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Photo credit Tim Green | Flickr

“Who says that only girls can get jealous? Guys get jealous too!” The enthusiasm and sense of humor of Marjorie K.M. Chan, a professor of Chinese at The Ohio State University, added an extra spark to her ambitious lecture last Thursday, a program titled “Gender, Society and the Chinese Language” under the Chinese Language, Culture and Society lecture series. Even as a student that has taken courses in Gender Studies, Linguistics and Chinese, I still wasn’t quite sure what to expect from the lecture, or honestly even what language the lecture would be given in at all.

The moderately-sized classroom began to fill quickly as Chan prepared to give her lecture. It was soon evident that extra chairs were needed to accommodate more students. Though unsurprisingly the space was dominated by Asian students, it was gratifying to see the number of students from other cultures that attended. Chan was introduced as the Director of the Institute for Chinese Studies and Associate Professor of Chinese Linguistics at The Ohio State University – clearly an expert on the subject. However, she also engaged students from the start with her smiling, cheerful demeanor and fashion sense, effortlessly rocking a patterned scarf, flowing maxi skirt and round glasses.

The lecture’s abstract explained that the program would examine the “sociolinguistic as well as pragmatic issues” in gender and language use in Chinese society, with Chan focusing on “gendered voices, gender differences in communication style and gender-linked variation in the use of sentence-final particles.” However, due to the interdisciplinary implications of the lecture, it came as no surprise that Chan ended up covering a wide variety of topics. The subject matter ranged from her planned notes to Cantonese vernacular internet slang, how individuals with certain relationships interact and a shift to a more international dialect in Beijing. All of this came off with an impeccable sense of humor and irresistible charm.

One of the focuses of the lecture included pointing out marked features of gender-influenced communication styles, whether it was between women and men, men and men or women and women. For example, Chan discussed the notion of rhotacization in Beijing being associated with males, which refers to an increased use of “r” in speech. Others included lenition (softening of consonants) and interdentals (placing the tip of the tongue between the upper and lower front teeth), which are stigmatized as they are interestingly associated with who Chan called “gangster dudes.”

One of the most eye-opening charts Chan pulled up outlined the many Chinese characters with negative connotations. The words for “shrew,” “someone of loose morals” and a “son of a b—h” all contain the same female character. As College freshman Wendy Ye said, “I didn’t know how Chinese characters could be so gender-biased. I think it tells a lot about Chinese culture.”

However, College freshman Cathy Tang said, “There’s this stigma that the Chinese culture is deeply rooted in patriarchy and sexism, especially in comparison to the American culture, but when looking at the language, it’s pretty surreal to see how the gendered phrases in Chinese mirror those of gendered phrases in the English language.” In that way, it’s important that we apply the ideas of Chan’s lecture not only to cultural and linguistic implications in China but also how they apply to English and gender-biased swear words associated with females.

A major point Chan discussed was the pronunciation of [w] versus [v] in Chinese, and how [v] was associated more with females, perhaps because the higher acoustic frequency suggested daintiness or softness.

She also went beyond the mere logistics of pronunciation and talked about the cultural implications of these largely subconscious choices we make every day in language, and how some broadcast news networks in China have trained their female reporters to use the [v] pronunciation.

Chan ended on a note that she’d been stressing throughout the entire lecture: despite promising results from more than 20 years of research and study, the defining problem in the field as of right now is the lack of research to build on.

She mentioned the difficulty of teaching courses and finding relevant material for the syllabus. This demonstrates the work that we have to do going forward in the field and how much research has yet to be done, despite Chan’s conclusions. College freshman Ujwal Rai said, “I’m really interested in seeing where this research ends up going.”

Though the average Emory student might think that this lecture doesn’t apply to their daily lives, I’d argue it has everything to do with the way we communicate with each other, consciously and subconsciously. As Tang said, “The lecture served as a reminder to me that gendered spaces and languages are the norm, and that even the most innocent of messages often carry a significant ‘gendered’ meaning.” Simply by paying more attention to the way we use words and in what context, we can bring more awareness to gender and language issues going forward. It is only through awareness and thoughtfulness in communication that we can bring more attention to gender and language issues moving forward.

– By Emily Li