Women and Language

Hat-tip to Battlepanda: Mark Liberman of The Language Log refutes the latest binge of “women are verbal and men are visual, so let’s perpetuate the patriarchy” arguments so that you don’t have to.

It’s recently fashionable for books and articles to enlist neuroscience in support of the view that men and women are essentially and unavoidably different, not just in size and shape, but also in just about every aspect of the way they see, hear, feel, talk, listen and think. These works tend to confirm our culture’s current stereotypes and prejudices, and the science they cite is often overinterpreted, and sometimes seems simply to have been made up. I recently discussed an example from Leonard Sax’s book Why Gender Matters (“Are men emotional children?“, 6/24/2006), which David Brooks has used to support an argument for single-sex education. The latest example of this genre, released August 1, is Louann Brizendine‘s book “The Female Brain“.

One of Brizendine’s claims is that on average, women use 20,000 different words a day whereas men use 7,000 (presumably, there’s the assumed qualifier “Anglophone” or “American,” considering that there are plenty of languages that don’t even have 20,000 unique lexemes). Mark eviscerates that claim, showing that there’s no evidence for it, to the extent that he can prove a negative:

I looked through the book to try to find the research behind the 20,000-vs.-7,000-words-per-day claim, and I looked on the web as well, but I haven’t been able to find it yet. Brizendine also claims that women speak twice as fast as men (250 words per minute vs. 125 words per minute). These are striking assertions from an eminent scientist, with big quantitative differences confirming the standard stereotype about those gabby women and us laconic guys. The only trouble is, I’m pretty sure that both claims are false.

With respect to the speech rate claim, I’ve just run a script on a corpus of 5,202 transcribed and time-aligned telephone conversations, involving native speakers of American English with a wide variety of ages, regions and backgrounds. The average speech rate for the males was 174.3 wpm, and the average speech rate for the females 172.6 wpm. I assume that Brizendine didn’t just concoct her figures about male vs. female speech rates out of thin air — she must have gotten them from a study that someone did somewhere, sometime, or at least from some other author plugging another work in the flourishing genre of pop gender studies — but let’s say, at least, that it ain’t necessarily so. I’ll post something more about Brizendine’s striking speaking-rate and words-per-day claims as soon as I can figure out what evidence she based them on. [More on female and male speaking rates is here, and more on the number of words men and women typically speak per day is here.]

Even if men and women do use different numbers of unique words per day, automatically attributing that to innate sex differences is hasty. Consider this thought experiment:

Freedonia is a very patriarchal society, where men are subject to universal conscription, and women are not allowed to take jobs outside home. Freedonia hasn’t fought a war in 40 years and its military is primitive, and its male-dominated industries are stagnant enough that they don’t produce any new specialized vocabulary. In contrast, there are plenty of household appliances, and a rich semantic space in Freedonian for household tasks. Further, military terms are largely native and can only be augmented by native derivational affixes, of which there are few since Freedonian is an analytic language in origin. But most household terms are borrowed, and can be augmented by the much larger set of affixes available in the languages Freedonian women come into contact with. Naturally, women will use many more unique words than men.

In contrast, suppose that Kumran is an equally patriarchal society, but its language partitions different semantic spaces differently. Its military is modern and so is its oil industry, so its (invariably male) industrial workers possess an enriched specialized vocabulary and are often able to choose between a general Kumrani word, a specialized Kumrani military or industrial term that got generalized by analogy, or a borrowing. At the same time, women, who are conclaved in their homes and shut off from the outside world, have little opportunity to communicate with other people, read books, or be exposed to the public sphere’s vocabulary. In Kumran, men will obviously use more unique words than women.

It matters which language you decide to base your research on. It matters which society you do your study in. It matters which social factors control men and women’s language use.

And, of course, it matters that there’s no evidence that there’s even a discrepancy to explain with social factors.

6 Responses to Women and Language

  1. Sreenathan says:

    Men is a victim of prejudices and conventions. It is patriarchial social production. He feels he is absolute in right and might. Such feeling itself is a balnket of his insecurity. This very insecurit y led him to live with vanity which he expresses in different ways. He is blind to see the other and he feels beyond him there is emptiness everywhere. Such sickness made him to keep on arguing and findingout new and new means of differentiation. It is pity !!!!!!!

  2. euny says:

    I think a difference in use of unique words between the sexes is difficult to imagine amongst the people I know, but maybe could be explained to some extent by the fact that there is a stereotype that women are better communicators than men. Women grow up in a world where communication-heavy relationships with other women are expected of them, and where they are expected to keep their emotions on the surface, and to communicate them to others. This is less expected and perhaps less acceptable from men, depending on how the people around you are inclined to expect you to act. The media, however, does seem to promote this image. This may (I really have no evidence/research about this, it’s just a thought, and perhaps one that should be considered before the genders are labelled as having immutably different brains) result in men being socialised to not use vocabulary to capacity on average, as it may seem to be an effeminate characteristic (homophobia is also a problem, but that’s a whole new post), whereas women are encouraged to use their vocabulary to capacity, not least because of the need to assert one’s intelligence as a woman, to overcome yet more stereotyping…

    Who knows? It does seem incredible that there would be such a difference. But no matter whether it is true or not, it proves nothing either way. It would be worth more research if it were true. Yet more proof of the stereotype threat, perhaps?


  3. euny says:

    sorry, that link was supposed to be:


    It shows about how the stereotype threat works, and how it really can effect real life (thus perpetuating the stereotype, very interesting)

  4. euny says:

    God, sorry, I hadn’t actually read the whole thing, just the “environmental explanations” bit. Well I feel like a dufus, one I hope you don’t suddenly think is a big racist. Hmm, the internet, you never know what you’re gonna get… especially if you link pages without reading them….

  5. Alon Levy says:

    Oh, that Wikipedia article is fairly notorious with giving the Gene Expressions crowd too much credence.

    In principle, evidence that women use more unique words than men across languages and cultures will be mostly invulnerable to a stereotype threat based criticism. The idea that women are verbal while men are visual is far from global. But there’s no evidence of that difference in even one language, so it’s an entirely hypothetical point.

  6. Hi boys! says:

    Hello peopleb8b800cb10b2e620cca2294ad9d36dbf

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