freeze! how low can you go?

September 18, 2011 § 1 Comment

Recently the media have been reporting on voice studies showing that women prefer deep masculine voices. Well this might be a given but perhaps the assumptions hidden in the research should be teased out.

As usual the non-social scientists link gender preferences and the like to a project of evolution. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for evolution … more of it I say. The voice research reported such as this in the Belfast Telegraph links this to partner choice.  Women, they report, are evaluating genetic health of men by their voices.  So presumably the women tested were self-identifying heterosexual women. This is not stated in the media article, nor whether they were in the age-band for reproductivity.


A more fun experiment was conducted Puts Gaulin and Verdolini (2005) reported in Evolution and Human Behaviour had the experiment subjects participate in a mock dating game!!!

The developmental and anatomical causes of human voice sexual dimorphisms are known, but the evolutionary causes are not. Some evidence suggests a role of intersexual selection via female mate choice, but other evidence implicates male dominance competition. In this study, we examine the relationships among voice pitch, dominance, and male mating success. Males were audio recorded while participating in an unscripted dating-game scenario. Recordings were subsequently manipulated in voice pitch using computer software and then rated by groups of males for dominance. Results indicate that (1) a masculine, low-pitch voice increases ratings of men’s physical and social dominance, augmenting the former more than the latter; and (2) men who believe they are physically dominant to their competitor lower their voice pitch when addressing him, whereas men who believe they are less dominant raise it. We also found a nonsignificant trend for men who speak at a lower pitch to report more sexual partners in the past year. These results are consistent with the hypothesis that male intrasexual competition was a salient selection pressure on the voices of ancestral males and contributed to human voice sexual dimorphism

What is interesting about the voice studies is that they covertly acknowledge social influences – men who believed they were less dominant raised their voices. This surely is a social judgement on the part of the male subjects of the experiment. Are they not reverting to social stereotypes due to lack of more information about the males?

What is also interesting about the dimorphism of the human voice with respect to sex/gender is that the differentials between adult male and female voices are culturally conditioned. The pitch differences in Japanese gendered voices are far greater than European voice pitch differences. How would an evolutionary account explain this?


an accidental bilingual moment

September 8, 2011 § Leave a comment

Ordering at a great restaurant the other day, the waitperson ran through the specials from her clipboard. The fish of the day she announced was hake

which she pronounced [ha:ke:] as if the word was in te reo Māori. In fact the fish name hake is resolutely European with recorded references back to the 14th century according to the OED. But I thought it was a lovely moment and it got me wondering what triggered her pronunciation. Of course there is the fish hoki an extremely important one in New Zealand waters (and your filet-o-fish). Not many of us would be familiar with its anglophone names, blue grenadier or NZ whiptail nice descriptive name there! or … curiously blue hake!.
In fact the two fish are distant cousins. Both belong to the merlucciidae family which includes the cod-ish fishes, though, they are in different sub-branches, or genera if you want to be fancy.
So there maybe a fishy connection, but I think there are more things about hoki/hake that conspired against our waitress than that. The wordshape is suggestive of Polynesian phoneme inventories and syllable structure.

The genre of menus itself might have had an influence on her processing of the word. The lexicon of restaurant-worthy food or cuisine is of course multingual – (cuisine, for example!) – she had already used Italian sourced terms polenta, and French, paté and if I remember there was something Spanish-ish too.
I would be interested to know what other forms in English might trigger an accidental Māori reading and vice versa!

ed’s note: oddly this is not the first entry about fishnames!

Linguistic profiling test

September 7, 2011 § Leave a comment

Can you hear ethnicity? Linguistic profiling is the science of recognising identity features such as gender age and ethnicity. Most people are familiar with speech patterns of particular groups within their general community though may not be able to describe exactly what it is that they are hearing.  Forensic linguists on the other hand relying on their knowledge of acoustic phonetics, and social dialects can often tell a lot more about a voice.  A new career for you? Take the test and see…

OED updates gender …

September 6, 2011 § Leave a comment

The latest Word of the Day from the OED to land in my box also informs me that the last new inclusions and updates are ready for our perusal. So off I trawl to see that woman and gender are two entries in the greatest dictionary on Earth that have been reworked. I thought it might be interesting to compare the 2011 online entry for gender and that in the two volume-with-accompanying-magnifying glass version of a colleague from 1981.

