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"Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men."

Col 3:23

Man-Talk, Woman-Talk

In some languages, men and women talk very differently, or a speaker of either sex will talk differently depending on the sex of the interlocutor or the person being talked about. Sex matters a great deal in many languages in ways it barely matters (if at all) in English. Of course, we might say ‘sir’ to a man and ‘sister’ for female sibling. In colloquial English, a recent study found that the word ‘dude’ is three times more likely to be uttered in conversations between men than those involving women.

But it is hard to find in English any examples of how the sex of the speaker or addressee affects the actual grammar (not just the pronunciation) of the language. Small and endangered languages offer many more examples of how sex interacts directly with grammar. In Arapaho (1,038 speakers in Oklahoma), even expressions like ‘hello’, ‘yes’, and ‘wait’ are totally different when said by a man than by a woman.

In Arapesh (spoken by 30,000 speakers in three dialects in New Guinea), if I say the word mehinen to you and you are a man, I am talking about your sister’s son, but if you are a woman, then I am referring to your brother’s daughter.41 In other words, the sex of the person being talked about can only be known if the sex of the person being talked to is known. If you were eavesdropping on my Arapesh conversation but could not see my addressee, you would not know if I was gossiping about a man or a woman.

Also, it is impossible to translate ‘nephew’ or ‘niece’ into Arapesh unless you know who the aunt or uncle is. In Gros Ventre42 (10 or fewer speakers left in Montana), men and women once used different sounds, words, and exclamations. For ‘bread’, men say jatsa and women kyatsa; for ‘hello’ boys would say wei and girls ao.43 The sound ‘ch’ was spoken only by adult, fluent male speakers, while ‘k’ was used in its place by women, children, and non-fluent adult males including visiting linguists. Words like ‘teepee’, ‘porcupine’, ‘buffalo’, and ‘boy’ had distinctly different pronunciations.

All these distinctions began to merge as the number of speakers dwindled. But in the past, the community was keenly aware of sex differences in speech. If a male child entering his teen years continued to pronounce ‘k’, he would be admonished sternly to use ‘ch’ instead. A linguist from outside the tribe would be told to use ‘k’ instead.

Yanyuwa (70 speakers in Australia) women and men talk so differently that their speech is really two different dialects.45 Differences go beyond sounds or words, encompassing grammatical affixes, pronouns, and other parts of speech.

Women’s talk is reportedly more complex, and men imitate it only imperfectly. The Yanyuwa rigidly enforce speech-sex differences by scolding mistakes, especially those made by newly-initiated adult men expected to adopt fully male speech. One young Yanyuwa man recounted: “When I spoke like a woman my father said to me, ‘Where are your breasts and woman’s parts [vagina]?’ I was really ashamed.

I was very careful for a while after that to speak men’s words.”46 Use of opposite sex speech is only tolerated in risqué acts, such as a man impersonating a woman in dance, or in myth songs recounting the female creators’ voices.

Similar to the gender restrictions discussed above, many languages require speakers to use different words or speech styles or even different grammar rules when talking to people of higher social status. Formality patterns, found in very large languages like Japanese (125 million speakers) or Javanese47 (75 million speakers), also pop up in smaller languages. Sasak (2.1 million speakers), spoken on Lombok Island in Indonesia, is said to have at least three distinct levels of formality: low, high, and very polite. Depending on your own social status relative to your addressee, you must utter one of three very different sentences to say exactly the same thing.

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