One of my favorite quotes comes from Nobel laureate Toni Morrison. In a discussion of language’s usefulness to humans and the power it allows us to wield over our surroundings and interactions with each other, Morrison says: “We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.” Such a resounding affirmation of the ability of humans to communicate never fails to humble me. But what if that measure of our lives is measured differently?
Studies have shown that females have increased abstract language abilities, and a new article in the journal Neuropsychologia shows that language learning abilities differ between male and female children, with females absorbing language more abstractly and males doing so in a more concrete auditory or visual way. The researchers cite this significant biological difference as perhaps one reason men became the hunters in early societies — they were better able to associate symbols or sounds of danger with their possibly gruesome outcomes.
But, reaching beyond the study’s findings, how does this biological difference interact with concepts of gender? The landscape of biological knowledge increasingly informs us that gender is a fluid concept, with very few hard-wired absolute differences between men and women. Does this mean that there are shades of abstract language abilities present in effeminate men? Or, alternatively, are there women who communicate better with concrete auditory and visual cues?
That men and women communicate or learn to use and understand language differently doesn’t surprise me. I mean, all you have to do is look at the way the sexes diverge in expressing themselves, or even giving driving directions, and you can see that our language facilities operate differently. But, to echo Morrison’s sentiment, the important thing is that we do communicate; without dialogue, whether between political leaders, neighbors, coworkers, those of differing opinions, we lose the most formidable weapon mankind has ever developed — the power to say.