John Mary Bill Sue transcript

Megan Figueroa: Hi, and welcome to the Vocal Fries podcast. The podcast about linguistic description.

Carrie Gillon: I’m Carrie Gillon

Megan Figueroa: and I’m Megan Figueroa and we’re here and we’re healthy-ish.

Carrie Gillon: Well. I don’t seem to have much of the COVID nastiness left behind. I’ve got other health issues that are boring to talk about.

Megan Figueroa: Yes, yes. The, they nor the, uh, normal for us health issues that are just kinda around

Carrie Gillon: Technically mine is new, although it probably was around for awhile, but now I just have to eat so boringly, I hate it. I hate my life. .

Megan Figueroa: I’ve been dying to talk to you about The Staircase on HBO, because we both, you know, know the story, Michael Peterson trial and all that, but Colin Firth as Michael Peterson is really hard for me because I, every time I see Colin Firth, I’m like, that’s a British man.

Carrie Gillon: Oh, interesting.

Megan Figueroa: But his, his American accent in this I think is spot on. Like I’m actually forgetting that he’s British. Even though when I look at him, I think he’s British

yeah. So

Carrie Gillon: I don’t think of him as British in this role. He melts into it. So well. The thing that I, the thing that I have trouble with is he doesn’t really look like Michael Peterson. My sister pointed out that one of the guys from Scrubs would be a better like the, the mean doctor

Megan Figueroa: Dr. Cox

Carrie Gillon: would be a better physical representation, but I think setting all that aside, he sounds and move moves like Michael Peterson, it’s uncanny. I’m just in awe of his abilities. I always thought he was a good actor, but this is next level.

Megan Figueroa: He is perfection. This is Michael Peterson. This is an American man who is acting the shit out of this.

Carrie Gillon: You know who else is also really good is Parker Posey playing the DA. Wow. She gets her like way of talking, I think, really, really well. Now I’m not a Southerner, so I can’t a hundred percent judge the accent, but I don’t know just the way that, that particular DA spoke. I feel like she’s got that down.

Megan Figueroa: Yeah, I agree. I just watched the Dateline again with, uh, Michael Peterson and she was in there. I’m like, “okay, Parker. Yeah.” This is how the DA, well, like assistant DA or whatever was like

Carrie Gillon: yeah, I think you’re right. I think she has the assistant DA you’re right. Anyway, speaking of British people,

Megan Figueroa: yes!

Carrie Gillon: According to Newsweek, prince Harry has dropped his quote, traditional Royal accent and taken on a more laid back tone in recent interviews, according to linguistic experts from the language learning platform Babble. So he’s included things like “you guys” and “pop the hood.”

Megan Figueroa: “Pop the hood?” when did that come up in the interview? Well, of course, like these are things that I don’t question when I say them or hear them. You know, specific to a dialect. Well, “you guys,” yeah. But what does it mean? The, his Royal English that just like received, uh, pronunciation. Yeah, yeah,

Carrie Gillon: yeah. Yeah. So he, I think he probably still has a very RP accent. It’s just lessened. But if you listen, even to the Queen’s, the Queen speaking from like, when she first became Queen versus now, Or more recently, I guess I should say. Cause she hasn’t been in the public in a bit. It’s not quite the same, like that, that has already changed over 50 years or whatever. I guess it’s closer to 70, 70 years. Her, her, her accent has changed. The RP has changed. Yeah. I’m certain that he’s mostly still RPish, but because he’s saying “you guys” inside of his accent, it probably sounds very odd.

Megan Figueroa: Yeah. Well, I’m wondering. This is just something that people are noticing or taking note of because of his, like move to the US and all that, because he’s been with an American for a while now. And it just makes me think that perhaps these things have been happening maybe slowly but happening before now.

Carrie Gillon: I doubt it. He was surrounded by people who had had like the full RP and he was expected to behave in a particular way. So him leaving the family, uh, was probably what precipitated the change. He wouldn’t have the opportunity to change before that.

Megan Figueroa: Okay. So you think there’s like a conscious decision to when you’re royal to sound a certain way?

Carrie Gillon: Yes,

Megan Figueroa: there has to be definitely.

Carrie Gillon: Yes, there definitely is. There’s like, there’s this whole code around what it means to be a royal and how you have to behave. And you know, if we want to talk about civility, Ooh boy.

Megan Figueroa: I mean, it’s not unlike other areas of, or other professions, I guess, because I know that they do that for like on air personalities or like, you know, journalists that are on air. There’s like a code, basically a code that they follow when it comes to how they sound.

Carrie Gillon: True. But at home they get to down. However they want. That’s not the case for the royals. There’s no time for them to like, like, I don’t know if you saw Spencer, but I think that also gave us a nice little insight into like, just how suffocating it would be, uh, to live in that family, if you were an outsider, but if you were in an insider it would still be suffocating, you just might not notice it. And so, uh, at least as, as much. When you leave, when you’re finally free of it, uh, because you’re worried that your wife is going to kill herself. Right. You’re like, “oh wait, I don’t have to sound like that anymore. I can, like, I have my own voice?” that is probably still like, affected. I mean, it’s still, you know, RP ish, but it’s just freer, looser. I’m guessing.

Megan Figueroa: Yeah. Okay. That’s a good point. A big difference is not being able to, so at work, maybe you’re code switching and that’s a whole different conversation, but like, and then at home you’re able to drop.

Carrie Gillon: Right. Yeah. Everyone has like different registers. Right? We have our work register. We have our home register. I mean, like that’s normal, but they don’t.

Megan Figueroa: No separation of church and state or

Carrie Gillon: Their work and home because their job is just to be royal. So they’re always on. And if you’re around the Queen, like you’re really always on. Right. You know? Yeah, it sounds horrible. It sounds really horrible. And I think it’s actually bad for them. And it’s also bad for the rest of us

Megan Figueroa: actually noticing that Harry is being a little bit more relaxed. It’s like a big deal.

Carrie Gillon: Yeah, it’s part of, it’s part of his break with the family. Like, you know, everything he does, he breathes, and people are like, “what does this mean for the royal family?” but it’s still like, because it’s the language aspect. I do find it interesting.