The noun gender appears in the first volume of the 1981 OED on p 1127 with four senses in the following order

1.  kind, sort or class

2. grammatical gender – i.e. the marking of nouns as masculine, feminine or neuter

3. sex

This category now has the proviso only jocular and seems to contain a few quotes from the medieval period to the late 19th century ending with a piece from the daily News, 17 July 1896 – as to the success in the work one does, surely that is not a question of gender either.

Hmmm jocular? How do you tell?

4. Product, offspring (now rare)

‘Such a gender of filth that great frog left behind him’ is the quote from Bastwick(‘s?) Letany which supports that.


The 2011 supplement begins with

1. grammatical gender

2. A class of things with related properties or characteristics

This gender of diseases is incurable wrote Matthews in The Unlearned Alchemist 1662

Sense 3 of 1981 is now 2b, the frog quote remains but Matthews’ Unlearned Alchemist makes an appearance here too…

3. Men and women viewed as a group.

This sense has a number of subsenses including

the state of being a man or a woman as cultural or social descriptions rather than biological factors

Another secondary meaning of this sense is ‘electronic gender’, by which i mean the kinds of plugs male and female that computers might have

Below is the dominant meaning of the third sense and I wonder how many are outraged by the gender = sex implication!

a. gen. Males or females viewed as a group; = sex n.1 1. Also: the property or fact of belonging to one of these groups.


Following the sense is a nicely illustrated list of phrases and compounds made from gneder and other parts  – including gender-bender, genderblender, and genderfuck, gender gap, gender bias.  None of these appear in the earlier edition.


i’m not usually the kind of linguist who …

August 21, 2011 § 1 Comment

but I was recently asked to weigh in on the meaning of gruntled. All quotes below are from the Oxford Dictionary Online. I was asked to confirm, disconfirm that gruntled should mean ‘grumble’.

Here’s the long answer. I’m not sure I’m right.

Looking at the Oxford dictionary online

Gruntled is listed as a playful backformation of disgruntled.
This implies that the sense of gruntled is younger than that of disgruntled. This may mean that the creators of this backformation, which could be many individuals in different times and contexts, removed the dis-.

Now since disgruntled means ‘To put into sulky dissatisfaction or ill-humour; to chagrin, disgust. Chiefly in pa. pple’, according to the OED (see site above) the meaning of the backformation is dependent on the meaning the coiners of gruntled apply to the prefix dis-.
The OED lists a number of meanings for this term many of which are related. The OED sets out two distinct sets – the first, they suggest apply to English and Latin – so we should expect to see them on Latinate words and in fact the entire set of terms that are used to illustrate the meaning of dis- in group 1 are latinate. This group’s meaning is about splitting up, treating separately. However, sense 1.d and 1.e are of the most interest to us here.

1.d . With privative sense, implying removal, aversion, negation, reversal of action (cf. de- prefix 1f), as discalceātus unshod, diffibulāre to unclasp, disjungĕre disjoin, displicēre displease, dissociāre dissociate, dissuādēre, dissuade.(OED See link above)

Here the strongest sense is a removal or reversal of an action. I think the most interesting one here for us is displease, as this is the closest we get to a verb of an emotional state , similar to disgruntle.

Sense. 1.e however seems to have dis- as an intensifier. This only works according to the OED if the verb it is attaching to is already about splitting up or negating an action.

With verbs having already a sense of division, solution, separation, or undoing, the addition of dis- was naturally intensive, ‘away, out and out, utterly, exceedingly’, as in disperīre to perish utterly, dispudēre to be utterly ashamed (OED, see link above)

Note too that these appear to be Latin forms, many of which do not have high frequency contemporary English descendent! The OED asserts that meaning of dis- in disgruntled (though see final note) however is of this type.

Even though assigning the meaning to 1.e intensifier meaning, making the backformation gruntled meaning a less intense form of being sulky, we cannot be so sure.

Backformations rely on speakers realanalysing (playfully or seriously) the structure of words they plan to operate on. So for example in recent times marathon a how many miles long running race? Has been reanalysed so that –athon has become a new meaning bearing unit in English, so that danceathon, readathon, hopathon, telethon are readable as events of extreme duration entailing the activity of the first part of the new word. The original Greek marathon was simply a place name that seems to have its origin in a flower name.

