking way, I ended by wondering what the source of this perceptual difference is. But instead, I should have looked at a little more data, which would have clarified the situation, and suggested a way forward.

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Pinker peace creak

As Breffni noted yesterday in a comment on "Male vocal fry", the young woman introducing Steven Pinker's speech at the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize Forum frequently exhibits lots of period-doubling — what the popular press generally calls "vocal fry", though "creaky voice due to period-doubling" would be a more correct description.

Here's the start of the introduction, with red boldface used to mark the syllables that show period doubling:

The Nobel Peace Prize Forum is thrilled to have with us today doctor Steven Pinker, a Canadian-born U.S. experimental psychologist, cognitive scientist, linguist, and popular science author.

Doctor Pinker is a professor at Harvard, in the department of psychology, …

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Fresh Air on "policing" young women's voices

"From Upspeak To Vocal Fry: Are We 'Policing' Young Women's Voices?", Fresh Air (NPR), 7/23/2015:

Journalist Jessica Grose is no stranger to criticism of her voice. When she was co-hosting the Slate podcast, the DoubleX Gabfest, she would receive emails complaining about her "upspeak" — a tendency to raise her voice at the end of sentences. Once an older man she was interviewing for an article in Businessweek told her that she sounded like his granddaughter.

"That was the first moment I felt [my voice] was hurting my career beyond just irritating a couple listeners," Grose tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross.

Grose sought help from a voice coach in an effort to make herself sound more professional, but Stanford linguistics professor Penny Eckert argues that women shouldn't have to change their voices to suit society.

Eckert points out that the complaints about female upspeak and vocal fry (a tendency to draw out the end of words or sentences with a low, creaky voice) ignore the fact that men also engage in those habits. "People are busy policing women's language and nobody is policing older or younger men's language," Eckert tells Gross.

Grose and Eckert join speech pathologist Susan Sankin for a conversation about upspeak, vocal fry and how women's voices are changing — and whether that's a problem.

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Male vocal fry

Jaya Saxena, "Examples of Male Vocal Fry", The Toast 7/22/2015, presents YouTube videos of a bunch of well-known males (human and otherwise) exhibiting so-called vocal fry. There's no textual commentary — but the choice of examples, and the word "male" in the title, underlines the fact that young women are currently being criticized for a phenomenon that can be found to some degree in the speech of every human being who ever spoke, and indeed in the noises made by every creature that ever vocalized.

For example, here's Bruce Willis:

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Un justified

Deborah Cameron, "Just don't do it", language: a feminist guide 7/5/2015:

This week everyone’s been talking about an article in the Economist explaining how men’s use of language undermines their authority. According to the author, a senior manager at Microsoft, men have a bad habit of punctuating everything they say with sentence adverbs like ‘actually’, ‘obviously’, ‘seriously’ and ‘frankly’. This verbal tic makes them sound like pompous bullshitters, so that people switch off and stop listening to what they’re saying. If they want to be successful, this is something men need to address.

OK, people haven’t been talking about that article—mainly because I made it up. No one writes articles telling men how they’re damaging their career prospects by using the wrong words. With women, on the other hand, it’s a regular occurrence. This post was inspired by a case in point: a piece published last month in Business Insider, in which a former Google executive named Ellen Petry Leanse claimed that women overuse the word ‘just’.

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Just riffing

Ellen Leanse, "'Just' Say No", women2.0 2/17/2014 (republished as "Un'Just'", LinkedIn 5/15/2015, and  "Google and Apple alum says using this one word can damage your credibility", Business Insider 6/25/2015 — the quotes are from the Business Insider version):

A few years back I noticed something: the frequency with which the word "just" appeared in email and conversation from female co-workers and friends.  I first sensed this shortly after leaving Google and joining a company with a high ratio of female to male employees. […]

It hit me that there was something about the word I didn't like. It was a "permission" word, in a way — a warm-up to a request, an apology for interrupting, a shy knock on a door before asking "Can I get something I need from you?"  

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that it was a "child" word, to riff Transactional Analysis. As such it put the conversation partner into the "parent" position, granting them more authority and control. And that "just" didn't make sense.

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