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.


It ain’t what you say…

Women/ Rabbit rabbit rabbit women/ Tattle and titter/ Women prattle/ Women waffle and witter/ Men talk. Men talk.

These are the opening lines of ‘Men Talk’, a rap poem by the incomparable Liz Lochhead (you can watch her performing the whole thing here). It’s built around the familiar lexicon of disparaging terms for women’s speech: words like ‘rabbit’, ‘prattle’ and ‘witter’, which represent women’s talk as excessive, trivial and inane; and words like ‘gossip’ and ‘nag’, which represent it as malign and spiteful.

But those words are only the tip of the iceberg. If you look at the way the act of speaking is described in everything from news reports to Great Literature, you’ll soon discover that it’s persistently represented in stereotypically gendered and sexist ways.

The most neutral way to describe the act of speaking is by using the generic verb ‘say’. ‘X said’ is the reported speech equivalent of Lochhead’s ‘men talk’: it conveys no more than ‘this person uttered these words’. But writers often add colour by choosing something a bit less basic. Here’s an example, from a political sketch that appeared in the Telegraph after the second TV debate of the 2015 General Election campaign.

“Ed Miliband is scared to be bold,” scowled Ms Sturgeon. “We don’t want a pretend alternative to austerity.” “Exactly right!” squeaked Ms Bennett.

“Labour are letting the Tories off the hook!” snapped Ms Wood. The audience applauded.

Desperately Mr Miliband tried to steer the debate back to his absent foe. “Let’s not pretend there’s no difference between me and David Cameron,” he said, rather pleadingly.  “There’s not a big enough difference!” barked Ms Sturgeon.

Notice that it’s the only male participant in this exchange, Ed Miliband, whose contribution is reported using the basic ‘said’ (though the writer does add some extra information with the adverbial ‘rather pleadingly’). The three women, by contrast, don’t just ‘say’ things, they ‘scowl’, ‘squeak’, ‘snap’ and ‘bark’.

These verbs aren’t literally describing how the women sounded. They’ve been chosen to help the writer tell a story, in which a hapless male is ganged up on and berated by three angry and aggressive females. If we only had the speakers’ own words to go on, we might not make that interpretation: we’re directed to it mainly by the writer’s choice of verbs (‘scowl’, ‘snap’, ‘bark’) and adverbs (‘desperately’, ‘pleadingly’). The verbs also say something about the power dynamic among the women. Whereas ‘squeaked’ casts Natalie Bennett as a small animal, ‘snapped’ and ‘barked’ suggest bigger beasts.

This example isn’t unique. When Elisabeth Gidengil and Joanna Everitt examined TV coverage of the 1993 Canadian election campaign, in which two of the five parties were led by women,  they also found a tendency for men’s words to be reported with the plain and non-committal ‘he said’, while women’s were described in more elaborate, less neutral terms. Among the verbs which were only used about the women party leaders, and never about their male opponents, were ‘argue’, ‘blast’, ‘fire at’, ‘hammer away’ and ‘launch [an attack]’. There were also verbs, like ‘accuse’, which were sometimes applied to men, but occurred more frequently in relation to women. The women, in short, were systematically represented as more verbally aggressive than the men.

The researchers did consider the possibility that the women really were more aggressive, but when they analysed the five leaders’ actual speech they found no evidence to support that. The real difference, they argue, is in the way male and female speakers are judged: if women deviate from stereotypical expectations by presenting themselves as tough rather than gentle, combative rather than conciliatory, they are perceived as more aggressive than men who behave in exactly the same way. That perception, Gidengil and Everitt suggest, explains why female leaders’ speech is reported using more aggressive verbs of speaking. The contrast between ‘he said’ and ‘she blasted’ is an explicit encoding of the underlying double standard.

Do creative writers rise above these journalistic clichés? Not according to Ben Blatt, who analysed a large sample of literary and popular fiction for his book Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve. His number-crunching revealed, among other things, that male fictional characters habitually ‘mutter’, ‘shout’ and ‘chuckle’, while female characters ‘murmur’, ‘scream’ and ‘weep’. Other patterns were influenced by the sex of the author as well as the character. Male authors were more reluctant than female ones to allow their male characters to ‘sob’; and in their books it was usually female characters, not male ones, who ‘interrupted’.