Likewise, taking disgruntled which was originally dis+grunt+el, modern speakers of Engish can recognise dis- as a meaning bearing unit. BUT, and here is the big but, are probably not able to assign the original sense from the set of meanings it may contain. One reason for that is some of the senses are now less frequent than others, and I daresay that 1.e intensifier is the least productive of all. That is, few new words are coined with dis- having this sense. Instead, the current dominant meaning of dis- is derived from sense 1.d – the privative, negating meaning. (in fact the OED, gives this the dominant sense in the second group of senses.) Thus many speakers creating a backformation from disgruntle are going to apply this sense, whereby stripping the prefix from the form should restore a positive meaning, undoing the reversal. To put it schematically, if DIS+ X= – X then Dis+X –Dis = X. If disgruntled means sulky and sullen or put into a sulky mood, by this logic, gruntled should mean to be in a good mood, pleased, etc.

A problem with the analysis presented though is the nature of gruntle an archaic verb meaning ‘to grumble’. According to the OED, the the Dis- intensifier reading, in fact, all the group of senses, 1a-e all apply most readily to latinate forms in English. Though they suggest a 1.e meaning being attached to gruntle this is resolutely Germanic in origin, not latinate. The OED does suggest that the group 2 senses, including the one that produces, to be pleased as the meaning of the backformation, can be attached to any kind of verbal base – something that separates it from the first group of senses.

haere atu take manu!

July 29, 2011 § Leave a comment

A quick ka kite anō to te wiki o te rēo Māori, which at Te Kunenga ki Pūrehuroa (Massey University) grew into te marama o te rēo Māori. I hope you opened up the Massey home page and found it was presented in te rēo over that time. While the recent report on the state of the Māori language ( doesn’t give too rosy a picture for the future, what I have noticed over the years that we had had Māori Language Week is how succeeding wiki over the years seem to have left traces in our general discourse, a greater presence of te rēo as a normal part of New Zealand English discourses. About 30 years ago, Naida Glavish of Ngati Whatua was temporarily demoted from her job as a telephone toll operator for greeting callers with Kia ora ( That caused a reaction, and nowadays that is a normal opening for notices, e-mails, telephone calls in many contexts. A few years ago, National Radio’s morning news programme, Morning Report, responded to te wiki by using a few brief greetings and formulaic introductions in their programme … but decided to keep them on after the end of the week, so that nowadays many people wake to phrases such as ata marie or Nau mai, haere mai. For Massey, this year’s contribution to te wiki (or te marama) has included our own waiata ( so let’s hope that is a lasting legacy.
However, we should not become too blindly optimistic. The wide presence of te rēo does not necessarily penetrate far enough for everybody necessarily to celebrate our linguistic riches. For example, recently when doing a five-minute quiz with a group of people, I found everyone could chorus how John Campbell finishes his show every night (see the first line of this message) but I was a little shocked when one person asked, apparently for the first time, “But what does it mean?” Let’s hope that by the time of next year’s te wiki o te rēo Māori all New Zealanders would at least be able to answer that quiz question.

brid’s the wrod?

June 22, 2011 § Leave a comment

Well perhaps this is a really old pot. A much older form of bird in English was brid sometimes brydd.
From the OED

Etymology: Middle English byrd, bryd< Old English brid(masculine) (plural briddas), in Northumbrian bird, birdas ‘offspring, young,’ but used only of the young of birds. There is no corresponding form in any other Germanic language, and the etymology is unknown.

The vowel and the liquid have undergone a process known as metathesis – the swapping of places of sounds within a word (though note speakers of NZE subsequently do not pronounce the postvocalic liquid). Most often seen as a phonological process which results in change over time, a few languages use metathesis for grammatical purposes. Sierra Miwok a language a severely endangered language of California uses this process to derive nouns:

Base Derived form
kalaŋ ‘to dance’ kalŋa ‘a dance’
ʔumuʧ ‘to approach winter’ ʔumʧu ‘winter’
tuyaŋ ‘to jump’ tuyŋa ‘a jump’
ʔawin ‘to play’ ʔawni ‘a game’

(data from Stonham, J. 2006, p.93).