February 10th, 2006

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Linguistics; language and gender; research problems -- vervet monkey study...

Yesterday's postal mail brought me an article sent by Douglas Dee, titled "Monkeys at play teach us a thing about the sexes: Discovery shines light on brain differences," written by Robert S. Boyd for the December 8, 2005 issue of The Star-Ledger. The opening goes like this:

"Just like human boys and girls, male monkeys like to play with toy cars while female monkeys prefer dolls, a research project has shown."

The project was a study by psychologist Gerianne Alexander, done with vervet monkeys, at Texas A&M University. You can find an account of the study (essentially identical to the print one I have) at http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/nationworld/2002671245_toys08.html . And a Google search will find you many more accounts, with one headline after another saying that We Now Know various things -- for example, we now know that female human children prefer dolls because women have evolved to care for children.

I've had no luck yet finding the original study -- without which it's impossible to know what Dr. Alexander really said or claimed or hypothesized. But there's a clue to what might be in that study in an article at
http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2002-12/tau-tca121002.php , which tells us that the male monkeys "spent more time" with cars, while the female monkeys "spent more time" with dolls.

For a different take on the issue, I suggest going to "Buy Your Son a Barbie for Christmas," at http://www.guardian.co.uk/gender/story/0,11812,1091884,00.html#article_continue .

Note: Salon.com seems to have had a spirited discussion of this study -- lots of "It's crap!" and "No, it's not!" going back and forth -- and I did a lot of to-ing and fro-ing and looking at ads and clicking on "Agree/Disagree" buttons and similar truck in an unsuccessful attempt to get to the article that the comments went with.
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Quick note -- example of a mass media distortion of research

One of the most disturbing things about the phenomenon of mass media grabbing whatever "has legs" in reporting on scientific research is the extraordinary persistence of the resulting misunderstandings. And one of the best examples I know of in linguistics is the way news stories keep surfacing about Nushu identifying it as "the world's only women's language." Nushu isn't a language, it's a writing system used --- only by women, so far as we know -- to write down an existing Chinese dialect. Almost every lengthy article that has been published on Nushu eventually says somewhere toward the end that it's a writing system, but the headlines, and all the short squibs and sidebars, persist in calling it a language. The fact that Nushu exists is in itself a compelling story, and its history is fascinating without any need for this distortion as a narrative hook, but it simply refuses to die. It's a rare month when I don't get a letter or e-mail from someone telling me that a "women's language" has been discovered in China and directing me to various sources on the subject; I answer the letters and explain as best I can.

It's not that there are no articles that handle this correctly; certainly there are. But they are so few that they seem to make no dent in the misunderstanding.

I don't think there's any need for me to list links for this here; the story has had so much mass media attention that I'm reasonably sure you've already read something about it. If not, just go to any search engine you like and type "Chinese women's language Nushu" in the search box and you'll find an abundance of materials to choose from.

Finally, I would be overjoyed if anyone could produce evidence that Nushu actually was a language; this is a time when it would be a pleasure to be wrong. I've been looking for that evidence for at least the past ten years.