When I think back to some of my favourite books as a child, I remember them being full of fun, adventure and laughter. As enthralled as I was by the stories and the colourful characters, I must admit that I paid little attention to how the characters were written, and how what they did was described.
Sally Hunt, a lecturer in the department of English Language and Linguistics at Rhodes University, combined her interest in children’s literature with her knowledge of how texts work to show that something as simple as a part of speech can reveal the way an author is thinking. As part of a much larger research project she’s doing, she has been working on a chapter that looks at speech verbs in children’s books. These are the words that describe how the characters in the books are said to say things; whether they “say” or “shout” or “whisper” and so on.
Hunt noticed that the difference between who chuckled and who giggled, or who roared and who shrieked for example, was quite gendered. Speech verbs that implied weakness were associated with female characters, while stronger speech verbs that implied power and dominance were used for the male characters. “Clearly, females go around screaming, screeching, giggling and chatting,” Hunt said with a laugh. While the findings were quite amusing to discuss, what they implied was much more serious. “Dialogue is really important in fiction because it is one of the most important ways in which characters are developed so how they speak is a big part of how they are represented as people,” said Hunt. “It gives us ideas about the author’s assumptions, especially in terms of identity and gender,” she added.
Hunt believes these assumptions about the way the world and gender works acts as cues for child readers. Children respond to what they read and it helps them construct the way they look at the world. They are less resistant to the material found in books that tells them “because you are a girl/boy, the world works like this for you”, and so something as gendered as speech verbs may form sexist ideas even at a young age.
By looking at JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Enid Blyton’s The Famous Five Series, CS Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia series and Francine Pascal’s Sweet Valley High series, Hunt was able to build up a database of over 2 million occurrences of speech verbs and examine the trends within her findings. These speech verbs and how they are used can reveal ideas about identity as well as emotions, and can imply power relations between genders. For example, it was found that whenever the speech verb ‘commanded’ was used, it was always the male characters that commanded the female characters to do things. On the odd occasion that the word was associated with a female character, it was because she was commanding an animal.
Literature is full of ideology, even when it isn’t intentional. For example, the Harry Potter series can be thought of as non-sexist because of the inclusion of a strong female character like Hermione, but by looking at something as subtle as the speech verbs, even the Harry Potter series can be found to be quite gendered.
Hunt sees this as an insight into the text producer’s mind, and a way of seeing how subtle and subconscious gendering can be.