Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Say goodbye to the female brain. Say hi to the female mouth

If you're an avid blog-reader, you'll remember last year's Myths of Mars and Venus story in which top linguist Deborah Cameron tore into the American bestseller The Female Brain. To summarise it, the writer of The Female Brain, Louann Brizendine made a claim that women use some 6000 more words a day than men, while Cameron (who is writing her own Myths of Mars and Venus) makes the point that there can be no "average" man or woman, least of all an average number of words we speak, because we use language differently depending on who we are, what we do, where we go and why we're doing it, and while gender may have some part to play in our language, it's one of many many factors.

The latest take on this comes in last week's news stories on a piece of research in Science magazine, reported here and here. According to The Guardian's story on this, "Men and women talk as much as each other, suggests a study which says that, on average, both genders speak around 16,000 words a day - a fact challenging the traditional notion that girls are considerably more chatty than boys".

The research is covered in more detail in The Times article here:

The first rigorous study exploring the verbosity of men and women has found both sexes equally capable of irritating jabber. The typical woman speaks an average of 16,215 words a day, while an average of 15,669 words pass the lips of men, a difference so small it is not statistically significant.

The most loquacious people of all, indeed, tend to be men, but men are also the most taciturn. All three of the biggest talkers who took part in the research were male, the most prolific of whom yakked his way through 47,000 words in a day. The most effusive woman managed a mere 40,000.

At the other end of the spectrum, one man spoke an average of just over 500 words each day. There were nine men who spoke fewer than 2,000 a day, compared with only four women.

As an average of 16,000 words are spoken each day, people who talk at 120 words per minute — the speed at which the BBC’s Huw Edwards reads the news — would end up speaking for a little more than two hours of the 17 they typically spend awake.
The Little Britain character Vicky Pollard, by contrast, speaks at 330 words per minute, and would get through the average daily word allocation in just 49 minutes.

The findings, from a team at the University of Arizona, overturn a notion that is not only popular with the public, but which has also found its way into scientific research.

The debate about male and female talk is continued here in a Times editorial, here on the BBC website and here in an article from today's Guardian. But as many commentators point out, the stereotype of women being chatterboxes is such a deeply ingrained social myth, that whatever the research presented to counter it, many refuse to accept it.

Useful for:
ENA3 - Male female conversation

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Ms - a missed opportunity?

The word Ms. - mostly used by women who don't see the need to reveal their marital status - gets extensive coverage in this Guardian article. The debate about Mr, Miss and Mrs goes to the heart of feminist linguistics.

Many (or should that be femy) argue that the titles given to women and men in English reflect a male dominated society in which women's status as married or unmarried is marked, while men have a single generic title. Some have argued that this shows that women's status in language is inferior. The article looks at the 40 year history of the word and attitudes towards it, commenting along the way that many young people have never heard of it, despite its prevalence in the 70s and 80s.

In my (obviously male) experience of attitudes to its use in English lessons, many students associate it stereotypically with either divorced women who wish to make a (possibly bitter) point about their new found single status, or more dismissively as referring to "those weird women" (probably feminists, possibly lesbians, maybe even wearing Nepalese yak-fur hoodies) who complain about everything and probably want to ban words like "history" and "human" for being too malecentric. But, this article explains exactly why Ms. is an important word and why it should be used. And it makes some much needed points about why language matters and how gender is often constructed through some of our language use.

Useful for:
ENA1 - Language & Representation
ENA5 - Language Change

Ee bah gum is ee bah gone

Yorkshire dialect is disappearing, I tell thee. At least, that's according to a report in today's Independent which reports on a new exhibition in the Yorkshire Dales that includes results of a local survey on people's use and recognition of dialect terms.

In the article, it's made clear that the Yorkshire accent is not under threat, but that the dialect (the lexis, semantics and grammar of the regional variety) is disappearing. The blame is placed squarely at the door of new technologies and the death of traditional farming industries, by the project's author Jo Cremins: old words associated with farming implements and practices have gone the way of the farms themselves, while the spread of new technology has speeded up the spread of standardised forms of the language, especially among younger people.

This story fits into the wider discourse around what's called dialect levelling, but as we have seen from the work of linguists such as Sue Fox and Paul Kerswill, dialects are also springing up as well as dying out. So, while some varieties of Yorkshire dialect may well be fading away, largely because their users no longer seem to need them or identify with them, others - often influenced by popular culture and Caribbean and American varieties of English - are growing and spreading.

And if you want more information about Yorkshire dialect try here and on the excellent BBC Voices website here (West Yorkshire) and here (North Yorkshire).

Useful for:
ENA5 - Language Varieties

Black British English vs MLE

The latest episode of Lexis is out and it features an interview with Ife Thompson about lots of issues connected to Black British English, i...