This particular finding caught many readers’ attention because it’s the opposite of ‘realistic’ in the everyday sense of the word (in real life women do not interrupt more than men). But gender stereotyping can function as a ‘realist’ device in the more technical sense. Even if a stereotype is factually inaccurate, if it fits with readers’ common-sense beliefs it can help to make a fictional world believable.

As feminists have often pointed out, though, our beliefs about men and women are not just things we bring from our real-life experience to our reading; they are also things we may get from our reading and take back into the non-fictional world. I was reminded of this recently when a colleague told a story about a conversation she’d had with her children, who were insisting that ‘mummies don’t go out to work’. ‘Where’, she asked them, ‘does daddy drop me off every day when he’s taking you to school?’ They answered without hesitation: ‘work’. But knowing their own mother went out to work hadn’t prevented them from absorbing the stereotype of mothers as stay-at-home parents.

Concern about what children might be absorbing from the books they read has prompted a number of feminist researchers to analyse the language used in children’s fiction—including the words used to describe characters’ speech. One researcher, Sally Hunt, analysed the verbs of speaking used in some of the most successful children’s book series of the last 75 years: Enid Blyton’s Famous Five adventures, C.S. Lewis’s Narnia Chronicles, Francine Pascal’s Sweet Valley High series and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books. And despite the differences of period, genre and target audience, she found there were patterns which recurred across the sample.

One of these patterns related to the distribution of verbs which tell you what action an utterance is performing. Verbs suggesting authority were more typical of male characters, and verbs suggesting deference were more typical of female ones. ‘Ordered’, for instance, was 77% male, whereas ‘begged’ was 68% female. Some actions, like ‘giggling’, were off-limits to male characters, while others, like ‘boasting’, were virtually an all-male preserve.

Hunt also remarks on authors’ fondness for verbs which allude to the vocal qualities of speech. In her sample, male characters’ verbs often implied low pitch (e.g. ‘he bellowed/roared’) whereas female characters’ verbs emphasised high pitch (e.g. ‘she shrieked/screamed’). It’s interesting that this contrast features so prominently in books for and about children, because the physiological differences which produce it in adults do not develop until puberty. But like the ‘squeaking’ and ‘barking’ attributed to female politicians in the sketch I quoted earlier, words like ‘bellow’ and ‘scream’ are rarely intended just to evoke the sound of the speaker’s voice: they are also code for emotional responses like anger, surprise and fear. Associating these words with either male or female speakers is thus a covert way of telling readers which emotions are typical of each sex.

The representation of male and female speech in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books has been investigated further by Maeve Eberhardt, who approaches the question through a detailed comparison of two characters, Hermione and Ron. As Eberhardt notes, Hermione is widely considered a ‘strong’ female character: Rowling herself has described her as the ‘brightest’ of the three friends, and she is also portrayed as morally courageous. But are her intelligence, strength and courage reflected in descriptions of her verbal behaviour?

Eberhardt’s answer is ‘yes and no’. In some respects, she finds that Hermione and Ron are treated similarly. Across the series as a whole they are given approximately equal amounts of speech, and the neutral ‘said’ is by far the commonest verb of speaking for both of them. The number of other verbs used to describe their speech is also approximately the same.

But the verbs themselves are not the same. When Eberhardt examined ‘unique’ verbs—those which were only ever used about one character—she found that Hermione’s tended to imply strong emotions, especially fear and sadness (they included ‘screamed’, ‘squealed’, ‘shrieked’, ‘squeaked’, ‘wailed’ and ‘whimpered’). Ron’s unique verbs, conversely, included a number (such as ‘mumbled’, ‘grumbled’ and ‘grunted’) which suggested emotional disengagement. The two characters were also distinguished by the frequency with which certain verbs were used about them. Both of them ‘whisper’ and ‘gasp’, but Hermione does those things about three times more often than Ron. He, on the other hand, does five times as much ‘muttering’ as she does, and over fifteen times as much ‘yelling’.

