Gender-Based Assessments of Russian and American-English Speakers: Data from Methodologically Identical Subjective-Reaction Experiments

David Andrews, Georgetown University

Cross-cultural research is one of the central endeavors of sociolinguistics -- and, of course, of sociology in general. This body of work grew out of an initial hypothesis that there are certain sociolinguistic parallels between Russia and the United States which differentiate the two countries from other industrialized societies. While both Russian and American English have spread across an entire continent, both have also remained relatively uniform. Regional varieties are readily identifiable, but all are mutually intelligible. Each language has a recognizable standard pronunciation, which permits a certain degree of internal variation but only within definite limits of normativity. (See the abundant literature on the phonology of CSR and General American.) These standards are rapidly gaining ground against regional speech forms and other non-standard varieties. In its own way, however, each society has evolved a strong egalitarian ethos, including considerable public emphasis on equality between the sexes. This egalitarianism notwithstanding, my initial observations suggested that non-standard pronunciations in both countries clearly interfere with high-status designation, and that the sexes are treated not so equally after all. Experiments were devised to test these notions.

The experiments involved a subjective-reaction test in which evaluators listened to a series of recorded voices, some using a stigmatized speech variety and others the corresponding prestige variety, and rated each one on a numerical scale for various specified attributes. As a control for voice quality, the recordings also included so-called "matched guises," or speakers equally proficient in both varieties and recorded once in each. In the Russian experiment, subjects of both sexes heard nine individual recordings of the same excerpt from War and Peace, specifically identified each time; the use of an identical text in indisputably "correct" Russian precluded evaluation based on linguistic variables other than pronunciation. One female speaker was recorded in all three dialectal guises (standard, okan'e and southern); one male speaker was recorded in standard and okan'e guises. Four other speakers, two males and two females, were recorded once in standard pronunciation and inserted at intervals as "foils" for the repeated voices. The American experiment paralleled the Russian exactly, so as to facilitate cross-cultural comparisons. The identical categories were tested, in the same order and according to the same rating scale. The number of listeners (54) was also the same, as was the analytical procedure (a two-tailed t-test for non-independent samples) to establish statistical significance. Moreover, the same controls were used to ensure that subjects did not recognize a repeated voice and/or reject a regional pronunciation as inauthentic. (Limitations of space prevent their enumeration here.) The only difference was that both a female speaker and a male speaker were recorded in all three dialectal guises (standard, southern rhotic and Brooklyn). The recorded text was an excerpt from the Gettysburg Address, written during the same decade as War and Peace and instantly recognizable to American subjects as a piece of exemplary language.

In previous presentations and publications, I have detailed the results apart from the issue of gender. Specifically, I have shown that there are indeed striking similarities between the two societies, even to the point of suggesting that specific regional pronunciations in one have their sociolinguistic counterparts in the other. For the present investigation I considered not only the gender of the recorded voices, both matched and unmatched, but also that of the experimental judges. For Russian the downgrading of the male okan'e guise in most "prestige" categories was less pronounced than for the female guise, suggesting a greater tolerance of non-standard features among males in this domain. On the other hand, the upgrading of the female okan'e on "personal" attributes was more pronounced. As for the four standard-speaking unmatched voices, another pattern was immediately clear: the two female voices were rated lower than the two males in most prestige categories, but without any compensatory upgrading in the personal categories. At first, the data also suggested that female listeners were more critical of female voices than were male listeners, but upon further analysis I was unable to demonstrate this statistically. The American results reveal many direct parallels. There was again less downgrading of non-standard male speakers in the prestige categories. In addition, the southern female speaker was upgraded more significantly than the southern male on the personal attributes, as with the Russian okan'e. The most severely downgraded in the personal attributes was the Brooklyn male, strengthening the comparison I had made earlier between the Brooklyn accent in the United States and the southern pronunciation in Russia. As in the Russian experiment, the female unmatched voices were rated lower than the males in prestige categories, without upgrading on personal attributes. The results therefore suggest that in both Russia and the United States, despite many years of lip-service to equality between the sexes, females are still held to a higher standard of speech in matters of prestige; conversely, non-standard female speakers may benefit more from the positive personal attributes associated with certain (but not all) non-standard speech forms.

During the Cold War it was sometimes fashionable for Russian and Americans to comment on their similar national characters, despite the fact that the Soviet Union and the United States were the epicenters of two implacably opposed ideologies. Both peoples were reputed to be less stratified and class-conscious, if also less refined and sophisticated, than their respective European allies. While such comparisons were usually dismissed as facile (or worse), these data indeed suggest many sociolinguistic similarities. However, they do challenge some of the specific stereotypes. From a different perspective, I believe that experimental sociolinguistics and cross-cultural research are important to the future of Slavic linguistics in the American academy, and I hope that this investigation will serve as a small example of current attempts to forge links with other traditions and sub-fields. For all of these reasons, I feel that that this presentation will be of interest to American Slavists.