Megan Figueroa: I feel like, I mean, I use the example of “you guys” that is. Way to connect on a chiller level than what he’s used to. I am sure. So, yeah.

Carrie Gillon: Yeah. And, and, you know, if Megan was from the south, he might’ve picked up “y’all” instead,

Megan Figueroa: right! Yeah.

Carrie Gillon: Anyway be free.

Megan Figueroa: Exactly.

Carrie Gillon: So I thought, um, we haven’t done this in awhile, but um, we have an email,

“Dear Megan and Carrie. My name is Ana, a student from University of the Sciences in Philadelphia. I’m currently taking a class called Lost in Translation. And this past week we discussed the Philly accent. One source we used with the Vocal Fries episode, How Millennials are Destroying the Philly Accent. I was born and raised in the suburbs of Philadelphia, but, so before listening to this podcast and learning more in class, I only knew that stereotypical features of the Philly accent. I thought it was very cool that at the end of the interview, uh, led by Dr. Sneller, she asked speakers what they think makes a Philly accent, which can then be compared to the actual features of the accent. I knew that jawn was a common phrase that they have a plural you, and that they have a unique way of saying water.”

That was my bad attempt at that.

“Listening to Dr. Sneller explain the rules of pronouncing words in terms of Philly accent was also very interesting. I never really thought about how complex languages are. Side note: I know this is not relate to the Philly accent, but I’ve heard my peers debate on whether or not Central Jersey exists. I think it does. I’ve also thought that the way that people with a Philly accent sometimes speaks is rude. However, after learning more about accents in my class, and through this podcast episode, I’ve come to realize it’s simply how they talk. So I should not judge. I never knew that there was a Philly syntax. So listening to Dr. Sneller’s examples blew my mind. I learned a lot from this episode and I enjoyed listening to it. Thank you.”

And that’s from Ana. Thank you, Ana.

Megan Figueroa: Yeah. And, uh, I love that email because it gives me an opportunity to talk about Abbott Elementary. Do you watch it? Have you seen it?

Carrie Gillon: No.

Megan Figueroa: Um, it’s in Philly and there’s just like opening scene where one of the teachers, um, the main teacher, I think first grade, she teaches first grade and she’s teaching sight words. And so on the board, the sight words are jawn and youse and a hoagie. So these, uh, says words that they would recognize or, you know, know. Um, and I thought that was. So perfect.

Carrie Gillon: That’s great.

Megan Figueroa: Yeah. You know, I didn’t know about the Philly accent in this way before we talked to Betsy. I can see why people are, are so proud. You know, that’s like one of our most popular episodes ever, right. Because like I got picked up by like

Carrie Gillon: the most popular

Megan Figueroa: people in Philly

Carrie Gillon: love their accent.

Megan Figueroa: Yeah. Yes. It’s amazing. Yeah. Um, and Central Jersey, I don’t know where I fall in that because how am I to have a opinion, but I guess, uh, Bruce Springsteen would agree, right? Isn’t he from central Jersey?

Carrie Gillon: I know that John Stewart is, I don’t remember.

Megan Figueroa: Right. I don’t remember if Bruce is too. I think he might.

Carrie Gillon: Yeah. So I, yeah, I’m not from there, I have no say, but I would still if pressed vote yes. There’s a Central Jersey just because some people identify with it. So to me that means there’s something there.

Megan Figueroa: Yeah.

Carrie Gillon: So today we’re talking about how mostly how sexist linguistic examples are. And so this is kind of, you know, in the weeds of linguistics, like formal linguistics. So if that’s not your thing, I still think you should listen because it it’s, it’s, it’s, it’s interesting to see the changes that have happened over the decades and yet how things haven’t changed too.

Megan Figueroa: I, I still don’t think of it as like a linguistics lesson. I think of it as like, oh my God. Look at these examples of how sexist

Carrie Gillon: humans are.

Megan Figueroa: Yeah. Yeah, exactly. Exactly. Yeah.

Carrie Gillon: Because there’s plenty of women in the syntax and semantics, and yet these, these problems still persist.

Megan Figueroa: Right?

Carrie Gillon: So

Megan Figueroa: hope you enjoy.

Carrie Gillon: So today we’re very excited to have Dr. Hadas Kotek, who is a linguist at Apple who works on data science for natural language annotation projects for the Siri and language technologies team. She’s also the co-author of Gender Bias in Linguistics Textbooks: Has Anything Changed Since Macauley and Brice 1997 and Gender Bias and Stereotypes in Linguistic Example Sentences. And both of those are in the journal Language. So welcome.

Hadas Kotek: Thank you for having me.

Carrie Gillon: Of course.

Megan Figueroa: Thank you for being here. We could talk to you about so many different things, but this one, this is fresh. This is these, these articles just came out in December of 2021. And if you’re a linguist, you know this problem, even if you don’t think it’s a problem.

Carrie Gillon: Well, yeah, so maybe for those people who might not be like deeply enmeshed in what this problem actually is, maybe you can talk a little bit about what a linguistic example sentence is and why it matters for a lot of the field.

Hadas Kotek: Linguistic example sentence is one of the main sources of data that linguists- certain kinds of linguists, I should say- use when they present their arguments and their theories. So they’re just sentences that are used to illustrate particular phenomena of interest.

So for example, if I wanted to very simply in English illustrate that a particular word order is, is acceptable in English, such as, you know, subject verb object. I could give an example of such as “John ate an apple” and such as an example of that, that, that subject “John” and verb “ate” and object “apple” is this fine in English, but something like let’s say sOV. So subject object, verb, that is not an acceptable word order in English. So we would put a star next to an example of such as *”John an apple ate.” That’s not okay.

And so these example sentences are used in research. They’re used in textbooks and generally, and teaching in some subfields and particularly syntax and semantics and pragmatics as well. Maybe we, we see these quite frequently.

Carrie Gillon: So, why did you want to write these two papers? What were you looking for?

