‘Geekery’ Archive

18 Octobris 2006

Do dwarves default male?

(No major spoilers for Discworld books in this post. Extremely minor ones if you don’t know about Cheery Littlebottom and Carrot Ironfoundersson.)

I used to hate the Discworld character Cheery Littlebottom. She annoyed the daylights out of me: a character who didn’t have to behave like a girl who nonetheless wanted to. Dresses, makeup, the whole silly act. Why on earth would anyone…?

Finally I got it. I got what Pratchett was driving at. And it’s so beautifully subversive and clever that I just have to share.

Cheery is a dwarf. Pratchett’s dwarves are a takeoff on the famous note in Tolkien about dwarf women being rare, bearded, and almost impossible to distinguish from male dwarves. Dwarf biological gender in Discworld is so difficult to distinguish in normal interaction that even the dwarves usually aren’t sure who’s which.

A one-gender society could conceivably be behaviorally indiscriminate; all members would say and do things that in gendered societies are associated with different genders. (LeGuin hints at this in some of her Earthsea tales, when male mages who have grown up in all-male Roke do “women’s work” quite naturally, because they’re used to it and don’t realize or don’t care that outside Roke work roles are gendered.) They wouldn’t care about how humans gender behavior; why should they? Nobody needs to know whether the dwarf swinging the axe or rocking the baby is male or female. Dress could also straddle the divide; why not?

But Pratchett doesn’t do that. From a human point of view, dwarf society is exclusively behaviorally male. Dwarves wear their beards proudly, swing axes and throw waybread (a riff on Tolkien’s cram, of course) at the least provocation, ponder gold and mine for it, swagger and brawl and wear lots of spiky metal and generally act in ways that code them male. The only time you see a Pratchett dwarf doing something coded feminine is when Pratchett can make a joke out of the contrast between the male presentation and the feminine social position—e.g. dwarf barmaids.

Check it out, though! Dwarf maleness isn’t what they biologically are, because a lot of dwarves are biologically female! Dwarf maleness is what they do, how they act, and it isn’t just humans who code dwarves male—it’s dwarves themselves; they call each other “he” and “him” and insist that gendered folk like humans do likewise.

Feminist scholars have a phrase for this: “gender as performance.” It’s a viciously hard thing to get people to agree happens, since folks are so invested in the idea that biology determines gender-specific behavior. But Pratchett slips performativity in like medicine in candy. It’s beautiful. My hat’s off to the guy.

Just to reinforce the point, Pratchett highlights the performativity of dwarvishness in the person of Captain Carrot Ironfoundersson. Biologically, Carrot is human; he’s six feet tall and beardless, and was born of (biologically and culturally) human parents. Culturally, he’s a dwarf; he was raised by dwarves, self-identifies as a dwarf, and is accepted by dwarves as a dwarf (though some humans do roll their eyes a bit). Dwarvishness: it’s not who you are, it’s what you do.

And along comes Cheery Littlebottom, who is a dwarf. And biologically female. And decides that she wants to perform femaleness as well as inhabiting it. Do the dwarves accept this, seeing as how they have a one-gender society that is theoretically not limited in its behavior by gender?

Do they hell. They decide that their male-normativity is so important to them that anyone who doesn’t perform maleness threatens the entire dwarvish way of being. Cheery’s behavior causes a huge furor among the dwarves. Some of them (notably, the “deep dwarves” depicted as the ultimate arbiters of what constitutes dwarvishness) consider her non-dwarf. To her credit, she keeps doing what she does, and (minor spoiler) eventually the more cosmopolitan parts of dwarf society learn to cope with their feminine outliers.

If you’re not seeing parallels with the whole Honorary Guy thing, well, what’s wrong with you? Programming cultures, geek cultures, gaming cultures, many other online cultures—they’re theoretically ungendered, but they behave male, and any behavior that codes feminine is automatically suspect—even coming from a bio-guy.

As I suggested in my honorary-guy post, any attempt to question male-normativity in one of these groups automatically codes feminine, and is considered a threat to the group identity itself. The perp gets smacked down hard, if not kicked out altogether. How else to explain why a guy got jumped on for questioning a sexist headline? A little while ago in one of my comics blogs I saw an exactly parallel scenario commented on (and I wish I could find the darn link again!). I daresay most of my readers can dredge up more examples.

Pratchett doesn’t sugarcoat Cheery, and I applaud him for it. There is no mass dwarf regendering in Discworld, though a few brave dwarves do follow Cheery’s example. There is no vanishing of dwarf prejudice. What I love most about Cheery, actually, is that she is herself far from free of prejudice, and there’s more to her than her gender-performative rebellion. She feels whole and real, insofar as a secondary fantasy character can, and she doesn’t offer any easy answers.

There aren’t any easy answers, after all. But at least Pratchett helps frame the right questions.

11 Decembris 2002


Phonaesthetics don’t get no respect.

It is, or purports to be, a linguistic discipline investigating people’s reactions to particular speech sounds, and how those reactions influence spoken language.

