Sunday, September 12, 2010

A Comparison of Changes in Some Gendered Language over Time

An entry over at SocImages posted three graphs of the change in frequency of different gendered words in British English since the middle of the 20th century. Knowing that the Corpus of Historical American English is now up and running, I decided to see what an initial survey of the data would reveal of the trends in US English, presenting the two side-by-side. (Understand, though, that the British corpus study is much more than the broad-level survey that I'm doing here.)

Male vs. Female Pronouns

As one can see, looking at a comparison of male pronouns (he, him, his) versus female pronouns (she, her, hers) over time, the trend of diminishing male pronoun use and increasing female pronoun use is visible in both corpora. However, there appears to have been an upward tick in male pronoun use during the 2000s in the US, but not in the UK. In addition, while female pronoun use took a dive in the 1940s US corpora, steadily regaining ground after the war, whereas it appears to have grown slowly-but-steadily in the UK. There was a high point of female pronoun usage in 1870, but I don't know why.

Man, Men, Woman, Women
Here, somewhat interestingly, the two graphs appear to show very similar trends: the use of man and men has diminished significantly in both the US and the UK (although the uptick seen in the US during the 2000s for male pronouns are also seen here, whereas although the value seems to have increased in the UK, I think that this might be a trick of the curving function of Excel). By the 2000s, although man is still much more common than the others, woman and women are in equal usage as man. Looking at the pre-1930s data (from the US corpus), almost all of the significant downward trend in the use of man and men occurred during the period covered by the British corpus graph.

Mr, Mrs, Miss, Ms
This graph needs a little explaining. While the COHA interface can provide a table (broken into decades) of the frequency of the search terms, it requires more work than this brief survey of terms to puzzle out the contextual usage of these terms. For that reason, I believe that the really high values for miss are not adequate in describing what is really happening (since miss is a verb as well as a title). Therefore, unless anyone wants to spend the time to tease out the different uses in context, I will focus my look at Mr., Mrs., and Ms. (and after 1820, due to the unknown reason for the really high level of the usage of Mr. in that decade).
What seems noteworthy is that the use of the three titles change dramatically over time, with Mrs enjoying relatively high use during the 1890s, 1900s, and 1910s, much higher than Mr (save for the in the 1820s -- see preceding graph). Unlike in the UK, Ms is much more commonly used in the US corpora (although the presence of Ms Magazine might have an effect). Still, the general trend since the 1930s is roughly equivalent as seen in the UK: approaching intersection. In fact, one might even say that (although there is a lot of decadal noise in all the titles), Mr has become less important than either Mrs or Ms in the past decade.

It vs. Them
Although not reported on in the Dispatches site, I also decided to look at it and them and how they tracked over time. Of course, I also included the plural and possessive forms of the pronouns, and what we see is that the two (perhaps gender-neutral) pronouns are also generally declining over time, although not as strongly as the male pronoun has since 1930 (in both the UK and the US). A part of me had thought that perhaps the rates of it and them would not have changed that much over time, since one cannot make a direct substitution for he,him,his with either it or them pronouns. However, the slight decline in the usage of these pronouns might imply that the subject matter of the writing might have changed, or that writers are just choosing to use these pronouns less often, although why is something that I don't know (and I don't want to sift through the contexts in order to really find out).

No comments: