Are “a female” and “a male” used differently?

In this first part of this two-post series, I looked at how “a male” and “a female” were used on Twitter. I found that one part of speech tagger tagged “male” as a proper noun really frequently (which is weird, cause it isn’t one) and that overall the phrase “a female” was waaaay more frequent. Which is  interesting in itself, since my initial question was “are these terms used differently?” and these findings suggest that they are. But the second question is how are these terms used differently? To answer this, we’ll need to get a little more qualitative with it.

Using the same set of tweets that I collected last time, I randomly selected 100 tweets each from the “a male” and “a female” dataset. Then I hand tagged each subset of tweets for two things: the topic of the tweet (who or what was being referred to as “male” or “female”) and the part of speech of “male”  or “female”.

Who or what is being called “male” or “female”?

Rplot

Because there were so few tweets to analyze, I could do a content analysis. This is a methodology that is really useful when you don’t know for sure ahead of time what types of categories you’re going to see in your data. It’s like clustering that a human does.

Going into this analysis, I thought that there might be a difference between these datasets in terms of how often each term was used to refer to an animal, so I tagged tweets for that. But as I went through the tweets, I was floored by the really high number of tweets talking about trans people, especially Mack Beggs, a trans man from Texas who was forced to wrestle in the women’s division. Trans men were referred to as “a male” really, really often. While there wasn’t a reliable difference between how often “a female” and “a male” was used to refer to animals or humans, there was a huge difference in terms of how often they were  used to refer to trans people. “A male” was significantly more likely to be used to describe a trans person than “a female” (X2 (2, N = 200) = 55.33, p <.001.)

Part of Speech

Since the part of speech taggers I used for the first half of my analysis gave me really mixed results, I also hand tagged the part of speech of “male” or “female” in my samples. In line with my predictions during data collection, the only parts of speech I saw were nouns and adjectives.

When I looked at just the difference between nouns and adjectives, there was a little difference, but nothing dramatic. Then, I decided to break it down a little further. Rather than just looking at the differences in part of speech between “male” and “female”, I looked at the differences in part of speech and whether the tweet was about a trans person or a cis (not trans) person.

Rplot01

For tweets with “female”, it was used as a noun and an adjective at pretty much the same rates regardless of whether someone was talking about a trans person or a cis (non-trans) person. For tweets with “male”, though, when the tweet was about a trans person, it was used almost exclusively as a noun.

And there was a huge difference there. A large majority of tweets with “a male” and talking about a trans person used “male” as a noun. In fact, more than a third of my subsample of tweets using “a male” were using it as a noun to talk about someone who was trans.

So what’s going on here? This construction (using “male” or “female” as a noun to refer to a human) is used more often to talk about:

  1. Women. (Remember that in the first blog post looking at this, I found that “a female” is twice a common as “a male.)
  2. Trans men.

These both make sense if you consider the cultural tendency to think about cis men as, in some sense, the “default”. (Deborah Tannen has a really good discussion of this her article “Marked Women, Unmarked Men“. “Marked” is a linguistics term which gets used in a lot of ways, but generally means something like “not the default” or “the weird one”.) So people seem to be more likely to talk about a person being “a male” or “a female” when they’re talking about anyone but a cis man.

A note on African American English

giphy.gif

I should note that many of the tweets in my sample were African American English, which is not surprising given the large Black community on Twitter, and that use of “female” as a noun is a feature of this variety.  However, the parallel term used to refer to men in this variety is not “a man” or even “a male”, but rather “nigga”, with that spelling. This is similar to “dude” or “guy”: a nonspecific term for any man, regardless of race, as discussed at length by Rachel Jeantal here. You can see an example of this usage in speech above (as seen in the Netflix show “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt“) or in this vine. (I will note, however, that it only has this connotation if used by a speaker of African American English. Borrowing it into another variety, especially if the speaker is white, will change the meaning.)

Now, I’m not a native user of African American English, so I don’t have strong intuitions about the connotation of this usage. Taylor Amari Little (who you may know from her TEDx talk on Revolutionary Self-Produced Justice) is, though, and tweeted this (quoted with permission):

If they call women “females” 24/7, leave em alone chile, run away

And this does square with my own intuitions: there’s something slightly sinister about someone who refers to women exclusively as “females”. As journalist Vonny Moyes pointed out in her recent coverage of ads offering women free rent in exchange for sexual favors, they almost refer to women as “girls or females – rarely ever women“. Personally, I find that very good motivation not to use “a male” or “a female” to talk about any human.

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Can what you think you know about someone affect how you hear them?

I’ll get back to “a male/a female” question in my next blog post (promise!), but for now I want to discuss some of the findings from my dissertation research. I’ve talked about my dissertation research a couple times before, but since I’m going to be presenting some of it in Spain (you can read the full paper here), I thought it would be a good time to share some of my findings.

