Where Men and Women Literally Don’t Speak the Same Language

In 1992, relationship counselor John Gray published the book “Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus,” a self-described “practical guide to improving communication and getting what you want in your relationship.” The book has been a fantastic seller ever since; it’s sold than 15 million copies in the decades since. One of the treatise’s major conceits is that men and women often are saying different things even though they’re using the same words. That is, colloquially speaking, men and women speak different languages.

While many of us have experienced this — and likely in contexts where gender isn’t even an issue — that statement is not to be taken literally; men and women don’t have different words for different concepts.

Unless they happen to be part of a small community in Africa.

Cross River is a state in south of Nigeria, bordering Cameroon to its east. It is home to more than 3.5 million people who, among them, speak many different languages, most of which are indigenous to the small communities of people who live within its borders. Two of those dialects are Ubang, spoken by the Ubang people. There’s one dialect for men, and another for women. The word “water,” for example, is “bamuie” for adult men; women, on the other hand, would say “amu.” And there are dozens of other concepts that similarly have separate words for men and women to use.

There’s no obvious lexicographical link between the words, either. Anthropologist Chi Chi Undie, probably the leading researcher on the dialects, told the BBC that “there are a lot of words that men and women share in common, then there are others which are totally different depending on your sex. They don’t sound alike, they don’t have the same letters, they are completely different words.” And it’s unclear why this bifurcated language developed the way it did; while the two genders have different, often separate tracks in everyday life, they obviously mingle to some degree.

The two separate dialects haven’t prevented the two sexes from communicating, either. 

According to the BBC report, “both men and women are able to understand each other perfectly – or as well as anywhere else in the world. This might be partly because boys grow up speaking the female language, as they spend most of their childhoods with their mothers and other women.” And, as Chief Oliver Oliver Ibang explained to the BBC, the switch to the male-used dialect is considered a rite-of-passage:  “by the age of 10, boys are expected to speak the ‘male language,’ he says. ‘There is a stage the male will reach and he discovers he is not using his rightful language. Nobody will tell him he should change to the male language. When he starts speaking the men language, you know the maturity is coming into him.” 

It’s unclear how women learn the male dialect and if there are any consequences if a woman were to use the men’s words. On the other hand, per Chief Ibang, if a boy does not start using the male dialect by a certain age, he’s considered “abnormal.”

Bonus fact: There are a few other examples of languages where different genders use different words for the same concept, but in those cases, the examples are rare and often antiquated. For example, Lakota, a Native American language spoken by the Lakota people of the Sioux tribe, has a few words that fit this description, at least historically. While it is increasingly more common for men and women to use either’s words, a few years ago, there was a rather prominent example of cross-gender usage. As Lakota activist Russell Means told the High Times, when he watched the movie “Dances With Wolves,” he couldn’t help but chuckle: “Lakota has a male-gendered language and a female-gendered language. Some of the [actors] were speaking in the feminine way. When I went to see it with a bunch of Lakota guys, we were laughing.” The Lakota language coach on set was a woman and apparently didn’t know about the gendered language.

From the Archives: Monosyllabic Culture: The one word that appears to be nearly universal, regardless of your native language.