September 10, 2006

Sex & Language Stereotypes through the Ages

Mark Liberman's recent posts on earnest but unsupported modern-day claims of profound gender-specific language differences keep reminding me of the unintentionally hilarious remarks by the great early 20th-century linguist Otto Jespersen on the subject, in his 1922 book Language: Its Nature, Development & Origin. At least I found Jespersen's analysis hilarious, when I first read it while giving a tutorial course to one of Yale's first women undergraduate students, back in 1971 or so. My student was unamused: she was currently suffering under the burden of being, all too often, the only woman in a class -- Yale was too cautious to admit a lot of women in that first group -- and having unreconstructed male professors demand that she provide "the woman's viewpoint" on some issue under discussion. Understandably, her sense of humor was impaired on the subject of discrimination against women.

Jespersen has a whole chapter entitled "The Woman". It begins with sections on things like the famous cultures in which men and women are reported to speak different languages and on gender-specific verbal taboos, but then he goes on to consider general differences in men's and women's speech. At one point (p. 252) he discusses a reading experiment in which

the same paragraph was presented to various well-educated persons, who were asked to read it as rapidly as they could, ten seconds being allowed for twenty lines. As soon as the time was up the paragraph was removed, and the reader immediately wrote down all that he or she could remember of it. It was found that women were usually more successful than men in this test. Not only were they able to read more quickly than the men, but they were able give a better account of the paragraph as a whole....But it was found that this rapidity was no proof of intellectual power, and some of the slowest readers were highly distinguished men. Ellis (Man and W. 195) explains this in this way: with the quick reader it is as though every statement were admitted immediately and without inspection to till the vacant chambers of the mind, while with the slow reader every statement undergoes an instinctive process of cross-examination; every new fact seems to stir up the accumulated stores of facts among which it intrudes, and so impedes rapidity of mental action."

So the women did better at the reading task because their empty heads permitted the quick absorption of facts, while the men's reading progress was slowed because their heads were stuffed with great thoughts and facts! I love it.

I can't find it right now, but I'm pretty sure there's another gem along these lines in Jespersen's book. It's connected with his belief that women's sentence construction is much simpler than men's (pp. 251-252):

In learned terminology we may say that men are fond of hypotaxis and women of parataxis. Or we may use the simile that a male period is often like a set of Chinese boxes, one within another, while a feminine period is like a set of pearls joined together on a string of ands and similar words.
Elsewhere (I think), while discussing children's acquisition of their first language, he says that it's a good thing that children learn their language mainly from their mothers and other women, because women speak so much more simply than men and their speech is therefore a better model for the child's learning task.

At this point some readers might be wondering why I began this post by calling Jespersen a great linguist. He was, he was. He was also a man of his era, and it shows in his view of gender differences in language use.

For some of Mark's recent posts on the general issue, see his Open-Access Sex Stereotypes and the links given there, or his Vast Arctic Tundra of the Male Brain.

Posted by Sally Thomason at September 10, 2006 11:07 AM