In my dissertation, I’m looking at how what you think you know about a speaker affects what you hear them say. In particular, I’m looking at American English speakers who have just learned to correctly identify the vowels of New Zealand English. Due to an on-going vowel shift, the New Zealand English vowels are really confusing for an American English speaker, especially the vowels in the words “head”, “head” and “had”.

tokensVowelPlot

This plot shows individual vowel tokens by the frequency of thier first and second formants (high-intensity frequency bands in the vowel). Note that the New Zealand “had” is very close to the US “head”, and the New Zealand “head” is really close to the US “hid”.

These overlaps can be pretty confusing when American English speakers are talking to New Zealand English speakers, as this Flight of the Conchords clip shows!

The good news is that, as language users, we’re really good at learning new varieties of languages we already know, so it only takes a couple minutes for an American English speaker to learn to correctly identify New Zealand English vowels. My question was this: once an American English speaker has learned to understand the vowels of New Zealand English, how do they know when to use this new understanding?

In order to test this, I taught twenty one American English speakers who hadn’t had much, if any, previous exposure to New Zealand English to correctly identify the vowels in the words “head”, “heed” and “had”. While I didn’t play them any examples of a New Zealand “hid”–the vowel in “hid” is said more quickly in addition to having different formants, so there’s more than one way it varies–I did let them say that they’d heard “hid”, which meant I could tell if they were making the kind of mistakes you’d expect given the overlap between a New Zealand “head” and American “hid”.

So far, so good: everyone quickly learned the New Zealand English vowels. To make sure that it wasn’t that they were learning to understand the one talker they’d been listening to, I tested half of my listeners on both American English and New Zealand English vowels spoken by a second, different talker. These folks I told where the talker they were listening to was from. And, sure enough, they transferred what they’d learned about New Zealand English to the new New Zealand speaker, while still correctly identifying vowels in American English.

The really interesting results here, though, are the ones that came from the second half the listeners. This group I lied to. I know, I know, it wasn’t the nicest thing to do, but it was in the name of science and I did have the approval of my institutional review board, (the group of people responsible for making sure we scientists aren’t doing anything unethical).

In an earlier experiment, I’d played only New Zealand English as this point, and when I told them the person they were listening to was from America, they’d completely changed the way they listened to those vowels: they labelled New Zealand English vowels as if they were from American English, even though they’d just learned the New Zealand English vowels. And that’s what I found this time, too. Listeners learned the New Zealand English vowels, but “undid” that learning if they thought the speaker was from the same dialect as them.

But what about when I played someone vowels from their own dialect, but told them the speaker was from somewhere else? In this situation, listeners ignored my lies. They didn’t apply the learning they’d just done. Instead, the correctly treated the vowels of thier own dialect as if they were, in fact, from thier dialect.

At first glance, this seems like something of a contradiction: I just said that listeners rely on social information about the person who’s talking, but at the same time they ignore that same social information.

So what’s going on?

I think there are two things underlying this difference. The first is the fact that vowels move. And the second is the fact that you’ve heard a heck of a lot more of your own dialect than one you’ve been listening to for fifteen minutes in a really weird training experiment.

So what do I mean when I say vowels move? Well, remember when I talked about formants above? These are areas of high acoustic energy that occur at certain frequency ranges within a vowel and they’re super important to human speech perception. But what doesn’t show up in the plot up there is that these aren’t just static across the course of the vowel–they move. You might have heard of “diphthongs” before: those are vowels where there’s a lot of formant movement over the course of the vowel.

And the way that vowels move is different between different dialects. You can see the differences in the way New Zealand and American English vowels move in the figure below. Sure, the formants are in different places—but even if you slid them around so that they overlapped, the shape of the movement would still be different.

formantDynamics

Comparison of how the New Zealand and American English vowels move. You can see that the shape of the movement for each vowel is really different between these two dialects.  

Ok, so the vowels are moving in different ways. But why are listeners doing different things between the two dialects?

Well, remember how I said earlier that you’ve heard a lot more of your own dialect than one you’ve been trained on for maybe five minutes? My hypothesis is that, for the vowels in your own dialect, you’re highly attuned to these movements. And when a scientist (me) comes along and tells you something that goes against your huge amount of experience with these shapes, even if you do believe them, you’re so used to automatically understanding these vowels that you can’t help but correctly identify them. BUT if you’ve only heard a little bit of a new dialect you don’t have a strong idea of what these vowels should sound like, so if you’re going to rely more on the other types of information available to you–like where you’re told the speaker is from–even if that information is incorrect.

So, to answer the question I posed in the title, can what you think you know about someone affect how you hear them? Yes… but only if you’re a little uncertain about what you heard in the first place, perhaps becuase it’s a dialect you’re unfamiliar with.