Gender in speech

I’m not well-versed enough to be able to comment intelligently on this piece from NPR about the use of a gender neutral pronoun, though I’m fascinated by it. Apparently, middle and high school aged students in Baltimore are using the word “yo” as “he” or “she,” even when they know the person’s gender. From the article:

So Troyer began to study her students. She gave them blank cartoons and asked them to fill in the captions — many of the cartoon characters were androgynous.

Troyer found the kids used “yo” instead of “he” or “she” when they didn’t know the gender of the character. But they also used “yo” as a substitute even when they did know the gender.

“They said things like, ‘Yo put his foot on the desk.’ So it was clear from this that they knew it was a male person, but they were just using ‘yo’ to refer to the person,” says Troyer. “And then in other sentences they would use ‘yo’ to refer to a female as well.”

On feminist blogs, I’ve read a lot of “hir” or “ze” or similar. But these have always been used by people who are very aware of what they are writing, if that description makes sense. The fact that “yo” is used so frequently by mainstream Baltimore kid suggests, according to the piece from NPR, that the students “have a view of the world that is, in many ways, gender neutral.”

Meanwhile, with me, what’s been bugging me for years was an article I read about male v. female speech patterns. Unfortunately, I can’t find anything about it online now. From what I remember, women are more likely than men to speak in less certain terms, using terms like “maybe” or “I think” or to just sound less definitive. I remember thinking two things when I read it: (1) I need to cut that shit out when I’m doing legal writing. I need to sound definitive. And (2) I wonder how many women were denied their right to an attorney because of this.

Under the 6th Amendment, we have the right to an attorney in a criminal proceeding and even during an investigation. But the police aren’t going to just give it to us. We have to ask for it. And we have to ask for it clearly and unequivocally.

[I]f a suspect makes a reference to an attorney that is ambiguous or equivocal in that a reasonable officer in light of the circumstances would have understood only that the suspect might be invoking the right to counsel, our precedents do not require the cessation of questioning.

From Davis v. United States, 512 U.S. 452 (1994). Thus if a suspect says “I think I might need a lawyer,” that might not be enough to make the questioning stop.

It scares me how easily women might be denied this right just because of how we were raised to speak.


About emmawolf

I'm a freelance writer living in Baltimore with my husband, son, and two cats. I'm working on editing my first novel. I love reading, traveling, and the cello.
This entry was posted in Feminist issues and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Gender in speech

  1. Muriel says:

    If it is any consolation to you, I have the same tendency, and I suspect e many of my colleagues might make fun of me because of it, but that may be just because I’m paranoid, I might be completely wrong in this assumption, anyway I do it, too, even if it’s no consolation at all.

    • emmawolf says:

      You mean in terms of using “maybe,” “I think,” etc? I wonder if this is something across cultures and languages or just American English. Also, I think (see) it’s actually useful in some settings. When writing professionally, I do my best to sound confidant and omit those terms. But in any more casual speech or writing, sometimes I think it can make the speaker sound humble or less argumentative, which could be a useful rhetorical devise itself?

      • Muriel says:

        I myself have not found this difference in male and female German speakers, but that obviously does not say a lot about the fact if it’s actually there or not. It’s just my personal experience.
        Funny enough, I’m very argumentative and not humble at all and come across as arrogant and condescending at times (though I try to work on that and my tutor wrote about me in our graduation journal that I was far less arrogant than I appeared, which I liked a lot), but I’m a very disorganized thinker as you might have gleaned from my comments here, and that shows when I’m speaking, as well. So, when I talk, I tend to interrupt myself to deliver a counterargument to what I just said, to then detour to something completely different I just don’t want to forget later on, then return to my original argument to interrupt that again and explain why it could be wrong… Hope you get the idea.

  2. kvetchnik says:

    the trouble with most proposed gender-neutral pronouns is that they’re so clunky, and frequently, the ones i see don’t seem to lend themselves to the possessive or to other cases. i suppose english will evolve a word as more people demand it (like in this local example), but languages tend to resist forced change, especially within a very limited time period.

    • emmawolf says:

      I don’t know enough about it, but you sound convincing. The article talked about that a little…I think. Apparently someone tried to introduce “thon” as a gender neutral pronoun in the late 1800s.

      • kvetchnik says:

        yeah, that one seemed awkward to me, too. maybe these things only work when they evolve naturally, like “yo” in the article. when i hear words specifically made up for things like this, they seem weird, you know? it’s like esperanto– it would work, except that not many people actually want to use it. 🙂

        • emmawolf says:

          I wonder if “yo” is used in other places. The article just said Baltimore because that was where this one teacher did her research. But I wonder if students in other cities are using it and we’ll here more about it after this.

  3. Interesting article indeed. I wonder if gender neutral pronouns are ever discussed within languages whose grammar rules focus heavily on masculine/feminine nouns. I’m thinking about the French and Spanish classes I took in high school and college. 50% of the reason I struggled so much through those classes was because of the damn masculine/feminine rules! Like, what if in Spain there is a man who identifies as a female; I guess my question of the hour is how do you describe genderqueer people in a language that depends on gender roles?

    • emmawolf says:

      Me too! I would guess/hope that it’d go by identity and just everything would change? It’s entirely possible that I don’t understand enough about language to even understand your question.

  4. Piper George says:

    One of the things I always found interesting about French was that they had the plural ‘you’ (vous) which means you can have a generalised conversation without sounding accusatory. For example, in English if *you* wanted to say something *you* would need to say ‘one would say’ – which one tends not to use as it is perceived as unfriendly/distancing yourself from the listener. “Whereas ‘vous’ would say” is clarifying that it is a generalisation without sounding distant or accusatory.
    So on the one hand I do like the use of the word YO to define people without gender, but at the same time I lament the demise of the language. Or should I celebrate the evolution of English, as I do the modernisation of most things?

    • emmawolf says:

      Celebrate the evolution of language! Language is always evolving! And in this case, if I understand correctly, it’s not so much of “people are using poor grammar, so poor grammar is becoming acceptable,” but more of “people are viewing their world in a new way and changing the language to express that.”

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s