Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Is There a Gender Gap in Linguistics?

(above is the xkcd comic found here)
The interwebs is abuzz with the latest girls can't do science scuttlebutt (Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution has a useful overview). This got me to wondering why this kind of speculation never seems to be applied to linguistics.

First, of course, is the fact that linguistics is a small field (I'm near certain that Language Log had a post in the last few months regarding the small size of linguistics compared to other fields, but I've failed miserably to find it). There simply aren't enough of us to cause any controversies, except when someone wants us to prove that "X" is not really a word and we refuse (see Zwicky's relevant post here).

Second, there are many easily recognizable female linguists who have been highly influential. Off the top of my head I can easily think of Barbara Partee, Adele Goldberg, Joan Bresnan, Joan Bybee, Eve Sweetser, and Eve Clark , amongst a great many others (hehe, that list TOTALLY marks me as a Buffalo functionalist).

At least as interestingly, the highly technical sub-field of computational linguistics/NLP is brimming with examples of influential female scholars, such as Ann Copestake, Paola Merlo, Bonnie Dorr, Tanya Reinhart, and Jan Weibe to name a just a small few.

The only sub-field of linguistics that seems to be male dominated is syntactic theory invention. I can think of many males who are strongly associated with the invention of a theory of syntax/grammar (though, in all honesty, no one person truly invents a theory alone), but only Goldberg & Michaelis's construction grammar comes to mind as a theory of grammar designed by female linguists (I happily solicit examples of my ignorance). Whereas, a list of male-invented grammatical frameworks/theories is easy to compile:
  • N. Chomsky --> Minimalism, GB, Transformational Grammer
  • Pollard & Sag--> HPSG
Is there a gender gap in grammar theorization?

UPDATE (Nov 28, 2009): There are many excellent additions in the comments.


Jason M. Adams said...

clicked on the wrong post for that previous comment! lol

but i guess you're excluding lfg for some reason.. is it more a formalism rather than a theory of grammar? i seem to recall she (and her co-conspirators) had some theory to back up the formalism.

Chris said...

Just a brain fart. Bresnan deserves credit, for sure, for LFG. Maybe because I mentioned her previously I skipped her unintentionally.

BTW, it's an outstanding issue in linguistics whether or not there is any real difference between a "theory" and a "formalism". I happily leave that unresolved.

Chris said...

Ooops, left out Prince & Smolensky's Optimality Theory functionalist's roots are showing, haha.

Taylor J. Meek said...

See, that's no fair. I saw 'Buffalo functionalist', and thought you meant "Buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo" (Wikipedia claims it's Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo) which I think I first encountered in Generative Syntax by Carnie. Not fair at all! You got me all excited. I thought you were referring to some obscure theory I hadn't heard of. (Although it might be conspiratorially related after all...)

Dominik Lukeš said...

I'm really late to the party here but to add few more theorygenic women whose work I've spent a lot of time reading:

Deirdre Wilson co-author with Dan Sperber of Relevance Theory

Eva Hajicova, theoretical co-founder of the Prague functionalist generativism

Ruth Wodak the leader of the historical approach to Critical Discourse Analysis.

Robin Tolmach Lakoff - gender in language

Deborah Tannen - frame analysis of language

So many of my linguistics teachers have been women that I never thought about the discrepancy but it is certainly there.

Chris said...

Dominik, never to late to add a comment. Thanks for the excellent additions!

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