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: Citations needed.

    You make many assertions that are vague, far-fetched and have no real substance as far as English (etc.) is concerned. You refer to language in terms of symbols eg B abd V as if what's on the typewriter keyboard defines a language.

    If you're a professor then I've won the Nobel prize for literature half a dozen times.
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      Apr 8 2013: I am a professor, and I sense you are threatened. New ideas are scary. Typically they take 25 years to be accepted: the approximate length of a generation. Yuri Knorosov figured out the Maya alphabet, but the "experts" said, (paraphrasing), You're Russian; what would you know about the Mayans? Turns out he did. I have read over 100 books. My bibliography is online at www.OriginofAlphabet.com. So is all my data. Chinese Hanzi is a typeface, which will print here. Sumerian cuneiform (the world's oldest language at 5,500 years) won't, nor will Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs (5,000 years old), nor Maya (2,500 years old) because no one uses them anymore. But Chinese (which is 4,000) years old, is still used and spoken. That's why I'm in China and just gave a talk to Chinese scientists. Scientists are data driven. If you want to see my data, go to my website. Catherine S. Farris wrote "Gender and Grammar in Chinese with Implications for Language Universals" in 1988. According to Jstor, her paper has been cited 20 times. Why only 20? Because we marginalize people we don't want to recognize or believe. Just like the Mayanists did with Yuri Knorosov. In Bill Bryson's book "A Short History of Nearly Everything," he gives many such examples, one being Frank Asaro, Walter Alvarez, and Luis Alvarez, who figured out that the dinosaurs died because of an asteroid hitting the earth. This was based on their discovering a layer of iridium covering the earth. It took a long time for other scientists to accept this because, as Luis Alvarez joked, "We were caught practicing geology without a license." Eugene Shoemaker explains that this explanation for the dinosaur's demise was "against their [everyone else's] scientific religion" (page 128).
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        Apr 8 2013: (Yet more wizard powers! How can you see me quaking at the awesomeness of your thesis. ) I'm not threatened just appalled by your feeble reasoning masquerading as academic research of a 'professor'.

        Your argument is tissue-thin and you try to justify it by the syllogism:-
        Some theories took a long time to gain acceptance.
        My theory doesn't have scientific credibility.
        Therefore my theory must be right all along.

        Bill Bryson is an amusing and accessible journalist but hardly a scientific authority. Much of his etymology in Mother Tongue is tosh.

        I should stick to reading books - Gosh 100! - and learning about scientific rigour. Perhaps you should make your thesis a real thesis submitted to a real professor and see just how far it falls short.)
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          Apr 8 2013: I've clearly touched something deep in you because your response is very mean-spirited. We are mammals. That means we drink milk. Milk doesn't happen unless you have sex. All of us resulted from two people who had sex. But we insist sex is not in language. I give all this specific data, but you just want to insult me. My husband read there are two kinds of people who respond to blogs: angry people and angry religious people. I expected a higher class of response on TED. Two people wrote very interesting comments. The rest just want to pile on vindictives like this is some kind of witch burning. Do you even know Mandarin? Do you know any other languages? In China people are much more open-minded, which is why I'm here. They are not as angry and jaded as people in the U.S. They are in learning mode, and they have out-educated the US by at least one generation. China is a tsunami waiting to happen.

          Food for thought: the word for pregnant in Spanish is "embarazada." Why would it be so close to "embarrass"? Also to "embargo"? A bar is a long projection that keeps alcoholics from the alcohol. And that bar also keeps men from women because they want virgins. They want their sperm to be the only sperm they gets inside. And an obstetrician removes that obstruction. Amazing that these ideas provoke so much vitriol. I'm looking at patterns in language. You are looking for a fight. I'm not interested in fighting. I don't have enough testosterone for that.
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      Apr 8 2013: One of the people who has cited Catherine S. Farris is David Moser in a paper entitled, "Covert Sexism in Mandarin Chinese," in 1997 in Sino-Platonic Papers #74. I think not many papers have followed because China is powerful, and picking on Chinese seems racist. In fact it is, because this covert sexism is in all written scripts. The word for "nipple" in Hebrew is listed in Strong's Concordance as entry 1717 "דַּד"—it looks like "TT" and is pronounced "dad." It comes from entry 1730, which means "uncle, beloved" and is "דּוֹד"—which looks like "TIT." I'm sure this will be tossed off as coincidental because it is too painful to recognize how simple we are, but we are mammals. We are named for our mammaries. "Mamma" is hidden inside the word "mammal." One doesn't become a mamma unless one has sex. Bill Bryson said incest occurred in our past—"actually quite a lot of incest" (page 249). "Plagiarize" in Chinese also includes the meaning of "niece." Older men have take advantage of younger women for millennium. I'm still witnessing this in China on a daily basis. We keep younger women uneducated because it's easier to prey upon them. In order to see the pattern of human behavior, one must look across all written scripts because language is both communication and code: communication to your tribe, code to your adversaries. Women are adversaries when one wants to use their bodies to produce against their will. 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).
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      Apr 8 2013: 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 out of the well...

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