Hadas Kotek: Both of these papers are an extension of, for those on the earlier paper that was published also in Language. At the time when we started exactly 20 years earlier. So this is a paper by Monica Macauley and Colleen Brice, and that paper had looked at example sentences in 10 different syntax textbooks that had been published, I think, between 69 and 94. And they had an interest in the representation of, of arguments of, of subjects and objects and, you know, indirect objects and things of that sort in example sentences. And they had found at the time that there were various problems with how example sentences were being constructed and we could do something about those problems. They’re horrifying, but they’re kind of fun to read. If you want to, to read some of the exact same sentences that they have with as illustrations of the issues, but we are just interested in finding out what had changed. And, you know, the original hope was that things had actually changed a lot. And, you know, eventually the actual finding is not, not very much has changed since then.

Megan Figueroa: Horrifying and in different ways. So there, for one example, “Bill is proud of his father and tired of his mother.”

Carrie Gillon: unbelievable.

Megan Figueroa: Okay. That is actually less unexpected to me than something like this. Like, let’s see. “John’s turned on by Mary in tight trousers.”

Carrie Gillon: unbelievable.

Megan Figueroa: Yeah. Yeah.

Hadas Kotek: So for all of these, I, the main thing that I, when I present these in talks and stuff, I just say “your job, when I read these as to imagine what these are trying to illustrate. If you can, try to think of an example that illustrates the same point, without also being disgusting.

Megan Figueroa: Yeah.

Carrie Gillon: What are these two illustrating actually?

Hadas Kotek: So I’m, I’m guessing that the first one is trying to illustrate right node raising or some kind of across the board coordination: “proud of his father and tired of his mother.” Maybe the other one

Megan Figueroa: John’s turned on by Mary in tight trousers.

Hadas Kotek: I guess it’s this, the small clause Mary in tight trousers.

Megan Figueroa: Oh, right. What are these examples? What’s the big thing that they’re doing what is the gender, the gender roles at play here?

Hadas Kotek: There are a variety of things that are happening and all of them, kind of lead to the same conclusion. So I’m very generally when you find a over representation of men. So twice as often, you just will find a male name or male pronoun, or noun phrase, in the example, compared to non-male.

And actually, I guess this is a good time to pause and say, but throughout these papers, all of them, including ours, we talk about men and women. Not anything beyond the binary. That is a whole separate conversation. We’ve worried a lot about this. But as it turns out, the papers themselves that we study just don’t go beyond the binary. And so we’re constrained by what they do. So if I say “men and women,” I try, I tried to be careful and say “men and non-men” but really, it’s just, these papers are just human things that are perceived as men and things that are perceived as women, right? Because “John wrote a book” in an example sentence, we don’t know John. There is no reason why in principle, John couldn’t be non-binary or even a woman, right? A woman could be named John, but we go with the stereotype as well. So we say, we classify John as a male argument in this example.

So that aside side, so we just find a lot more men than women in example sentences. We find them in stereotypical uses. So men are the ones who engage in violent activities. They drink beer. They drive cars. They read. Turns out women don’t read so much.

Carrie Gillon: Wow.

Hadas Kotek: So men will read the book and the woman will put the book on the shelf. The thing that was interesting about that paper the main thing that’s changed now is that in these earlier works in these earlier textbooks, you got these explicit and suggestive language. That has gone. That is the main thing that has changed over the past twenty years is that the obviously offensive examples have gone. But all of the other stuff has stayed, so kind of making it harder to see. Yeah. So if you wanted to go and read the Macauley and Brice paper, they have a whole bunch of example sentences. It’s, it’s, it’s fun. And the, you know, despairing type of fun way you might read things.

Megan Figueroa: Right. So the egregious examples are gone, right? Was what you were saying.

Hadas Kotek: In our newer papers, the main difference between the earlier work in Macauley and Brice and what we find is that suggestive and explicit language is mostly gone. There’s there is a tiny bit, but basically it’s gone, but all of the other stuff is still there. So there is a huge skew, um, of about two to one. So every two arguments that are male, you get one that is female. And men are more often subjects and women are non subjects. Men are the ones who engage in violence and particular they are subjects. If you get a woman, it’s more likely to be an object in any violent sentence. Kinship terms are one of the huge ones, so women are most often described as a wife or a mother, men are a very rarely described it as someone’s father husband, brother. So. Um, men have occupations. Women don’t have occupations as often. And this is also true to the earlier paper. So, you know, men will be, whatever, bankers and CEOs and doctors. And women, not so much. All of these things have stayed the same. So they are consistent over- you know that your paper is looked at textbooks starting in 69 that were published starting in 69. Our most recent textbook and most recent paper was 2017, I think 2018. So there’ve been many, many years where this is basically stayed same.

Megan Figueroa: Right. So, okay. So the explicit language is- we’ve moved past that, but it’s still, the binary is reinforced even to this day.

Hadas Kotek: So the binary. Yeah. So it’s harder to, to say something interesting about that, right? So we don’t really find a singular they or references of that kind. And beyond that. You just kind of don’t know. Right? It’s not easy to know when an example says “John read a book,” what is the identity of John? Right. Right. You have guesses about it that because of stereotypical understanding of how of names and who they are assigned to most commonly.

And kind of the same way, we don’t go into this in our paper, but John is by far the most common name. So we do go into that. John is by far the most common name that is used in these examples. There aren’t really names that are not too white sounding. So there are, you don’t really get names that that sounds or signal that some of them is Black or that someone is Latino or that someone is Asian outside of a couple of names that we always use. The Chinese people will tell you, you are not actually real names.

Megan Figueroa: Like what’s an example.

Hadas Kotek: So Chiangson, which is the most common name that is used in example sentences, it’s not an name that people use in real life.

Megan Figueroa: Oh, wow.

Carrie Gillon: Where does that come from? Who, who started this business of using Chiangson.

Hadas Kotek: Oh, Chiangson is- okay. I’m not an expert on visit, but it’s, it’s a way of counting, I think, so Chiangson is like the third son.

Carrie Gillon: Oh,

Hadas Kotek: so it’s like calling someone, you know, John the third, third son of the family or something no one actually is called that.

Carrie Gillon: That’s fascinating. I did not know. Because I’ve, I’ve definitely used those examples because I’ve taken it from other people’s work. And I just had no clue that that was just like, basically a non-name. That’s horrifying.

Megan Figueroa: And I’m thinking about like, a Latinx sounding names again, this is all, you know, like I’m Mexican American, but my name is Megan. So you might not get that from the name Megan. Um, but I’m thinking like, Mary, you never see like, well you less often see Maria, right? Like it could be as simple as that, but you just don’t see it.

