TED Conversations

Jennifer Ball

Professor of English "Speaking and Listening", Soochow University, Suzhou, China

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Females mammals are the underpinning of written language. Sex & sexism exists in every literate culture, so why wouldn't it be in language?

姦 (three females) has meant "adultery, wicked" for 4,000 years in China. What else has this kind of track record? But China isn't the only sexist culture. The characters "B" and "V" swap sounds in seven different languages (Arabic, Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Spanish, Russian, and English), most likely because females produce milk and offspring after being impregnated. Using a Darwinian lens to look at all scripts, one sees a pattern of female mammals being at the root of written language. Keith Chen examines language for its ability to predict economic behavior. He also wrote a paper on monkeys paying for sex after having the concept of money introduced to them. Prostitution is an ancient concept. If there is sex everywhere, why wouldn't it be in language? The fact that we live in euphemism is evident in the insistence that the name of Hooter's "breastaurants" is a reference to owls' eyes, not big-breasted women. When one examines all scripts, a pattern based on fertility, dominance, and sex appears. If this topic pisses you off, keep in mind that psychiatrists tell us that the thing that rankles us the most is typically the thing that is the most accurate, and this is why it gets under our skin. We like to believe we are above animals. We like to believe that Chinese is pictures and the alphabet is not. We alphabet-users are elitist. The alphabet has just simplified faster. Humans have the same drivers. Consider that Noah's Ark is the world's first sex education (the animals went two by two) and was first recorded 5,500 years ago in Sumerian cuneiform in "Gilgamesh," the world's first story. Early Christians plagiarized this tale, not knowing we would eventually be able to decode Sumerian. I have read over 100 books, I have had 30,000 readers on my website, and I am now in China teaching English at Soochow University to 102 nanotechnology students. I have studied Mandarin for three years, and I just gave a talk at Roche Pharmaceuticals Shanghai. OriginofAlphabet.com


Closing Statement from Jennifer Ball

It is not my intention to offend with my assertion that the images of female mammals are visible in all written languages. I suspect that the strong feelings shown here are indicative of why we don't know more about the roots of language. I was hoping for an enlightened discussion on the TED site, and I am saddened that so many comments degenerated into character attacks. The fact this idea could provoke so much vehemence tells me I'm on the right track, but it is a lonely pursuit. I'm reminded of why I moved to China because here the role of females in language is recognized. The woman radical is all over Hanzi, so it is an undeniable fact that females are key to Chinese script. The elitism of Western culture makes many say, "Well, Chinese is pictures, but the alphabet is not." However, the alphabet is pictures too. (For example, "G" is recognized as a throwing stick.) Comparing all early scripts for their similarities seems like an obvious idea, but I have not yet found a university where this is possible. The Linguistics department is usually quite far from the East Asian Languages on most campuses. If anyone knows where I can pursue this research, please inform me. I would love to talk to well-educated, open-minded individuals. Where are the kind intellectuals who love unique ideas rather than hackneyed pablum? I would love to meet you. Please feel free to contact me through this site or my website, www.OriginofAlphabet.com. I have had a total of 35,000 readers on my site (which includes my two Scribd accounts). I am searchable on Scribd, Facebook, Quora, Linked In, Researchgate, and YouTube. As I am data driven, I welcome any coherent suggestions that would enable me to find others who really want to know how language evolved by using structural analyses coupled with dictionaries and lexicons. Thank you TED talks for fostering an environment where these ideas can even be discussed.

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  • Apr 7 2013: First, let me comment on the "gender correctness" of current trend. I agree that the language use of "man" as a generic term for both sexes were perfectly acceptable without further modification. Then suddenly, the "political correctness becomes the thing to do". But really what are the problems cause by the old ways? Strictly speaking, it's really nothing. People are still perfectly aware of the gender difference, and many are still exploit or feed on the difference from one sex against the other. What we need is that we should change the basic attitude from one gender to another, instead or just change the wording in writing or speaking. One can say all the nice words on women, but the same people are actually the ones who also discriminated against, or even frequently assaulted, women. In other word, it is not the words are needed, but the deeds are more important and ESSENTIAL. So the efforts spend on the "correctness" in language do not worth a penny, if our behavior hasn't changed. In Chinese saying, this could be characterized as 庸人自扰. The first character in this phrase means "not very smart", the whole expression means that their efforts are simply wasted for nothing, if our behavior haven't changed by this "correction in language". I also have an additional comment on the Chinese character 汝, which is more or less corresponding to the word; ye, in old English. Even though it contain the female character, but it applies to a little bit closer to an intimate or inferior person of either sex.
    I have a different thought on the word 妈 (= ma or mother), according to my observation, when an infant starts to mumble his first word it is most convenient to come out with the sound "ma". That is why in most languages, the sound "ma" always kind of coming first, such as; ma, mama, maman, mater, madre, etc.
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      Apr 8 2013: Words are deeds. It is offensive that "man" is at the root of so many professions and descriptions ("woman" is really "womb-man"), but no one considers that "ma" is at the root of "man." The female radical is in many offensive words in Hanzi, but also in "peace": 安, because woman under a roof is where ancient man thought women should be, similar to "house": 家, which is pig under a roof. Here we have two mammals in the same dominated position, both considered positive.

      " But really what are the problems cause by the old ways? Strictly speaking, it's really nothing."

      I think it's something. Look at how much dander I have raised!

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