Friday, 6 May 2011

Putting women first

This post is a quibble about something that may look really tiny, compared to all the Big Issues. But it's been bugging me all week.

Paul Warren’s column on linguistics in Tuesday’s Dom-Post was curious, to say the least. Writing about why English speakers might put one name of a pair first, he recalls a study he helped run some years ago, which included respondents from New Zealand, Britain, and Singapore.

"We gave people printed sheets with pairs of names (these could be both male, both female, or a female name followed by a male name, or a male name followed by a female name). They had to put the names into sentence frames such as ‘–– – and ––– went to the park’, using whatever order they preferred for each pair…
        When the names in our study clearly indicated different sexes, then there was an overall preference for a male name to be followed by a female name rather than the other way round. This preference was very marked for the Singapore English speakers, but less so for both the British and New Zealand English speakers, suggesting that the latter may be influenced a little more by political correctness [my bold].
         On the basis of the overall findings for the New Zealand English speakers in our study, our prediction would be that the Breakfast hosts will become known as Corin and Petra (the male name first, and a more open final sound in the second word).  However, I'd put a bob each way, as I suspect the final vowel in Petra might get elided, giving "Petr'and Corin", with a trochaic rhythmic pattern and a politically correct female-first order [yes, my bold again].”

So let me get this straight. Where there’s a clear preference, even a strong preference, for putting the male name first, that’s just – normal. No comment or explanation needed, or given.

But when this preference becomes “less marked” – so that the female name comes first some of the time, though still not as often as the male name does – that’s because of political correctness? As opposed to a shift towards equality and away from automatically seeing males as taking precedence – a shift which seems to be much more marked in Britain and New Zealand than in Singapore?

The hoary phrase “politically correct” here implies, as it always does, bad faith. In other words, the “reversed” name order is nothing to do with a genuine reflection of changing attitudes and the decline of a kneejerk male-first response. No, the people who do this weird thing – putting the female name first – must be doing it because they somehow want to appear up to date, or fear not being seen to be in favour of equality. They do it self-consciously, it doesn’t come naturally. Because putting female names first is somehow unnatural, eh. Whereas putting male names first isn't.


Anonymous said...

You have to love how putting the female name first requires some non-linguistic social-pressure explanation ... but putting the male first doesn't, because of course there's no such thing as patriarchy or an historic privileging of men. At all.

Draco TB said...

When I first read the politically correct excuse I was taken aback. The second time it was fairly obvious that he was drawing conclusions based upon his own socio-political bias which makes him a bad and lazy researcher.

Personally, I tend to put the female in couples first. I suspect this may have something to do with the fact that my sisters got married long before my brothers did - basic socialisation in other words. What it doesn't have anything to do with is political correctness.

Lucy said...

I find whoever I put first when discussing couples, say, depends on who I know better or met first, rather than gender. If I know them equally well, it's a toss-up depending on the lengths of the names. It's a real stretch to conclude any of this is due to "political correctness" on my part.

How people list names of people they don't know at all is probably guided by different rules. I'm honestly not sure how it'd come out for me.

Brett Dale said...

I think its more to do with what sounds better coming off the tongue.

eym said...

You only criticise the Westerners because you think they are in ’bad faith’ and not genuine ,and pushovers to boot, which is worse in your mental universe than the Singaporeans’ no faith at all.
I think you secretly respect the Singaporeans because they stand up to your feminist shit test. And a shit test is what it is.
Westerners get the usual contempt whatever they do.

Not A Feminist said...

eym - I'm not sure your post actually makes much sense, but in any case it seems a little big of you to speak on behalf of all who speak English in Singapore.