Linguists Debate: Does Obama Talk Like a Girl?

Academics try to take Kathleen Parker's question seriously

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Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker caused a stir last week by stating, "If Bill Clinton was our first black president, as Toni Morrison once proclaimed, then Barack Obama may be our first woman president." Kathleen specifically cited Obama's recent speech on the oil spill, where she said Obama's use of passive voice demonstrated his femininity, for better or worse. But what makes a writing and speaking style gendered anyway? And what does that really tell us about the writer? Two academic linguists have weighed in. Here's what Parker and the linguists have to say.

  • Obama's Feminine Writing  The Washington Post's Kathleen Parker argues that Obama has "assume[d] feminine communication styles" in his writings and speeches. "Generally speaking, men and women communicate differently. Women tend to be coalition builders rather than mavericks (with the occasional rogue exception). While men seek ways to measure themselves against others, for reasons requiring no elaboration, women form circles and talk it out. ... When he finally addressed the nation on day 56 (!) of the crisis, Obama's speech featured 13 percent passive-voice constructions, the highest level measured in any major presidential address this century, according to the Global Language Monitor, which tracks and analyzes language."
  • Obama's Heavy Passive Usage  The Global Language Monitor study, cited by Parker, finds: "With some 13% passive constructions, the highest level measured in any major presidential address this century.  In political speaking, the passive voice is generally used to either deflect responsibility, or to have no particular 'doer' of an action, at least when speaking about himself or his Administration.  Otherwise, BP was the clear 'doer.'"
  • Who Said Passive Voice was Feminine?  University of Pennsylvania linguistics professor Mark Liberman finds that Obama's speech was only 11.1 percent passive, and that Bush used more passive voice anyway. Liberman finds that Bush's Katrina speech was 17.6 percent passive. In any case, "there isn't the slightest evidence that passive-voice constructions are 'feminine'. Women don't use the passive voice more than men, and among male writers, number of passive-voice constructions doesn't appear to have any relationship at all to real or perceived manliness. The 'passive is girly' prejudice seems to be purely due to the connotations of (other senses of) the term passive, misinterpreted by people who in any case mostly wouldn't recognize the grammatical passive voice if it bit them on the leg."
  • Another Example of Media Misusing Linguistics  University of Edinburgh linguistics professor Geoffrey Pullum declares, "We have said it before on Language Log, and I'll say it again now: when you find journalists and columnists telling you things that have anything to do with language, put your hand on your wallet, because honesty and integrity are about to go out the window. Where language is concerned, people simply make stuff up." Pullum, finding that most of the passive sentences do not "deflect responsibility" at all, decries "the idiocy of assuming without evidence that females use the passive voice more; the irresponsibility of suggesting that the President of the United States is talking wimpy on the basis of that unsupported idea; [and] the dishonesty of a national newspaper opinion column pretending to have linguistic evidence for a point of view without taking responsibility for checking that the evidence exists."
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