Hadas Kotek: So you do see it, but mostly you see it in examples that are specifically of Spanish. So it will be much, much less common to see Maria in an example of English data. And there’s the type of complication where, so for Spanish data, for example, and for a lot of the data we see as from Native Americans and Native languages of South America, you get, you know, “Maria makes the tortillas and Juan plows the field.” Or something. That is, to an extent, kind of a think that you might expect that if you were working with native speakers of cultures where they were are these traditional roles, you can’t really push and you shouldn’t maybe go beyond what the speaker is comfortable with.

Megan Figueroa: Right.

Hadas Kotek: So I remember a story that someone told me once where they tried something like “Juan makes the tortillas” with a native speaker of some language and, and the speaker rejected the sentence and said that was not okay. And, but it was grammatically well formed, but. And what turned out was that you can’t say that because Juan doesn’t make the tortillas.

So it’s like, you know, if you asked the speaker, “can you say this” the speaker is like “no” know because but then what actually turns out, it’s not good not because it’s not a well-formed sentence, but just because it does not describe a situation that actually happens in real life, so you can’t stay that.

Megan Figueroa: So can we go back to like occupations? Do you still see like men being like janitors and all of these things, like jobs that people don’t appreciate as much as doctors or whatever, even though unfair. For men and women still aren’t getting these types of,

Hadas Kotek: let me find it for you. So we have two different papers when it looks at textbooks and when it looks at journal articles and they have different amounts of data. So the textbook paper, it looks at six textbooks and we sampled 200 examples for each. The paper that looks at journal articles, we got every example sentence that was published in three different journals.

Megan Figueroa: What journals did?

Hadas Kotek: Language, Linguistic Inquiry, and Natural language and linguistic theory. The textbooks we’re not publishing which ones.

And so the reason I’m bringing this up is that for the textbooks paper, because the numbers are sufficiently small, we just list every predicate that comes up. In the other paper, it was just like

Megan Figueroa: cool

Hadas Kotek: way too much. So here’s the full list of in, in, in the textbooks that we looked at, the full list of occupations that women have. Okay. So women can be students. Then there is wants to become a police woman, wants to be appointed precedent. Um, then there is John believes that she is the best candidate. Then we have a teacher and not a teacher. And then we have the Queen of Denmark and the Queen of the United States.

Megan Figueroa: Oh, the Queen!

Carrie Gillon: Of course

Hadas Kotek: I’m telling you about the occupations that men have. So men can be students, they could be bakers. They can be professors, doctor, prince, gardener. teacher, not a teacher, manufacturer of tires, chief, Interior Minister, captain, runs a restaurant, jeweler, probationary officer, dustman and fishmonger.

Megan Figueroa: Okay. So you’re seeing like across the spectrum of what we have, what might be called blue collar and white collar jobs, um, and even baker, which may be had this gendered expectation around it, for some people. Men can do all of those things.

Hadas Kotek: And women generally are royalty or students or teachers or things that men believe

Megan Figueroa: right. Even fake royalty that does not exist. Like the Queen of

Carrie Gillon: my guess is that was like the King of France is bald type example.

Hadas Kotek: Yeah. That’s my guess. I don’t remember the actual sentence, but yes, I think that is probably what it’s there for. Yeah.

Megan Figueroa: Right. Okay. These were from textbooks. What’s the date of the publication of the newest textbook that you looked at?

Hadas Kotek: The newest we looked at was actually not published when we started, we were in touch with the author from before. It was 2017.

Megan Figueroa: Oh 2017. Okay.

Hadas Kotek: So for that one, we would actually be able to give them feedback before it was published about their ratio, so that they could make changes.

Megan Figueroa: Oh, that’s very cool.

Carrie Gillon: And so is it, is it better now?

Hadas Kotek: Um, actually, I don’t know, but I should find out.

Megan Figueroa: But they were like, they were part of this process. They were interested in making it better.

Hadas Kotek: Yeah. So we there are several authors who contacted us when we started doing this who were like, “can you tell me how to do this for my textbook?”

Carrie Gillon: Oh, okay.

Megan Figueroa: Okay. Because they knew of you and your co-authors as people who were looking into this?

Hadas Kotek: Yeah, because we’d been doing this for a while and we were presenting this work even before it was published. So we did get authors who were like, “Hey, teach me how to do this. I want to make sure that my textbook isn’t isn’t like this.” And one that had an existing textbook that was like, “I am due for a new edition. Let me, this is something that I can work on.”

Carrie Gillon: That’s heartening, like as depressing as all these examples are, this makes me have a little glimmer of hope, which is nice.

Megan Figueroa: Right, right. So you say there’s not much of the they singular, but have you at all consulted with anyone that’s trying to add that into their textbook or paper?

Hadas Kotek: To their textbook? No. I mean, we consulted with people who work on singular they in making our recommendations for how to improve, how to do better. So if you read our papers, they say use singular they, um, that comes from talking to people who work on this, but in terms of textbooks, less so.

So I think that the most common reaction you get from authors and from teachers. The textbook example sentences are not necessarily the place to, to do these things. I have reactions, which are like, no. So there is a, when I was a student, I remember one of my teachers saying when you construct an example sentence, you want to make everything as boring as possible, other than the thing that you’re interested in.

Carrie Gillon: Okay. But then if you have these like obviously sexist things, how is that boring?

Megan Figueroa: Right.

Hadas Kotek: So related to that. So in my training, there is a series of names that you’d use in this particular order. They are John Mary Bill and Sue in that order. And if you always use these names in that order, then it’s kind of becomes boring that John does something. For example. And also does mean, the John is most often the subject and Mary’s most often to the object, if there is a Mary to begin with, but it’s very white and it has all of other issues up we talked about, but that’s the kind of thing that people were that I was raised to think.

And for me too, you know, when I was teaching, it was an unconscious thing I had to overcome and it’s actually really kind of hard. Yeah, so I started with John to very like naturally, right? So it’s, it’s a thing you have to consciously overcome. But when I talk to people very often, they will say, you know, “while I’m trying to illustrate, um, construct state, I’m not trying to illustrate social activism.” and I’m like, well, you know, you don’t have to illustrate and just like do it.

