October 01, 2006

Was Barbie Right??

Who could forget Barbie Doll's programmed utterance "Math is hard!" and the uproar it caused some years back? I was reminded of Barbie's opinion by the really interesting comment that Dick Margulis sent me a few weeks ago, triggered by my post Sex & Language Stereotypes through the Ages, which was about Otto Jespersen's chapter "The Woman". Dick describes a study done forty years ago on number-reading by women and men:

For some reason your post shook loose an item from my memory that you might find interesting.

In the mid-1960s, the Starch Organization did a study for the Peoria Journal Star newspaper in which they ascertained that, in news reports at least, men and women read numbers differently. (I would not begin to suggest that the result would be the same if the experiment were to be conducted today, nor that it would have applied in all geographic markets then; the study was of that time, place, and readership).

The paper ran a split edition on the test day. In half the papers, numeric quantities were expressed with numerals, in accordance with Associated Press style. In the other half, all numbers were spelled out.

Starch, if you are unfamiliar with their methods, interviews a random sample of the audience, in person, on the test date, and evaluates how much of each given article an individual has read and how much the individual has retained. What they found was that far more women than men stopped reading upon encountering numerals or, if they read past that point, were less able to recollect the amount, but that both amount read and amount retained were quite comparable for men and women if numbers were spelled out.

I suppose this isn't strictly a linguistic difference, and it pretty clearly has nothing to do with the way brains are wired--it's obviously culturally bound. I just thought you might find it of interest.

It may not be a strictly linguistic difference, but it sure looks like grist for our mill. Does anyone out there know if comparable studies have been done since the mid-1960s, and/or does anyone have any insight into the result of this study?

Posted by Sally Thomason at October 1, 2006 06:33 PM