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Sex, Sound Symbolism, and Sociolinguistics

Matthew Gordon and Jeffrey Heath
Current Anthropology
Vol. 39, No. 4 (August/October 1998), pp. 421-449
DOI: 10.1086/204758
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/204758
Page Count: 30
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Sex, Sound Symbolism, and Sociolinguistics
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Abstract

Two important general conclusions of sociolinguistics are that females tend to lead in linguistic changes and that vowel systems tend to rotate in fixed directions. We argue that these two results are linked in that females and males are attracted asymmetrically to different subjective poles of the vowel system, one being high front unrounded [i] and the other being somewhere in the back rounded area near {o o}. We therefore adapt Ohala's “frequency code” theory to the sociolinguistic study of phonetic variation. We argue that such a model is superior to one in which individual speakers are attracted to particular phonetic targets only by virtue of a logically prior attraction to a class or similar social category which happens to use the pronunciation in question. Our study is in line with more general efforts to construct causal models for correlations between variable aesthetic preferences and “hard” (nonsubjective) social categories such as sex. It is, however, an open question whether sex‐asymmetric preferences are wired‐in or by‐products of more general developmental phenomena sensitive to gender socialization patterns.

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