Saturday, May 22, 2010

Confessions of a Language Geek

I love language. That's probably why I worship at the altar of poetry the way I do. Word choice, word position, and word juxtaposition all have the ability to radically change meaning and emotion.

That's powerful stuff.

If I had known there was such a field as linguistics, I might have gone down that road in college.

This article, on the pronoun, got all my geek circuits glowing: They Get to Me: A young psycholinguist confesses her strong attraction to pronouns, By Jessica Love

I had read about the study she cites near the end of the article, linking gender based language to gender-based associations. If you don't want to read the whole article (though I would highly recommend doing so--it's fascinating and very well written), I can summarize:

Some languages, unlike English, assign gender to nouns. The word for bridge is 'feminine' in German, 'masculine' in Spanish. Bilingual speakers (Spanish/English and German/English) were shown photos of a bridge and asked to describe it.

German speakers described the bridge in 'feminine' terms, Spanish speakers in 'masculine.' Though one researcher points out: "Just because a German thinks a bridge is feminine, doesn’t mean he’s going to ask one out on a date")

The other piece of Love's article that I found fascinating was her analysis here:

The lead researcher has an interesting interpretation: listening to proper names, over and over again, can be disruptive. Each proper name will bring with it a host of associations—not all of them particularly relevant.

Novelists spend a lot of time writing about characters interacting with one another. One of the no-no's is to overly reference the characters' names in dialogue or exposition. Yet, we also must make it clear who is speaking when and to whom. This can be especially challenging when there are two of the same gendered characters in a scene.

If, in a scene with two woman, say Jill and Kathy, and if using names all the time is disruptive, then you are left with the difficulty of referring to both characters as 'she'. Without extremely careful use of context (also referenced in this excellent article), the readers may be left in the dust.

A third element of Love's article that I found interesting is in the remarkably similar pronoun confusion of young children learning spoken English and ASL (American Sign Language). I took a semester of ASL in college and found that the spatial nature of the language extremely challenging to my distinctly un-spatial brain.

Love reminded me that ASL speakers will refer to someone by their proper name the first time in conversation, giving them a place holder by pointing to a specific place around them for that person. In continuing conversation, that person is referred to by referencing that point in space.

Further research suggests that when English speakers use pronouns, the places in their brains responsible for spatial relations lights up.

Cool, huh?

(hat tip: Dave Fenton)

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