Archive for Language and Words

Subtle Hints of How Writers View the Genders

Below is a fascinating article about statistical analysis showing differences in how female and male writers describe either their own or the opposite gender. (*)

Men Shout, and Women Scream—at Least in Fiction

The writer, Ben Blatt, analyzed twentieth-century writing within three categories–classics, best-sellers, and literary award-winners–and looked for patterns in the descriptions. He learned some interesting things. And as an avid reader (and a writer too), I had to laugh–nay, chuckle–kind of wryly–at some of those patterns.

For example, Blatt found that men are said to “mutter” much more often than women, while women, conversely, “murmur” more often than men. And that does sound familiar. I started trying to think about why that sounds, on first glance, kind of natural to me. I know that I have men “murmuring” in my stories, but I think it happens mostly when they are trying to be reassuring or comforting. On the other hand, to me at least, “muttering” suggests an element of grumbling or complaining that “murmuring” does not suggest. Maybe the idea of “murmuring” suggests more caring, which we–or I?–ascribe more to women than men? While a hint of complaint in “muttering” seems more natural to men?

This is something I’ll need to watch more carefully. And I know I’ll always be watching for these words, now, when I read other people’s writing too.

Another thing that made me wryly chuckle (something, apparently, that men do more than women, if you go by their writings) was that male writers seem to write women as interrupting someone far more often than men do, while women write both genders as equal-opportunity interrupters. This, on the part of the male writers, may be a case of projection. It’s been proven more than a few times (see, for example, linguistic researcher Deborah Tannen’s work) that men tend to interrupt (and, mostly interrupt women) far more often than the reverse. Yet the myth persists in society that women do the interrupting. That just is not the case. So that finding kind of got my feminist hackles up.

The article is an interesting read. And it’s also going to be interesting, from now on, to read books and stories with these patterns in mind. I will also need to check my own writing more carefully, I think, to make sure it’s not perpetuating subtle gender biases.

(* This does not include transgendered or nonbinary writers. I imagine that the analyst did not think of further classifying the genders; there could also be issues of finding classics or best-sellers for these categories, and maybe even literary award-winners. But it would be even more fascinating to learn what patterns might [or might not] be revealed for these writers too.)

Another Detour: a History of the Alphabet!

Language Visible

Anyone who knows me is aware that I am fascinated by the history of writing and by the alphabet in particular. I think the alphabet is probably the best invention ever. Or at least, I’d put it in the top five, along with things like the invention of the wheel, the discovery of fire, and the discovery of mathematics and the laws of physics. It’s that significant and world-changing.

So imagine how excited I was when I discovered a book by David Sacks: Language Visible: Unraveling the Mystery of the Alphabet from A to Z! (Not its only title. It’s complicated. **) What the book is is a history of how the English language got the 26 letters it has today. In fact — we almost had just 24 letters, since “J” and “V” did not get officially accepted as part of the alphabet until the mid-nineteenth century. That’s just one of the many interesting (to me) facts that this book presents.

David Sacks, a freelance journalist and journalism instructor at Carleton University and the University of Ottawa in Canada, introduces the general history of the alphabet before getting down to the history of each individual letter. And right there, I learned something I hadn’t realized: scholars no longer think that alphabetic writing began with the Phoenicians! Those people took it up when it was already a thousand years old. It seems that even this can be traced back to ancient Egypt, where some workers or soldiers in the employ of Egypt grabbed hieroglyphs for words that started with certain sounds, and used those pictures to represent the sounds themselves. Egyptian inscriptions have been found that show this alphabet in use for a Semitic language.

Through the Phoenicians, who refined this alphabet, and then through the Greeks (via trade with the Phoenicians) and then the Romans (adopting Greek writing), and then the various societies that arose as the Roman Empire vanished, we can trace those original Egyptian shapes as they gradually change into the forms and sounds that most of our letters have today. And an even more fascinating fact is that in virtually every language in the world that uses an actual alphabet instead of pictographs or syllabic writing, its alphabet descends from that original alphabet created in Egypt, either through the Phoenician alphabet or a sister South Arabian alphabet. Isn’t that cool?

Sacks also researched the history of each individual letter (and even some letters that no longer exist) and gives each letter its own chapter in the book. So as well as learning things like how the letter “F” actually began as the “W” sound and how it got changed, we learn how some letters have taken on a certain character over the centuries. (“A” means top-notch or top of the class, while the kind of lacklustre “E for effort” got a new lease on life with the development of the Internet and things like “e-mail” and “e-commerce.” And we know the various naughty things that “F” gets up to, while “V,” and “W” can thank their lucky stars that they had the mother they did — “U.”)

Along the way, we also learn some of the history of the societies through which the alphabet passed. We find out just how the trade between the Phoenicians and the Greeks moved the alphabet westward. (Imagine! If the Phoenicians hadn’t ventured as far as they did, we might be expressing things in very complicated, cumbersome pictographs at this very moment. Imagine a blog written like that.) And we realize that many of the Greek names for letters, which we are so familiar with through mathematics and other disciplines, are simply a translation of the original Semitic letter names into more Greek-sounding words. So the Semitic “daleth” became “delta.” “Gimel” became “gamma.” “Lamed” became “lambda.” “Kaph” became “kappa.” And so on.

We aren’t that far away from that very first alphabet, whatever we may think. Thanks to a rudimentary Egyptian picture=sound system picked up by groups of soldiers and transferred to their own Semitic language, there is a vast world of information and literature out there, in almost countless languages and dialects, that would have been much harder (if not impossible) to develop or to express if that ancient alphabet hadn’t existed.

If you love history and especially if you love the intricacies and history of language, I bet you’d really love this book.

(** See, regarding the book title, the thing is, according to Sacks, that he “took some bad advice.” Which is why the hardcover has the name of the book I read, while the name of the Canadian paperback is Letter Perfect: The A to Z History of our Alphabet, the name of the U.S. paperback is Letter Perfect: The Marvelous History of our Alphabet from A to Z, and the U.K. hardocver and paperback are both just called The Alphabet. Like I said above–complicated.)

(And while we’re on the subject, might I recommend another post of mine on one of my writing blogs: Why the Alphabet is the Best Invention Ever.)

Test Your Vocabulary – a Humbling Experience

You would think, as an editor and writer, not to mention a voracious reader of both fiction and nonfiction, that I would have a huge vocabulary. And I probably do. But I also travel in circles with many highly literate and well-read friends. So when they go through this Test Your Vocab research site and get 39K or 40K as a result, I am somewhat disgruntled that I only got 37,800 as the estimate of how many dictionary words I know at least one definition for.

Want to test your own vocabulary? Have a go! Remember to answer honestly, because this is a real research site trying to gather data.

And while you’re at it, try out the researchers’ latest tool, called Hardest Words, where you can test any general text you’re reading to get feedback on which are the eastiest and hardest words.

Now. I have a dictionary to go read.

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