Difficult things to study, it turns out. A few studies of phonaesthetics are well-known for the cleverness of their design and the nebulosity of their results. My Psych 101 book contained the famous Kohler maluma-takete experiment, in which speakers practically without exception called a rounded shape a “maluma” and an angular one a “takete.” A few studies have found that people can correctly assign meanings to polar antonyms (e.g. hot-cold) in languages they do not know with accuracy decidedly exceeding chance. How do they do it, though? No way to prove it’s the sound.

Introspection doesn’t help much. We tend to have some kind of idea that some words or names are pretty and others are ugly: witness the widespread disdain for the humble word “blog.” We tend not to have any idea on what we are basing our judgments. Worse, said judgments do appear to vary a bit depending on our native language.

Matters only worsen on investigation of phonaesthetics’s actual influence on language. If it has one at all, it’s extraordinarily slight; the operation of ordinary sound laws, never mind analogy, wipes it out easily. There is indeed the phenomenon of onomatopoeia, words representing sounds or soundmakers that resemble the sound in question. Even those, though… the obviously onomatopoeic Old English gans has become the much less obvious goose, just as OE crawe has become crow. The evolution away from the more onomatopoeic forms took place through perfectly ordinary sound laws, laws phonaesthetics appears to have been powerless to forestall.

So if it has no discernable effect on language change, why should a linguist bother with it? say a lot of linguists, washing their hands. Leave that stuff to those loonies over in lit-crit.

Just in this century, however, a phenomenon has popped up that ought to offer phonaestheticians (I assume that’s the word? or is it “phonaesthetes,” perchance?) new data and new hope: invented languages, in fantasy, science fiction, and elsewhere.

Take the grandmaster of language inventors, JRR Tolkien. Euphony (not to mention its opposite, whatever that is—dysphony, maybe?) was a major concern for him. He up and said so. So if we want to find out what an English speaker thinks is euphonious, Quenya and Sindarin ought to be major sources of data. Black Speech similarly illustrates dysphony.

I grant you that most fantasists aren’t as good at this as Tolkien. (Are any?) Even so, a sufficient sample ought to provide some curious and possibly valuable insights.

A couple-three years back I gave a con talk on invented fantasy languages. I seized on Lord Dunsany as an example, because he was not any kind of a linguist, but his nomenclature (once you strip out the odd bits of Greek and pseudo-Egyptian and whatnot) hangs together remarkably well. (My point being, one need not be a trained linguist to invent decent nomenclature, so why are so few fantasists doing it?)

So I made huge lists of Dunsanean place- and person-names and just stared at them for a while. And damn if patterns didn’t emerge. One such pattern turned out to be so striking both inside and outside Dunsany that I went and named it: Dorothea’s Law of Velar Villainy. The more villainous you are, the more velars and postvelars in your name or your language. Corollary: the more villainous you are, the more likely your name or language is to contain velars or postvelars in syllable-final and word-final positions.

Velar consonants are pronounced by pulling the back of the tongue up against the velum, the soft area at the back of the mouth. The “k” in “kite” is velar. So are the “g” in “go” and the “ng” in “sing.”

In Dunsany, with only a few exceptions, every character whose name ends in a velar consonant is a villain. (The most singular exception is Sarnidac of “The Relenting of Sarnidac,” and he may well have come by his name via the scorn of his fellow villagers.) The converse does not necessarily hold, incidentally, as Dunsany’s arguably evillest villain is the horrible Emperor Thuba Mleen, in whose name nary a velar is to be found.

Now consider Black Speech again, and the Ring Verse. Positively bristling with velars, particularly syllable- and word-finally.

Now consider Klingon, invented back when the Klingons were still Trek’s baddest villains. All over velars and postvelars, you betcha.

Coincidence? Honestly, I don’t think so. For some reason, we English speakers think velars are bad and ugly and nasty-sounding. Probably why some of us don’t like the word “blog” with its big fat velar at the end.

I happen to think there’s a similar but less strong effect with labial sounds, but I haven’t quite worked out whether this is through their frequent association with and transformation to velars in human language, or via some other mechanism. LeGuin’s Pravic (from The Dispossessed) is a possible data source here, as it actually includes labiovelar consonants (kw, gw) and seems to have been designed to be dysphonious, or at least prickly.

An interesting thing about Pravic (well, there are several interesting things about Pravic, actually, but I’ll limit myself to this one) is its use of clipping for familiar nicknames (Shev for Shevek, Dap for Bedap, and so on). Very Englishy, that. Most other languages I know of tack on a diminutive or transform the name entirely (e.g. Russian Yevgeny > Zhenya).

But we English-speakers clip names all the time, quite frequently down to one syllable. So LeGuin uses the same technique (consciously or not; she might well have known what she was doing as she did it, but I can’t say), pretty much entirely with sympathetic characters, to break down reader resistance to what are otherwise decidedly un-English names.

There’s plenty of fodder here for Legitimate Academic Research, but I frankly haven’t the patience. So here are the ideas for your perusal. If you want to do the legwork of data gathering, data analysis, citation tracking, and so on—be my guest.