How many times have you heard someone say “men and women don’t speak the same language?” But that’s not true . . . well, in English, anyway! In some parts of the world, the words people use can vary dramatically based on nothing more than gender.
For example, in the following cultures, men and women really do speak different languages (at least some of the time).
Chukchi is an endangered language spoken by 5,000 people in East Siberia. Traditionally, the Chukchi herd reindeer and hunt for seals and whales.
The Chukchi language is made up of two gender-based dialects, one for men and one for women. The differences between the two dialects are mostly phonetic. For example, women typically substitute the ts sound for ch and r. So “ramkichhin,” which means “people,” is pronounced as written by men and as “tsamkitstsin” by women.
At the same time, the differences aren’t quite as simple as just swapping one consonant for another, which is why scholars refer to Chukchi as having two separate, but still mutually intelligible, gender dialects [PDF].
The Garifuna people currently live in Central America, but they originally come from the Caribbean islands of St. Vincent and Dominica.
Long before Europeans “discovered” those islands, they had already been the scene of brutal conquest. The people who originally made their homes there were Arawakan and spoke an Arawakan language. But groups of Carib warriors conquered them, killed most of the men, and took the women as wives.
The women spoke Arawak to their children, but their fathers taught the boys their Carib language once they were old enough to help work.
Over time, two separate sets of vocabulary evolved: a women’s vocabulary made up of mainly Arawakan words; and a men’s vocabulary, which used Carib loanwords for the same concepts.
Half a world away, a similar story of conquest underlies the birth of the “men’s language” of Ngatikese Pidgin.
In 1837, a British ship called the Lambton landed on the Micronesian island of Ngatik. The crew was led by the aptly named Captain Charles “Bloody” Hart. As soon as the ship touched land, he ordered his crew to kill all the men on the island. His motivation? Tortoiseshell, and revenge for a previous attack on his vessel.
With the men gone, Captain Hart named a tattooed Irishman-gone-native called Paddy Gorman “chief” of the island and sailed away. But many of his crew stayed behind to make wives of the remaining women.
Women and children continued to speak Ponapan, the original language of the island. But amongst the men, a pidgin language called Ngatikese Pidgin or Ngatikese Creole developed. The language was passed on from father to son. Today, around 700 islanders still speak it, usually during manly pursuits like fishing and building boats.
Yanyuwa is a critically endangered indigenous language spoken on a small island off the coast of Australia. It has separate dialects for men and women.
For example, here’s how the sentence “The little boy went down to the river and saw his brother” would sound if a man was saying it (courtesy of Wikipedia):
nya-buyi nya-ardu kiwa-wingka waykaliya wulangindu kanyilu-kala nyikunya-baba.
And here’s how it would sound if a woman was talking:
buyi ardu ka–wingka waykaliya wulangindu kila–kala nyiku-baba.
Quite a difference, isn’t there?
The Nüshu script is an ancient Chinese script. During the Qing Dynasty (and possibly earlier), generations of women in Jiangyong County, Hunan Province, passed along “secret” messages to each other in Nushu. For the most part, these women didn’t have the opportunity to go to school and couldn’t read standard Chinese.
But for centuries, they taught the script, which contained more than 1,000 characters, to each other. Women used it to share secrets, thoughts, and feelings in books, poems, songs, and embroidery meant for female family members or for their best friends. They often took their favorite writings to the grave, literally.
The writings in Nüshu that did survive provide a rare glimpse into the way women learned to cope with a restrictive, male-dominated culture.
Anthropology research fellow Fei-wen Liu of Academia Sinica in Taiwan explained to Ozy.com:
“The core of Nüshu are feelings of misery and bitter experiences . . .Nüshu was about sisterhood,” and they called themselves “sworn sisters,” using Nüshu as “a way to bind them together.”
The next time you have trouble communicating with someone of the opposite gender, remember: at least you’re speaking the same language!
Most of these languages are obscure, but there are differences in how each gender speaks and communicates in well-known languages, as well. For example, in Japanese, men are expected to speak one way, and women are expected to speak another.
If you’re trying to communicate with a foreign audience, gender differences in language are one of many obstacles that our team of experienced, professional translators can help you navigate.
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