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Women talk more than men and other linguistic myths

Posted June 23

Women talk more than men.

Texting makes you dumb.

French is the most beautiful language.

These are a few of the popular misconceptions about language that simply aren't true but are widely believed, according to Abby Kaplan in her first book, "Women Talk More than Men ... And Other Myths about Language Explained."

Kaplan, a 32-year-old linguistics professor at the University of Utah, compiled the book from seven months of research for her linguistics class. She chose topics that would be of general interest to her students.

But she also found that several of the myths she dispels were related to first-language acquisition, which caused her to reflect on what she had learned through her research while watching her 2-year-old and 6-year-old sons grow.

"I've certainly noticed my own behavior more and thought about how the parenting practices that seem natural to me are often culture-specific," Kaplan said. "And that's the kind of thing I hope students/readers will do too — observe how they use language in everyday life, and perhaps see things a bit differently based on what they've learned."

The book, published by Cambridge University Press, doesn't require an academic background in linguistics to understand and is a handy fact-checker on common beliefs about language that are perpetuated through media that we use and consume.

"Most people stereotype on how people use language and they do not realize it," Kaplan said.

She explained the way we speak is part of our behavior, contributing to the way we act. But language does not restrict us from thinking or doing specific things. "Language is more like a nudge, rather than a restriction," Kaplan said.

Kaplan explores 10 common misconceptions about language and uses research, case studies, facts and real-world examples that prove them false. Here are a few:

Women talk more than men

This myth has been framed by the idea that a woman's way of speaking is inferior to a man's, according to a news release about the book from the University of Utah.

Kaplan wrote that the belief that women talk more than men has appeared periodically in popular science writing and relationship advice, in which women are reported to speak significantly more words per day than men. She noted that none of these statistical claims have been backed by any data.

In fact, no conclusion can be drawn that either men or women are more talkative because there is no consistent evidence, according to Kaplan.

"Since gender is such a socially important characteristic of a person, we shouldn't be surprised to find language differences along gender lines as well. But as soon as we move beyond a general acknowledgment that men and women might speak differently, things become murky very quickly," she wrote.

According to Kaplan, there may be minor differences between the way men and women speak, but they are cultural, situation-specific and not universal.

As an example, Kaplan shared that men will talk more if they are assigned a task or a job for which they have to reach a consensus or solve a problem, while women will talk more if they are caring for children.

"We can characterize this difference by saying that men engaged in more task-oriented behavior than women, while women engaged in more social-emotional behavior (acknowledging others' contributions) than men," Kaplan wrote.

Texting makes you illiterate

There is no evidence text messaging has any effect on a student's basic literacy skills — and what research exists has drawn the opposite conclusion, Kaplan wrote. A study Kaplan analyzed found "students with higher test scores also tended to be faster at reading and writing text messages."

With the average person between 18 and 24 sending 67 texts per day and 2,022 texts per month, texting has become a large part of daily life and essential for communication, according to Business Insider.

Kaplan wrote that the abbreviations associated with text messages are no different from the abbreviations used in standard English — and are much less common than has been framed in the media. She also noted that the abbreviations associated with text messaging appeared in other digital domains long before texting became popular.

While Kaplan has found that texting does not affect literacy, the practice may influence writing conventions — making it harder to differentiate from formal and informal writing. But "people who text often are engaging in print more than they would have otherwise," Kaplan said in an interview.

With cellular technology becoming widespread, "none of this means that we should embrace every new technology uncritically," she wrote. "Rather, it's useful to remind ourselves that both wild enthusiasm and abject fear are natural reactions to new and disruptive ways of communicating."

French is the most beautiful language

An underlying question goes along with this misconception: What exactly makes a language beautiful? According to Kaplan, our perceptions about the beauty of language are a result of our judgment of the people who speak it and their culture.

She said that perception can be shaped by the art, architecture, food, history and other things associated with a country and the language of its people.

"We use language in many ways: as a practical tool, to communicate ideas; as a social tool, to maintain relationships and mark our identity; as an artistic tool, in poetry, prose, drama, songs, and so on," Kaplan wrote. "For many people, using a particular language, or using a language in particular ways, goes right to the heart of who they consider themselves to be."

Kaplan experimented with perceptions of language beauty by having her students ask a few friends about an example of a language they thought was beautiful and one they thought was ugly. She found that perceptions of language were connected to people they knew. Those who had friends who spoke a certain language thought that language was beautiful. But if their only association with Germany was through watching World War II movies, they didn't think German was an appealing language.

How a language sounds with a certain structure or flow could also be a factor in perceiving beauty of the language, Kaplan noted.

Email: mmcnulty@deseretnews.com

Twitter: megchristine5

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