Sports Monday Linguistics

Surely a record for the NYT sports section: both stories on the front page of Sports Monday this week were about language — language, televised sports, and gender; and language learning, baseball, and tv shows:

“Safest Bet in Sports: Men Complaining About a Female Announcer’s Voice” (on-line head) by Julie Dicaro.

“‘Friends,’ the Sitcom That’s Still a Hit in Major League Baseball” (on-line head) by James Wagner.

Women’s voices in sports. You could easily get a whole course in Gender, Language, and Society out of this story; there’s a lot to unpack here, and the story can touch on only a bit of it, and then of course mostly from a human-interest, rather than analytic, point of view. Some highlights:

“Shrill.”

“Grating.”

“Like listening to my ex nag me.”

“Sounds like my mom yelling at me.”

Women in sports broadcasting are used to men criticizing their voices. In my three years in sports radio, I’ve had more men complain about my voice than everything else about me combined — and trust me, there are a lot of other things they don’t like about me.

“It has nothing to do with you being a woman,” they tell me, “I just can’t stand the sound of your voice.”

For someone who gets paid primarily to say sports words on the radio, listeners hating the sound of her voice is somewhat troubling.

Even women at the top of our profession aren’t immune. Beth Mowins smashed through the thickest glass ceiling in sports this month, becoming the first woman to call a game on “Monday Night Football.” The moment Mowins spoke a word into her microphone, Twitter lit up with complaints about her voice

(#1) Mowins at work

… Much of the social-media discussion of Mowins’s voice was preceded by the always dubious claim that the criticism had nothing to do with the fact that Mowins was a woman. Setting aside that starting a tweet with “I’m not sexist, but” usually ensures that what follows will be sexist, it’s hard to imagine how to separate Mowins the woman from Mowins the voice. Beth Mowins sounds like a woman.

[AZ: A lot to be said here about actual differences in the speech of women and men — not just fundamental frequency, but many other phonetic features — and how these vary between social groups, between individuals, and in different contexts. And then about how people evaluate these differences.]

“The negative online reaction to Mowins’s play-by-play calling football games is steeped in sexism,” said Rebecca Martinez, who teaches women’s and gender studies at the University of Missouri. “The comments, mostly from men, have focused on her voice being annoying to the point of not wanting to listen to her. They’ll focus on the naturally higher pitch of women’s voices and ‘shrillness,’ all the while claiming their critiques of higher pitch have nothing to do with sexism. Women who have high visibility, particularly in settings that are traditionally male, will experience backlash.”

… Andrew Dzurisin, an assistant professor of sociology at Middlesex County College, said the criticism stems from deep-rooted cultural beliefs.

“‘Friday Night Lights’ isn’t just a movie or book; it’s real,” he said. “In many parts of the country, football is an ingrained part of masculinity, culturally. Of the major sports, football is seen as the one that fits the traditional definition of masculinity. It’s rough, it’s violent, it’s tribal, it’s a ‘man’s’ game. To hear a woman do the play-by-play of the sport that most fits the traditional definition of masculinity is beyond comprehension to some men.

“The primal masculinity of football makes a woman calling a game antithetical to their core ideas about gender.”

Barriers persist in other sports, too. The ESPN baseball analyst Jessica Mendoza has also been the target of social-media scorn, despite high praise from many of her colleagues and from former players.

“Mendoza to me is an example of ‘new’ baseball intersecting with the gender and even ethnicity,” Dzurisin said. “Most of her commentary revolves around analytics. Baseball audiences also skew older, so male viewership is more likely to embrace traditional gender norms that do not include female baseball analysts. The fact that she is Hispanic also irks men, as they see a sport of the ‘white man’ until Jackie Robinson now becoming increasingly Hispanic.”

(#2) Mendoza on camera

Some men insist they turn to sports to get a break from women. This is something I hear more than you would probably believe. I’ve been told my voice is too high, too low, too young-sounding, too Chicago-sounding, too harsh, too soft, and “just generally obnoxious.” The only time I’ve ever been complimented on my voice was when I had bronchitis and a bunch of men called in to tell me my voice was sexy.

[AZ: on “turn to sports to get a break from women”. A lot to be said here, about men’s expectations of the social roles women should play, and about how men’s sense of their masculinity is bound up with their relationships to women.]

Learning a language (and a culture) from tv. Another immensely complex topic. From the story:

When he returns home from the stadium, Philadelphia Phillies shortstop Freddy Galvis often gets into bed and watches reruns of “Friends.” Even though Galvis, 27, is from Venezuela and grasped English late in life, he is so addicted to the sitcom that he has watched every episode of the 10-season run at least five times — and counting — to the exasperation of his wife.

(#3) The cast of Friends

“It’ll be the same episodes I’ve seen already,” he said, “and my wife is like, ‘Yet again?’”

(#4) Galvis, serious and dreaded

Yankees pitcher Luis Severino, 23, who is from the Dominican Republic, can relate. So can Arizona Diamondbacks outfielder David Peralta, 30, who is Venezuelan, and Miguel Gonzalez, 33, the Texas Rangers pitcher who was born in Mexico, as well as other Latino players throughout Major League Baseball.

For at least one generation of Americans, “Friends” endures as a cultural touchstone, a glowing chunk of 1990s amber. But its runaway popularity stretched far beyond the United States, and for some Latino baseball players it is something more: a language guide, a Rosetta Stone disguised as six 20-somethings commingling in a Manhattan apartment.

[AZ: note that by watching the episodes over and over again, these guys are repeating their language drills — something most adult language learners find indescribably tedious.]

… “Now that it’s on Netflix, I always put it on and watch it,” said Mets infielder Wilmer Flores, 26, who is from Venezuela. “When I get up in the morning, I turn on the TV, and whatever episode is there I’ll watch and keep watching. I stop it when I come to the stadium. When I come home from the stadium, I pick up where I left off.”

(#5) Flores, smiling and soul-patched

What has the sitcom done for his English proficiency?

“It’s near perfect,” said Flores’s teammate, Jerry Blevins, who is from Tennessee. “When he doesn’t know something, it’s surprising.”

Flores, Peralta and Galvis built a rudimentary command of English in school in Venezuela. “But I always got bad grades because I didn’t like that way of learning,” Galvis said.

Gonzalez, who was surrounded by Spanish, his first language, at home, also had English classes in school when he moved to Southern California. Some players also received English instruction after signing with a team.

But these players said that they learned more when they arrived in the United States and fully plunged into English. In terms of immersion, few things compare to landing in a small minor-league town with few Spanish speakers — and needing to order food.

Popular culture, especially “Friends,” was education through entertainment.

“The basics you can learn in a classroom,” said Flores, who was interviewed in Spanish, along with most of the players, for ease. “But to speak the language, that comes from here in the clubhouse, on the street or from television.”

The story is available on-line in Spanish, but I can’t vouch for the translation.

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