Megan Figueroa: Yeah.

Carrie Gillon: Right. Yeah. It’s not activist to just have women doing normal things in your sentences.

Hadas Kotek: Yeah. And you know, and so it’s, it’s always a new sense, right? It’s like, why, why has the John like started from Mary or Maria or find herself some other nice names from other cultures. Just to be inclusive, right? You can do all of these things in a single signal without saying words that you’re inclusive and that you care about all of the students that you have, some students that don’t show up in your classes because they immediately don’t even feel included. But when they saw that you tried a bit harder.

I was going to say, and it’s actually not very hard. It’s hard. And it’s true that it’s not very hard, but it is hard in the sense that requires conscious effort and thinking about it. But it’s, it’s worth the training to, to try it to say they, you know, singular they. If, if it doesn’t matter, if your protagonist is a man or a woman or someone else, and it is good to mix and match, then it’s not always John and it’s not always, he. It is, it is work right. It is work because it goes against what we’re taught and what’s ingrained in us.

And some people say or think, you know, “it’s, it’s not, it’s where I went to invest my efforts and it’s not, it’s not relevant for what I’m doing.” Right. So you got that a lot, right? “It’s just not relevant. It’s it’s like I’m teaching what’s the exam, not being a social warrior.”

Megan Figueroa: we are embodied beings, you cannot remove the person in their experiences from how they will react to a sentence. So I’m thinking about, okay, you’re you both, while I have you both here. You do have to create sentences and do these kinds of things. You know, when you did research or do research. I don’t have that same thing. I do, I have created sentences, but I use like Snoopy or something. Cause it’s for little babies, but, okay. So what if one of the sentences I’m looking at I don’t know, something grammatical that I say “Juan was a doctor in the hospital down the street.” What if someone comes to this sentence and I’m looking at product kits or something, and they’re like, Juan, this is hard for me because I would assume someone named Juan is a doctor.

Hadas Kotek: There is research showing that there is what they call any suprisal effect when someone or some argument shows up in a unexpected position. So there is a study that famous and kind of new studied that does things like this. So it’s a two sentence paradigm, and the first sentence is always have some kind of noun that is not gendered. So “the CEO came into the room.” And then the second sentence starts with a pronoun. And then you’re going to get there, say “he said, well, good job on making this money, this quarter.” That’s that’s, you know, people read that then, and you know, they’re kind of happy but then you have ” the CEO came into the room. She said, ‘good job. I’m making this money this quarter.'” And you see a surprisal effect and you can see it either in slower reading times, or if you do brain imaging, you can see it. Then, you know, one of these, I don’t remember if it’s an N400. I don’t think it is. But you see, you see that kind of effect. Right. So it is the case that that happens.

I’ve I was involved in a study that tried to replicate that and correlate that with people’s reported attitudes. So we had this hypothesis that if you were more progressive, maybe then, there is a lessened reaction and that wasn’t really the case. Making these choices is, is a thing that goes against what we’re used to. That doesn’t mean you should, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. But it is the case that it is an extra effort that you have to put into your example sentences in your teaching and your research and all of the other things that you do. So if you, if you choose to not engage, then you’re basically affirming the status quo and the status school has a particular shape to it. You know, is this not the progressive one more often, and so you are in fact expressing a view an opinion, even if you think that you’re not.

Carrie Gillon: Yeah, I think that’s, that’s the thing we really have to hammer home is that you’re not being neutral. You are taking a stance. You are trying to pretend you’re not.

Megan Figueroa: Yeah. Carrie, I’m being so sassy about linguists even yesterday during another interview we did, but so many people syntacticians and, and, you know, on linguist Twitter, I think there’s a lot of like syntactician hate, even from not hate. But even from syntacticians who are not white men, um, cisgender that they are actively contributing to this because they’ll say “no, we’re just, we’re looking at syntax and that’s it.” but you can’t remove language from people.

Carrie Gillon: Yeah. And, and. I mean, like you’re trying to narrow the number of factors that are impacting the sentence as you can. I understand that, but you can’t like completely divorce that it’s not just math suddenly. It’s not just a bunch of like, right. It’s not just algebra. Like, it really is still, no matter how many factors we try to reduce it down to, there’s still the human factor in there. So we just have to admit that.

Megan Figueroa: Right. Right. I wonder if you did, if. Did you break down the data at all in a way to see if gender representation is getting better over the years.

Hadas Kotek: Yes. So for the, the paper that dealt with the example sentences in journals, because we, again, we had so much data, we looked at every example sentence that was published in every paper, over 20 years in three journals. That’s a lot of data, so he could plot that over time and we could ask whether there is an improvement. Okay. So there are two graphs. I wonder if I can share with you because I’m kind of curious about your reaction to them.

Megan Figueroa: I like interviews where I can just be enraged the whole time. Okay.

Hadas Kotek: So I’m sharing my screen. Okay. This is, this is a graph that describes the proportion of female arguments over time when the ratio is going from the 0.3 range more or less.

Megan Figueroa: So men are represented three times more

Carrie Gillon: no. It’s like it’s 30%, 70% ish, right?

Megan Figueroa: Oh!

Carrie Gillon: So 70% are men.

Megan Figueroa: Oh, so it goes from 30 to like three,

Hadas Kotek: something like that. Yeah. So over 20 years we went from 0.3 ish to 0.33 ish. But it’s also interesting to ask about how differs between subjects and non-subjects. The two graphs that pull out the data that we were just describing into subjects and non-subjects.

Carrie Gillon: So it’s getting worse.

Megan Figueroa: Yeah. So women are the thing being acted upon more.

Hadas Kotek: So what we see as then in subject positions, actually, there are probably fewer female arguments. Okay. And in object position and we see the opposite. We see an increase. So more women in object positions over time. So the overall increase that we saw in the overall graph increase is the main contributor is more of women in non subject positions. So being acted upon.

Carrie Gillon: This is, this is horrifying to me somehow. Like, first of all, the fact that it was, there was barely a change at all. I think you said it was something like 5% in one of the papers, which is nothing. Basically that’s barely anything at all. And then that was bad enough. And now I look at this and I am enraged that the situation in some ways has actually gotten worse because yeah, women are, are in these roles where they’re being acted upon. rather than acting

Megan Figueroa: there’s no agency. The agency for women has gotten worse between 2000 and 2015.

