Making words count: a review of Christina Dalcher’s Vox

In 2006, a pop-science book called The Female Brain informed readers that the average woman utters 20,000 words a day to the average man’s 7000. This was the latest in a long line of similar male-versus-female-words-per-day claims. Before 2006, one oft-repeated figure was 7000 words a day for women and only 2000 for men. Other sources suggested 12,000 words per day for men and 30,000 for women, or 25,000 for men and 50,000 for women. All these statistics are still floating around the internet, though none of them is backed up by any credible evidence. It’s obvious such wildly varying numbers can’t all be right, but that hasn’t diminished the popular appeal of the basic point they were all designed to make, namely ‘women utter at least twice as many words in a day as men’.

The general belief that women talk more than men is as ancient as it is inaccurate, but this particular variant of it—what the linguist and blogger Mark Liberman once dubbed ‘the sex-linked vocabulary allowance idea’—seems to have originated much more recently. One of the earliest examples Liberman found appeared in a 1993 book about Christian marriage, James Dobson’s Love for a Lifetime, which suggested that God had given men and women different daily word-budgets. The point was (as it usually was in the 1990s, the decade that brought us Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus) that harmonious marital relationships required each sex to accommodate the other’s difference. But there is, of course, another interpretation of God’s wishes in this matter, which is particularly popular among Christian fundamentalists: that a good woman is sparing in her use of words, if not completely silent. And this ultra-patriarchal version of the sex-linked vocabulary allowance idea has now become the premise for a piece of feminist speculative fiction, Christina Dalcher’s novel Vox.

The narrator and main protagonist of Vox is Jean McClellan, a neurolinguist who has made significant advances in the treatment of aphasia. But when we meet her, her career has come to an abrupt halt, following the rise to power of the Pure Movement, which has turned the US into a Christian theocracy. Women have been stripped of their civil rights, placed under male guardianship and sent home to do their Christian duty as full-time housewives and mothers (or in the case of lesbians and other ‘deviants’, shipped off to do hard labour in prison camps).

If you’re thinking this sounds familiar, you’re not wrong: essentially we’re in Gilead without the fertility crisis. The resemblance to The Handmaid’s Tale doesn’t stop with the basic scenario (a near-future USA that’s been taken over by religious fanatics). Vox also features a similar cast of characters: there’s the Offred-style heroine who didn’t care about politics until her rights were taken away, the Moira-like BFF (Jackie, a perpetually-outraged feminist who went to graduate school with Jean), the nice-but-weak husband who’s reluctant to rock the boat, and the daughter our heroine would do anything to protect. It’s hard to quarrel with the reviewers who have found the book a tad derivative (one can only hope Margaret Atwood agrees that emulation is the sincerest form of flattery). But what does distinguish it from Atwood’s classic is the use Dalcher makes of the sex-linked vocabulary allowance idea.

In Vox-world, every female over three months of age must wear a bracelet around her wrist which automatically counts the words she utters. Her daily allowance is 100 words (reduced to zero for those sent to labour camps). If she exceeds it by even one word the bracelet will deliver an electric shock, and the higher her word-count climbs, the more intense the shocks become. She cannot get around this by using sign language, which those who monitor the omnipresent surveillance cameras are instructed to look out for. Nor can she resort to writing: books, pens, paper and computers are all locked away, and only the males in each household have access to them. Girls like Sonia, the youngest of Jean’s four children, are no longer taught to read and write. They are schooled only in home economics—cooking, sewing, and as much arithmetic as you need to manage a housekeeping budget.

There is nothing especially startling about a fictional dystopia where women are denied access to literacy, since this is far from unheard of in the real world. Women are also forbidden to read in Atwood’s Gilead. But the rationing of their spoken output to 100 words per day is a much bolder stroke. voxTo put it in context: in 2007, after Mark Liberman had drawn attention to the popular fascination with unsupported and wildly variable words-per-day claims, a team of researchers in Arizona decided to investigate the issue scientifically. They reported that the mean number of words uttered per day was around 16,000. (There were large differences between individuals, but very little difference in the group averages for the two sexes: the female mean was slightly higher than the male one, but the difference was not statistically significant.) If we take this study’s findings as a rough guide, and if we assume people spend eight hours silently sleeping, the average speaker produces about a thousand words per hour. And if you think that sounds like a lot, a normal rate of (American English) speech is somewhere between 100 and 200 words per minute.

Clearly, 100 words is a negligible number: most of us could get through it in less than 60 seconds of continuous talk. Of course it’s true that most everyday speech is conversation rather than monologue. But an allowance of only 100 words a day would rule out any kind of sustained interaction. There would be no chatting with friends, helping the kids with their homework or arguing with your spouse. If, like Jean, you had a husband and four children, you could easily use up your entire daily ration saying things as banal as ‘yes’, ‘no’, ‘stop that’ and ‘it’s in the fridge’.  Even then, you’d have to weigh every word with care before you committed yourself to speaking it aloud. When your budgeting could be derailed by a cry of surprise, a false start or a self-correction, spontaneity would soon become an unaffordable luxury. Would this level of self-monitoring ever become second nature, or would women end up feeling that it would be easier not to talk at all?

