Gender Words. Mark Liberman’s Language Log, Sept. 2006
control in certain brain regions (cortical motor areas, cerebellum, striatum) that affect the ability to vocalize, sing and, in humans, formthe complex sounds of language.Given its connection, however over-interpreted, to “what makes a human” as well as its chromosomal location (in 7q31, which alsoharbors candidates for autism and dementia), it’s not surprising that FOXP2 has acquired quasi-mythic dimensions in the lay imagination. However, careful studies have shown that the genes on 7q31 responsible for autism and dementia are distinct fromFOXP2. Also, as I said earlier, FOXP2 does not code for language ability – and even less for its culturally determined manifestations(many of which are a minefield of confirmation biases, unquestioned assumptions and simply sloppy work).The latest round in the misrepresentation of FOXP2 is the gone-viral variation of “there’s more of this ‘language protein’ in the left hemisphere of 4-year girls andthat’s why women are three times as talkative as men”. This came from the PR pitch of a research team who did a study primarily on rats (which confirmed thelink between FOXP2 levels and vocalization) and then, perhaps attempting to latchonto a catchy soundbite, extended the gender link to humans based on… a singlePCR amplification of ten Broca’s area cortices (from postmortem brains of 4-yearolds, five from each sex; Broca’s area is involved in language processing).To begin with, all studies conducted so far definitively show that women and menutter the same number of words by any metric chosen – and that in fact men talk more than women in mixed-gender conversations (to say nothing of the gender-linked ratio of interruptions). And whereas it’s true that girls develop vocalcompetence slightly earlier than boys and show higher linguistic skills during theearly acquisition window, this difference is transient. Furthermore, the FOXP1control that the authors of the study argue does not show a gender-correlatedchange (unlike FOXP2) in fact is on the verge of doing so, and the relative statisticalsignificances might well change if a larger number of samples were tested. Finally, whereas decrease of FOXP2 reduces vocalizationand increases pitch in male rat pups, it has the opposite effect in female rat pups. In other words, the correlation between FOXP2levels and vocalization/pitch is not straightforward even in rats.In the larger context of expression and reception of vocalizations, the difference is not how much women talk, but how welcome and/or valued their input is. Even trivial zomboid blathering is given higher value if it’s culturally coded as masculine (examples: sportnewscasters; most congressmen). In fairness to the researchers of the study that caused all this rehashing of kneejerk stereotypes andevopsycho Tarzanism, here is the concluding paragraph of their paper. It states something both measured and, frankly, obvious:
“Gender is a purely human construct consisting of both self and others’ perception of one’s sex and is arguably the first and mostsalient of all phenotypic variables. Sex differences in how language is received and processed and how speech is produced has thepotential to influence gender both within and external to an individual. Whether human sex differences in FOXP2, and possibly FOXP1 as well, contribute to gender variation in language is a question for future research.”
Relevant publications and links:
Lai CS,Fisher SE,Hurst JA , Vargha-Khadem F,Monaco AP(2001). A forkhead-domain gene is mutated in a severe speech and
language disorder.Nature 413(6855):519-23. White SA, Fisher SE, Geschwind DH, Scharff C, Holy TE (2006).Singing mice, songbirds, and more: models for FOXP2 function anddysfunction in human speech and language.J. Neurosci. 26(41):10376-9.Bowers JM,Perez-Pouchoulen M,Edwards NS,McCarthy MM(2013).FOXP2 mediates sex differences in ultrasonic vocalization by rat
pups and directs order of maternal retrieval. J. Neurosci.33(8):3276-83.
Mark Liberman.Gabby Guys: The Effect size(Language Log, Sept. 23, 2006)