Carrie Gillon: Who, who can I hurt about this? This is-

Megan Figueroa: where’s the manager?

Carrie Gillon: Where is the manager of linguistics. I would like to lodge a complaint. Yes .

Megan Figueroa: So this is I wanna laugh and cry at the same time, but I’m thinking about it is really disempowering to see women being represented as the one without agency over and over and over again. This keeps reinforcing these ideas, that women aren’t the ones that do that. It’s, it’s really harmful.

Hadas Kotek: Yup. Men are afraid of me. And when they say afraid of me, what they mean is that I speak my mind and they say, yeah, so people are afraid of me and I’m like, that’s too bad. Too bad for you.

Carrie Gillon: Good.

Hadas Kotek: When it first started happening, I’d be like, “why?” And they’d be like, “well, because you, you say things,” I’m like, okay, okay. I mean, am I not supposed to have an opinion? What’s what’s that about?

Megan Figueroa: Yeah.

Carrie Gillon: Well, I’ve been called a feminazi in my time because I have spoken my mind. There’s nothing you can really do about it. Either of you become more a passive woman, which I, neither of us want to do that or you just sort of like, okay, fine. Or you’re scared of me. Good.

Hadas Kotek: That’s that’s really your problem. I-

Megan Figueroa: yeah, really. It’s, it’s a, it’s not a me problem. This seems to be a you problem.

Carrie Gillon: It is, it is a, it is a them problem with. Yeah.

Megan Figueroa: Yeah. Well, it just goes back to how we’ve talked about before in the podcast. One of our first episodes, maybe our first episode, Carrie, we were talking about words like “shrill” and “bitchy” and all of these things are associated with women when women speak their mind. Well, it, that’s not even, like I say, speak. They’re like when women speak their mind, but it’s like, it’s not called that when men say things, you know, like men are speaking their mind, it’s just being a person and actually saying what you mean.

Carrie Gillon: Yeah. Just asking for things. Yeah. Simply just asking for like this, this to me in some way. I mean, I know you’re right. It takes effort, but it’s still kind of feels like a minor change to be asking people, like, just be more mindful of your, of your example, sentences, consider, consider your audience like and consider the fact that you could be like feeding into the already existing patriarchy. So in this case, we’re just focusing on gender here. So you’re feeding into the patriarchy. Like that’s not great. And if you’re okay with that, then it tells me who you are.

And that, to me, I think the thing that also makes us even more horrifying is like, yes, syntax and semantics are, you know, probably more male dominated than other parts of the field. But linguistics as a whole is you know, it has a lot of women in it, a lot of women, and we’re still seeing this happen.

Megan Figueroa: Well, you got to ask yourself, is it related? Why there’s so few women in syntax and semantics?

Hadas Kotek: And related to that, what I was going to say that when you are teaching, think about who your students are and students in linguistics tend to be very white, very early on. I’ve taught whole classes that had not a single non-white person in them

Carrie Gillon: wow, really?

Hadas Kotek: Well, you know, I’ve taught in particular institutions that lend themselves more to that, perhaps, but regardless if you are a Black student or a Latinx student and is there is no one else in the class that looks like them, their instructors don’t look at them. And the example sentence sounded like they’re not welcoming to you or. You know, and the things that you read or have a particular bias to them, but a lot of that contributes together to this feeling that you’re not welcome. People pick up on that extremely quickly and they will just not continue. And we, everyone knows that there’s this issue where probably even more than there is a woman problem, there is a white problem.

Carrie Gillon: Yeah, there definitely is. Yes,

Megan Figueroa: but I’m just thinking of. How class ideals come up in these sentences too where I would read something and I’d be like, this is just like, not meshing with how I understand the world to be like, you know, talking about how like kids have, you know, elaborate play sets in their backyard or even just this kind of stuff. It’s like, it can be a class issue too.

Hadas Kotek: That is something we could actually look at and quantify and study. And then there are things that are much harder to study or that they’re just not represented. The data isn’t there. So in terms of race, for example, there isn’t, there isn’t an obvious way of studying race representation in these example sentences, because generally you would just say, no one’s thinking about that. That’s not a thing that is represented at all.

Carrie Gillon: Yes, there are names that are more like associated with certain races, but it’s not, one-to-one, it’s even trickier, I think, than gender. And I think also like the fact that this is focusing on gender, where we would expect things to be better than race for a variety of reasons. ,There’s more women, it’s whiter. And so we expect the gender problem. Sorry. The race problem. We’ve, but we don’t expect the gender problem. And here it is, like just showing his head head and it’s really bad. So just imagine how much worse it would be if we actually looked at all these other things that can yeah, we can be discriminated against for.

Megan Figueroa: Yeah. And I said that the egregious examples are like gone, but look, how egregious it is if women, you know, being subjects has actually gone down and still like, what is it? It’s so it’s below 30%.

Hadas Kotek: It’s about 30%. It’s a 2:1 more or less ratio, right? So for every two men we have one woman ish.

Megan Figueroa: That’s egregious.

Hadas Kotek: Yeah, it’s pretty bad. And it, of course there may be, this is the time to say, you know, we’re looking at example sentences and that’s a particular genre and a particular part of the field, but it’s not like, you know, we’re not, we don’t have issues and, you know, sexist or racist and, and other parts of our lines. Right. So who, you know, how we construct our example of sentences has a correlation with who we cite for example, and who we invite to present at our conferences and who we shortlist and who we hire and become teachers, right? Who, who, who continue to use these example sentences. So it all kind of ties in it.

There is a particular way that example sentences make it easier to see, but it’s not, it’s not contained only within example of sentences it has an impact outside. And I think that’s important to keep in mind when you think about that too.

Carrie Gillon: Yeah, I think it just like is a reflection. It’s like a mirror up to our field of like what’s actually going on because if things were better than the example sentences would at least have improved more than 5% and not gotten worse on women being objects.

Megan Figueroa: I’m thinking about how, when I was in the classroom, I’d have to think of sentences like on the fly. So there, there are different times of, you know, instructors and professors and teachers that have to make sentences. What are ways that we can be better.