Though I’d probably have read this book for the same reason I went to see Arrival—just because its central character is a linguist—it was the 100-words-a-day conceit that really piqued my interest. It’s a brilliantly simple ‘what if?’: what if men’s age-old complaints about women nagging and scolding and gossiping and chattering were rendered obsolete at a stroke, using a device not much more complicated than a Fitbit? It raises interesting questions taken on its own terms (how would women cope, and what would the long-term effects be?) while also prompting reflection on our own attitudes to women’s speech. As an idea I still think it’s inspired; I just wish that Dalcher had allowed herself to really run with it.

One theme I think she does handle well is the way women are made complicit by their desire to protect their daughters. Before Sonia is old enough to understand the concept of a word limit, Jean uses behaviourist techniques to train her to stay within it. She models ‘good’ behaviour by speaking minimally or not at all, and systematically rewards the same behaviour in her daughter with praise, affection and treats. But Sonia doesn’t know her mother is trying to spare her the pain of an electric shock. The lesson she is learning is that the less a girl speaks, the more she will be loved. One day she comes home from school bursting with pride because she has won a competition for the pupil with the fewest words on her counter (her tally is a paltry three). She can’t understand why Jean does not seem to share her joy.

There are uncomfortable parallels here with our own world. Our aims may be less explicit and our methods less crude, but as a society we also teach girls to mind their language and reward them for complying with gendered expectations (be quiet, be nice, be a good listener). And while we don’t dole out electric shocks to girls and women who express themselves too freely, we certainly have ways of punishing them, which cover a spectrum from disapproval and shaming to threatened and actual violence.

But other questions you might expect to be explored are either raised and then quickly dropped, or else bypassed altogether. One of these concerns the long-term social consequences of reducing women to near-silence. Following their expulsion from the workforce, women have become, to an even greater extent than before, the primary carers for young children, while conversely fathers have become even less hands-on (getting rid of all the women forces the men to work punishing hours). But normal linguistic and cognitive development does not take place without adequate input, as we know from case-studies of abused and neglected children. How will children acquire language in future if their daily input during the crucial early years is limited to the 100 words their mothers are allowed to utter?  The leaders of the Pure Movement (not unlike most politicians in our own world) overlook the extent to which all functioning societies depend on the unpaid care work done by women, including and especially the work of socializing new humans. Will the attempt to stop women talking end up destroying language itself?

Another question is whether people deprived of articulate speech would develop compensatory strategies and alternative modes of communication. VOX-cover-683x1024The abused child known in the literature as ‘Genie’, who spent her early years in isolation and enforced silence, and whose verbal abilities remained very limited, had a remarkable ability to communicate without words—to the point where total strangers would approach her carers in shops, offering items which they said they had somehow intuited her desire for. The urge to communicate is strong in most humans: it seems odd to me that the women in Vox have not become as adept as Genie at communicating nonverbally, or devised codes exploiting the semiotic resources they do still have access to–like non-linguistic vocalisation (e.g. wordless singing or humming), head movements, or touch.

One reason Dalcher doesn’t follow up on all the questions she might fruitfully have explored is that she doesn’t stick to the conventions of the dystopia genre for long enough. The book gradually turns into a thriller, building up to a climactic showdown between the good guys, a team of scientists led by Jean, and the bad guys of the Pure Movement.  This part of the story begins when the government approaches Jean to work on a secret project that requires her expertise. As the work progresses, she discovers two important things: one is the Pure Movement’s real plan for her aphasia cure (which is, it goes without saying, of the dastardly variety), while the other is the existence of an organised resistance movement. Helped by the latter, she embarks on a mission to foil the former.

The shift into thriller mode is another reason why the book has attracted criticism from reviewers. As the Washington Post commented, the trick with speculative fiction is to maintain plausibility within the parameters of a basically implausible situation, and the final chapters of Vox are not remotely plausible. Characters we thought we knew turn out to have been fooling us all along, unlikely coincidences abound, and science starts to look like magic. I’m not a neurolinguist myself, but I suspect the neurolinguists I know would agree with the Post that ‘Jean’s against-the-clock medical research makes MacGyver look like Francis Crick’.

I’d thought Vox might challenge Suzette Haden Elgin’s Native Tongue for the title of Most Memorable Feminist Linguistic Dystopia, but in the event I found it disappointing. Which is not to say you shouldn’t read it: it’s good in parts, and a page-turner even when it isn’t good. It just doesn’t develop its central idea enough to give the reader what I think of as the full dystopian experience–a sense of total immersion in an alternative reality.  As a number of reviewers pointed out, though, the current state of the real world has given this genre a noticeable boost (the Washington Post‘s review was headed ‘Donald Trump has made feminist dystopias great again’). So, while Vox may not have done full justice to its subject, I’m sure it will not be the last word.