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The Language of Eve

Geoffrey Nunberg

"Fresh Air" commentary,
January 3, 2007

In 1569, an Antwerp physician and naturalist named Johannes Goropius Becanus published a book arguing that the language spoken in the Garden of Eden must have been Flemish -- or more specifically, the Flemish of Antwerp -- and that all other languages could be derived from that tongue. According to Becanus, for example, the name Eve came from the Flemish words eu-vat -- "people barrel" or "barrel of generations" -- since all of humanity had its origin in Eve's womb.

Not surprisingly, Becanus's theories were congenial to many of his countrymen, though others found them loopy -- Ben Jonson ridiculed him in his play The Alchemist and the philosopher Leibniz turned his name into a verb that means "to speculate foolishly about language." But Becanus's spiritual descendants have flourished over the centuries. Scarcely a day goes by that the group of linguists I post with at the LanguageLog blog aren't debunking some claim about language that's no less absurd than Becanus's were. So we decided to create the annual Johannes Goropius Becanus award, or Becky for short, awarded to the promulgater of the single most ridiculous or misleading bit of linguistic nonsense that somebody manages to put over in the media.

The year 2006 was rich in contenders. Start with a character named Paul J. J. Payack, who announced last May that using a secret algorithm, he had determined that the English language contained exactly 986,120 words and that it would pass the million mark in the fall. It was a perfect example of what I think of as cow-pie linguistics, but the claim was duly reported by sources like the New York Times, Reuters, and NPR.

Then there was the publicist for the British dairy industry who managed to get the BBC to run a story in August that reported with all seriousness that cows from the English West Country moo with a distinct regional accent. If you believe that, I've got a English bulldog who drops his h's I want to sell you. And just last month, the BBC reported that research had shown that British teenagers had become so inarticulate that nearly a third of their speech consists of just 20 simple words like yeah and no. Actually, that figure is probably about right, but It sounds a lot less alarming when you realize the 20 most frequent English words account for around a third of everybody's speech, whether you're listening to William Safire, Susan Sontag, or the BBC's own news reports. 

But by a unanimous vote, this year's Becky goes to the psychiatrist Louann Brizendine, whose bestselling book The Female Brain argues that most of the cognitive and social differences between the sexes are due to differences in brain structure. It's a controversial thesis. The New York Times's David Brooks and others have hailed the book as a challenge to feminist dogma, and Brizendine herself has charged that her critics are angry because her conclusions aren't politically correct. Actually, though, you can leave out the "politically" part. The reviewers for the British science journal Nature described the book as "riddled with scientific errors." And in newspaper commentaries and posts on the LanguageLog blog, the University of Pennsylvania linguist Mark Liberman has been meticulously debunking Brizendine's claims about men's and women's language.

For example, Brizendine asserts that differences between men's and women's brains make women more talkative than men, and goes on to say that women on average use 20,000 words a day while men use only 7000. That factoid conforms so neatly with gender stereotypes about chatty women and taciturn men that a lot of people were indignant that anybody would spend money to discover anything so obvious. One reporter at a San Francisco TV station began his story on Brizendine by saying  "Here's a news flash. Women talk more than men. Duh."

Except that, duh!, it isn't true. It turns out that the figures Brizendine reported had been taken from a book by a self-help guru who had simply pulled them out of the air. And the studies that have been done generally show either that men talk slightly more than women or that the two sexes talk about the same amount.

Or take Brizendine's claim that women on average speak twice as fast as men do. That's another cherished bit of gender lore, but no research shows anything of the sort -- the best evidence indicates that men on average speak a bit faster than women do. Nor is there any scientific basis for her claims that men think about sex every 53 seconds while women think about sex only once a day, or that women are more emotionally attentive because their more sensitive hearing enables them to hear subtle tones and nuances in speech that escape men.

In short, saying that Brizendine's claims about sex differences in language are not exactly scientific gives "not exactly" a bad name. Yet the media generally covered the book uncritically, without running the claims past linguists or neuroscientists, or apparently, past their own science writers, either. In fact the book got much more media attention than any of the serious recent research on the biology of sex differences. That work suggests a more complex picture of the relation between nature and nurture. But in the lifestyle sections where these language items inevitably end up, the preference is for simple stories laced with plausible-sounding nuggets that confirm what we think we already know -- that English is the biggest language, that teenagers are inarticulate. Or in this case, that women are congenital chatteboxes. Four hundred and fifty years after Goropius Becanus, we're still easy marks for engaging fables about where Eve's language came from.

For more background on the Becanus Prize and the finalists, see "The Envelope, Please."

Copyright © 2007 Geoffrey Nunberg All rights reserved.