Hadas Kotek: You’re right that maybe a lot of the time when we specifically, when we teach, we don’t always use handouts or textbooks, we actually make things up on the fly. So it’s kind of a bigger issue than just what’s written down in our formal materials. Honestly, one of the best things that anyone can do is just be conscious and be aware and to make choices with these issues in mind. And that is both easy and tardy. It’s, it’s easy because we kind of, we know what we need to do, and it’s not, it’s not complicated, right? When we say, make sure that your example sentences are varied in various ways so that there are non men in subject positions and that the, the predicates you use are diverse and varied. So that women have occupations that are diverse.

And some of that, maybe there is no violence necessary at all. So maybe like replace here, you’re hitting examples with something else also, by the way, not, you know, non-consensual kissing, like that’s not okay. So when, when you have something about that, right, maybe that’s difficult. So think about what your transitive predicates are that don’t involve any violence or any physical touch that is connect welcomed.

Use singular they, right? Those kinds of things. Or don’t use anything that’s gendered at all, if you don’t need to, because just not relevant or maybe choose names that are more inclusive. So have at your disposal ahead of time a set of names that you’re going to use that is more inclusive and more diverse than in my training. So, so all of that is kind of maybe, maybe not hard in the sense that we can think of those things. It’s obvious what some of the things that we can do.

It’s also really hard because it is ingrained in us to do things a certain way. So again, for me, it’s like John Mary Bill and Sue in that order, like always. It’s really hard. And so what I found myself doing, when I was teaching, I would think up an example sentence and I would start writing on the board, John, and then it would, I, I will do this. I would stop. And I would embrace John for the board. And I would actually explain to the class that I’m doing this because I do not want to talk about John anymore or John is overrepresented. And we see him all the time, I want inclusive example sentences, I do fall into this order of things that I have been taught. And so, and I am going to consciously make a decision that whenever I say John Woods, I will erase that from the board. And so that’s what I’m doing. And I actually explained that. It takes 30 seconds out of my teaching, but I think it’s a good 30 seconds.

Megan Figueroa: It’s a really good 30 seconds. I love it.

Carrie Gillon: It’s really good advice.

I will say I came across the transitive verb problem very early on because I was, I was looking at, I passivization, I think. And it’s tricky to find really good transitive verbs that are not violent because like when they are not violent. It’s very easy for them to become less transitive. So yeah, it’s, it’s, it’s, it’s actually not an easy problem. I, I do think people should think about it and like, try to find the verbs in whatever language they’re looking at that actually are non-violent and still transitive, but it’s not like super easy.

Hadas Kotek: But also like I I’ve seen cases- so we do field methods class. Where we have a speaker and students go around asking the speaker to say things. And a lot of the times I’ve seen people, use the speaker’s name in example sentences, right. So if your speakers name is Maria, then you might have, you might have the speakers say things like “Maria makes tortillas” and, you know, then I’ve seen people being like telling her, you know, “say ‘Juan hit Maria.'” No, it’s not okay. Or, you know, “Juan hates Maria” or like all kinds of like having the speakers say out loud things that may trigger them in some way, because it’s, it’s describing violence or it’s describing negative emotion. Just like, and even if it’s not that situation, just having in your class, a situation where you describe, you know, “the man hit the wall” or “the man kicked the boy” or “the man kicked kids,” “killed the woman” like those kind of traditional example sentences.

None of that is good. And maybe it’s hard. That’s true. And in some cases may be forced into these high contact transitive verbs, and it’s unavoidable. Most of the time though, it’s probably not required for most of what you need to do.

Carrie Gillon: Yeah. There’s almost always another thing you could do. Yes, for sure.

Megan Figueroa: So do you think that a good piece of advice would be that outside of the classroom, think about how you’re going to address these things? Like just have some strategies.

Hadas Kotek: I think so, yeah. So, so prepare your, your names that you’re going to use, think about the predicates that you’re going to use. Yeah. Come ready with some of these, if you were in a context where you need to make some particular elaborate context, think about that ahead of time. If you’re a semanticist.

Megan Figueroa: Right.

Carrie Gillon: The other, the other thing that this always reminds me of, and again, it’s not about gender. This is about, about race, but all, a lot of the old examples in like languages of North America literature were about yeah violence or, or drinking, you know, drunk being drunk and all that kind of stuff. And at least in my experience of that stuff was no longer acceptable by what time I started. So, but it was always there in my head that, oh, we’ve got to be careful about this stuff. And yet I bet I still have done all kinds of stuff. Like I know the John Mary Sue stuff. Definitely. I definitely did that in class. I even noticed it as I was doing it, but I didn’t do what you did, which was stop and erase. I should have done that.

Hadas Kotek: There is a related issue that sometimes comes up, which is occasionally work with the data from grammars that from speakers of languages, we don’t have access to. We just work with examples of other people have elicited, on occasion from languages that do not have speakers anymore. There’s a famous case of that, where one of the only examples of a transitive sentence you have is something like “father hit mother with a stick,” something like that. Um, and so we have to use it. And in that case, if that’s what you’re trying to illustrate, or then we say, “okay, use it. That’s what you have.” but most of the time. You can do better. Right?

And likewise, you can say something like there may be famous examples that are offensive in various ways. You don’t have to cite them. You could just say following XYZ, and get the citation, but you can make up your own example

Megan Figueroa: And even when you do- okay, the, the language no longer has speakers. And it has that offensive example you could in your papers, say that exact thing, just like how you while teaching erased John, and tell the students what you’re doing. Could be worth just saying in your article that I’m using this, this example, even though it is, you know, whatever. Just reading things like this and art and articles, I think is a good way to reinforce the idea.

Hadas Kotek: So related to that, if you’re, you know, if you’re a conference organizer, you can think about who, we’re inviting to speak, also who you’re inviting to be reviewer, for example, You can think about, you know, if you’re an editor you could, like, think about whether the papers that you’re looking at have these issues that we’re discussing, if you’re happen to be so lucky to be on a search committee, actually think about who you are interviewing and who you’re passing on, and aren’t interviewing and who you’re hiring eventually is a big thing. If you’re teaching, if you could think about who is in your classroom, who is not in your classroom.