Eberhardt also looked at the use of adverbials to modify verbs of speaking (as in ‘he said, rather pleadingly’). Since Hermione is meant to be the clever one, you might expect her adverbials to include a high proportion relating to intellectual or mental states (e.g. ‘thoughtfully’, ‘logically’, ‘sceptically’). But in fact most of them are about her feelings: her unique adverbs do include ‘seriously’, but that occurs less often than either ‘timidly’ or ‘sadly’. And the most frequent of the adverbial modifiers which are only applied to Hermione’s speech is that old sexist cliché ‘shrilly’.

Since this study only compares two characters, it might be argued that the patterns it uncovers have less to do with their gender than with their distinctive qualities as individuals. What the reported speech verbs tell us is simply that Ron is the kind of person who mutters and grumbles, while Hermione is the kind who wails and shrieks. But I don’t think that argument will wash, given that other studies, like Sally Hunt’s and Ben Blatt’s, have found the same general patterns, and even some of the same specific word-choices, in a range of other texts. Generations of male fictional characters have expressed themselves by muttering and bellowing, while their female counterparts have screamed and spoken ‘shrilly’. These verbal and vocal habits could not be less individual, or more gender-stereotyped.

They are also remarkably persistent. A children’s writer starting out today wouldn’t be able to build a successful career on stories like the ones I read as a child, in which boys had adventures and girls helped mummy make the sandwiches. That kind of sexism is much less common now. Yet successful writers can still present children with a linguistic division of labour –boys giving orders and girls asking questions, boys bellowing and roaring while girls scream, squeal and giggle—that doesn’t seem to have changed since the 1950s.

I’m not accusing these authors of deliberately reproducing stereotypes. I’d be surprised if they had any conscious awareness of the patterns revealed by analyses of their work. But if we accept that those patterns both reflect and perpetuate sexism, perhaps we should be challenging writers to make a conscious effort to break away from them.

For those who want to avoid sexist clichés, whether in fiction or journalism, the research I’ve discussed suggests several top tips:

  1. Check you’re not consistently pairing minimal descriptions of male speech (‘he said’) with highly elaborate descriptions of female speech (‘she enunciated crisply’/ ‘she gasped in horror’).
  2. Go easy on the vocalisation verbs (like ‘growled’ or ‘squeaked’) which differentiate male and female speakers overtly by pitch and covertly by emotional state. And you’re going to use them, don’t make a habit of picking more ‘extreme’ ones for female speakers (if a boy ‘shouts’ or ‘yells’, why does a girl have to ‘shriek’?)
  3. Try not to give all the ‘thinky’ verbs to male speakers and all the ‘feely’ verbs to female ones.
  4. Watch out for the speech act trap–don’t let conversations be all about male speakers ‘asserting’, ‘instructing’ and ‘explaining’ while female ones ‘ask’, ‘suggest’ and ‘agree’.

The way I’ve phrased these points (‘go easy on X’, ‘don’t make a habit of Y’) is deliberate: they aren’t meant to be blanket prohibitions. As I’ve said a million times on this blog, context is all: any word–even ‘shrilly’–can be the right word if the context calls for it.  What you want to avoid is not specific words, it’s the kind of regular pattern that results from the habitual, unthinking repetition of the same stereotypical formulas.

Precisely because we’ve encountered them so often, phrases like ‘he muttered’ and ‘she murmured’ or ‘he yelled’ and ‘she screamed’ may seem obvious and ‘natural’; but really there’s nothing natural about them. On the contrary, they are products of our cultural obsession with magnifying gender differences, or imposing them where they don’t exist. In reality, men and women use language to perform the same acts and express the same emotions. Girls give orders and boys make suggestions; women chuckle and men have been known to scream. If we can cope with this complexity in our face-to-face encounters, why can’t it be reflected in our descriptions of the way people talk?