Caroline’s at Uncool has had a couple of posts recently that caught the attention of the linguist portion of my brain (which the blogosphere seems to be trying desperately to rouse from its dormancy).
First, Language of Feminists covers a lot of similar ground to a post I was going to write a while back based on the same comments (one of many posts that exist only in my mind, but that are brilliant and revolutionary, and if only I didn’t have to do my dishes, could have changed the world).
Then, she also linked to the Gender Genie, a tool that will analyze your text to determine whether it was written by a man or a woman, based on an algorithm developed by a couple of computational linguists. The programmer who wrote the code (and who has presumably seen lots and lots of data from the demographic survey attached to the Gender Genie site) admits:
Despite having written the program, I didn’t come up with the algorithm and believe that the Genie works no better than the flip of a coin.
She goes on to say that because “serious academic study” went into the algorithm, it’s not a complete waste of time to think about it and to describe how the linguists in question did their work:
Using complicated formulas, they determined that male writers tended to write more about specific things like an apple, a book, or the car. In contrast, female writers wrote about connections to things like my apple, your book, or our car.
Memo to the world: complicated formulas, mathy words like “algorithm”, academic credentials and serious, intense study don’t mean jack shit if the results of your hard (and probably well-paid) work don’t predict reality any better than the flip of a coin. (Also, that paragraph misrepresents the linguistics of determiners and possessive pronouns, but that’s just me being pedantic.) Apparently, even though the damn thing is, you know wrong about real people and real conversation, this programmer has received a number of letters thanking her for helping authors to write the speech of male or female characters more realistically.
Which brings me back to the accusations of “violent”, “pornified”, “masculine” language that have regularly been used to dismiss arguments made by the wrong kind of feminist (/the wrong kind of woman). Caroline’s points are all great, but in combination with the “Gender Genie” bullshit, this quoted comment, originally by Maggie Hayes, stands out:
“laughing like a super villain”? “wank worthy fantasy”? I agree that these comments were totally inappropriate. This makes me think: this kind of language is awfully similar to the sort of language a porn-using abuvive ex-boyfriend of mine was often using when talking to me.
Apparently, so is “the”.
I know I’m being overly dismissive, but this language shit really gets to me, and the above comment really shows how the arguments are becoming all layered on top of one another, such that it’s now impossible to actually have a discussion about the issue of how to stop or deal with the abuse she suffered from this ex-boyfriend, because instead we’re talking first about the fact that he used porn and further about the language he used to talk about the fact that he used porn. I know language can be triggering, I definitely know that language can be violent, but those of us who are survivors of abuse and assault and violence need to learn to see words and expressions in context, lest we start conflating the use of words like “wank” or “supervillain” with assaulting people, no matter the meaning behind them, as long as they’re not being used by us/against people we don’t like.
Because, see, if we’re going to actually start getting uncomfortable with “masculine” language, and we’re going to continue to assume that “masculine”=”aggressive” (a point that is far from uncontestable or unproblematic), and we’re going to create linguistically “feminine”/nurturing/comfortable spaces, then the Gender Genie and its complicated algorithms inform us that we’re going to have to make sure people stop using words like “the”, “is” and “to”. Because who cares about pesky things like “meaning” and “context” and “reality”, anyway?
(By the way, the Genie thinks the author of this post is male).