Megan Figueroa: Yep. And even if the people are they aren’t there. It doesn’t mean that your sentences can still be bad sentences.

Hadas Kotek: Your students have roommates and they have friends and they will see your materials. I know that that’s happened that I’ve had students who came to my classes because they saw some materials from their friends. Like that’s a thing that happens. Yeah. So you do have a broader reach, not only for a classroom.

Megan Figueroa: Yeah. Yeah.

Carrie Gillon: Yeah. And also the fact that you have an all white class unless you are at a particular school, but most schools, if you have an all white class that probably should tell you something about you, and maybe you can make some adjustments. So that going forward that’s not the case.

Hadas Kotek: Right. It might also telling you about who was previously taught the class and who is in the department more generally.

Carrie Gillon: Right? If you’re the first, if that’s your first time teaching the class yeah, that has nothing to do with you. But I just mean if it’s your regular class that you’re teaching and

Megan Figueroa: yeah.

Carrie Gillon: The people are all white. That’s something to ponder.

Hadas Kotek: Similarly, if all your advisees are white men.

Carrie Gillon: Yes.

Megan Figueroa: Exactly.

Carrie Gillon: This is the shadiest that we’ve been. And I love it.

Megan Figueroa: I know, I know, like I said, I’m glad that this, this whole thing is just me being outraged. So Language, which is where these articles are, is the paper of the Linguistic Society of America. And there is a committee on gender equity, right? In linguistics. And you are now the chair?

Hadas Kotek: Yes. I am the incoming chair of COGEL the Committee on Gender Equity in Linguistics.

Megan Figueroa: And what does that mean?

Hadas Kotek: This committee used to be called COSWL, the Committee on the Status of Women in Linguistics. And it’s one of the oldest and most productive committees of the LSA. Just last year, we rebranded as the committee on Gender Equity in Linguistics because we went to be more inclusive. And so we are one of the more productive committees of the LSA. We do a lot of things. Everyone can join. It’s a free open committee. So anyone who is a student or non-permanent faculty member or faculty member has been around for decades or who is not even an academic like me, I’m no longer an academic. Everyone can join this committee.

We tried to pick up some number of project every year and run with them. The textbook paper actually is written entirely by COGEL members and started as kind of being from a discussion at one of our committee meetings.

But so some other things that we do, so we would do we care about mentoring. So we have a committee that is dedicated to what we call pop-up mentoring. So that’s an event that travels around to different conferences. And is a time, no strings attached event where you can talk to some person, the mentor or mentee. So if you’re signing up to be a mentor, you will talk to a mentee and if you sign up as mentee, you’ll talk to a mentor tour, um, about some topic of interest. So we actually kind of look at what everyone says that they would like to talk about. And it’s a very interesting opportunity. So you got to meet with someone who otherwise probably not need to not have a conversation. And you’ve got to have this outside perspectives and someone can tell you about how things happen at their institution. And you can ask questions that maybe you don’t feel comfortable asking your direct superiors who continue to work with you. So it’s been my experience very often that I learn about what my students care about and what my, what my students might want to know that they would not ask me in the regular context. So I hear about it from students from other institutions. So that’s been, that’s been going around for several years and I think has been very successful and everyone is invited. You can be a man, a woman, a nonbinary person. You can be whatever, anything and join. And it doesn’t, it’s not only for women, both as mentors and as mentees.

What else did we do? We have Wiki editithons.

Megan Figueroa: Those are good. Yeah, because women are underrepresented.

Hadas Kotek: Massively underrepresented in Wikipedia articles. Yeah. So I guess this is an invitation for everyone to join who is interested.

Megan Figueroa: It’s very good stuff. Yeah. It’s actually because of, um, that like Wikithon kind of thing from a LSA meeting that I added my own mentor and now boss to Wikipedia because she wasn’t on there. And I was just like, what!

Carrie Gillon: Is she still there, because this is the one problem I have with the Wikipedia thing is those, they get deleted.

Hadas Kotek: So if you, if you do get involved in doing Wikipedia editing, you learn quickly that there is their gate keeping. So most of the editors of Wikipedia are men. And so your article about a woman weight easily get flagged as not significant or not, not noteworthy and get deleted. That is a thing that happens.

Megan Figueroa: Wow. Luckily it’s still there.

Hadas Kotek: Keep a draft of what you’ve done, because things get deleted, it’s a fight. Like you might need to get involved in a fight for your article.

Megan Figueroa: Oh, well, I’m so glad it’s there. Well, it’s LouAnn Gerken. And she is like, so key in child language development, that it was horrifying that she was not there, that I would be the one to come in and in the late, you know, the 2018 or something, I think when I added her is horrifying to me, but I I’m sure she’s not the only one as you’re saying. So. Yeah. Go to Wikipedia and see what women aren’t on there that you think should be.

Carrie Gillon: Yes.

Hadas Kotek: Editing is a particular skill, because you, you need to approach it at a particular way, there’s certain criteria for being noteworthy. Then you need to know these things and you know, if you just jump in and write something random it probably won’t survive.

Megan Figueroa: Right. Yeah, yeah, no, I remember the process, like having to prove that this is noteworthy and it’s like, well, she has a a whole ass book on it. You know, this kind of thing, but yeah.

Carrie Gillon: Thank you so, so much. It’s so much fun. I hope that the linguist listeners think more carefully and also join COGEL. And non-linguistic listeners I hope that this kind of technical discussion with interesting and just shows that, you know, linguists have a long way to go. It’s not just everybody else, It’s all of us.

Megan Figueroa: Absolutely.

Carrie Gillon: And we always leave our listeners with one final message.

Don’t be an asshole

Hadas Kotek: Thank you for having me. It’s been fun.

Carrie Gillon: Okay. So this month we would like to thank patron Audra Barns.

Megan Figueroa: Yay. Thank you so much. I love, I love our patrons.

Carrie Gillon: Me too. And again, if you want to become a patron, you can join at and we’ve got stickers and we’ve got bonus episodes and we’ve got mugs.

The vocal fries podcast is produced by me, Carrie Gillon for Halftone Audio, music by Nick Granum. You can find us on tumbler, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram @vocalfries. You can email us at and our website is

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