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 8 2013: Why are women statistically smaller than men? Because if they could figure out the relationship between sex and birth (which was often synonymous with death), they would have fought or run away, and their genes are no longer in the gene pool. This is my husband's theory. He is Michael Varney, senior V.P. at Genentech. He has a Ph.D. from Caltech in Chemistry and was the 13th employee at Agouron Pharmaceuticals, which invented Viracept, the first anti-HIV compound licensed for children and adults (1997). I have many scientists who think I am onto something, and many of them also read Chinese. If we don't enlarge our sphere of knowledge we are destined to have tunnel vision, like the famous frog in the Chengyu: 井底之蛙
    jǐngdǐ zhī wā
    a frog in a well—a person with a very limited outlook.
    I prefer to think outside the well...
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      Apr 8 2013: Although the theory seems valid, is it the most likely possibility?

      Most women (generalizing) suggest that they prefer men that are larger than themselves and most men prefer women that are smaller than them. Might this positive sexual selection on taller men and shorter women create the observed phenotypic differences? Rather than a negative selection on tall women?
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        Apr 8 2013: My research shows that women have not had a lot of choice in partners for the last 5,500 years. Women were kept in harems in many societies and had to procreate with the highest status male. In China women's feet were bound for an estimated 1,300 years, making it very difficult to leave, which is why "woman" and "house" are often synonymous. Wartime rape is a common tactic of soldiers, which is their strategy to force women to bear their children (and genetic code), and we see this in volatile countries even now. Only since the 1960s have women had a relatively safe method of preventing pregnancy; terminating a pregnancy is still not viewed as a woman's right in many religiously dominated societies, including the US. If women choose partners now (which is questionable when so often parents and others get involved), they have been indoctrinated by Hollywood and society as to what a "quality" male looks like. The human animal hasn't just evolved. Sexual selection has promoted a violent male and a docile female as the archetypes for future humans. Some of us are trying to enlarge our range of choices because these archetypes will not sustain our species. They contribute to the overpopulation of the world and disputes over resources.

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