19 October, 2006

Dean Swift's language experiment

Last month, Languagelog's Mark Liberman was all over gendered-language myths: that men and women speak (and think) all different, like. See here, for instance, or here, or here. Well, this week I came across a delightful forerunner to this stuff (the myths, that is, not the critique), from the pen of our own beloved satirist, Jonathan Swift. In his decidedly unsatirical Proposal for correcting, improving and ascertaining the English tongue (1712), Swift spouts all the usual clichés about the men of harsh-climated Northern Europe grumbling in harsh consonantal clusters, and those of the warm Mediterranean chattering in languorous washes of warm vowels, but then he provides a spin I hadn't heard before—that this difference corresponds to the speech-patterns of English men and women. He deplores the male habit of eliding vowels and running together consonants, of saying, for instance, 'disturb'd', rather than 'disturbèd', and he notes that women more often elide their consonants, producing a childish babble of vowels. What comes next is most curious: Swift, a good British empiricist, records what must be one of the earliest modern linguistic experiments—not quite as bold as Psammetichus, but still:
more than once, where some of both Sexes were in Company, I have persuaded two or three of each, to take a Pen, and write down a number of Letters joyned together, just as it came into their Heads, and upon reading this Gibberish we have found that which the Men had writ, by the frequent encountring of rough Consonants, to sound like High-Dutch [German]; and the other by the Women, like Italian, abounding in Vowels and Liquids.
I wonder if Liberman would be interested. . .

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Mark might be interested in Japanese, for example, where men and women do speak differently.