Recent buzz in social media about ‘street harassment‘ (and its hilarity) motivates me to write down some on-going musings on what I suspect to be a largely un-researched and un-analyzed speech genre: Cat-calls.
- Further research is needed.
A very brief search on this topic hasn’t turned up much– more in the popular press and travel writing than in academia, although I’m surely missing things. The following conclusions are based on my own limited observations; Do they ring true for others (in particular other women)? What (sociolinguistic) research exists on this topic?
- This is a recognizable, structured speech genre or register.
Say you’re walking down the street and you hear someone behind you say “Hey miss”. You instantly know whether it’s a cat-call or whether it’s someone trying to get your attention for some other purpose (you dropped your gloves while leaving the store, for instance). Right? How do you know? If the lexical choice doesn’t indicate that you’re being objectified (e.g. “Hey baby” directed towards a person who is not an infant), in English intonation can be an indicator (e.g. rising intonation in each word [H↑ey m↑iss] versus phrase-final rising intonation, as in most question sequences [Hey mi↑ss]). Another key indicator is a turn-taking structure that does not rely on interlocutor response; the cat-call opening turn is typically met with silence or a rejection of the opening turn, and I suspect that this uneven turn-taking or lack of up-take is an anticipated/ integrated feature of this genre. Conversation analysis of a corpus of cat-call data could reveal these and other patterns.
- This register exists across languages, settings, & time, albeit with significant variation.
3.1 Variation in form and frequency.
The most common form of cat-call where I currently live in southern Oaxaca, Mexico, is something in between a “hiss” and a “shhhh”. If I were walking down the street in Philadelphia and heard someone hissing I would not take it to be a cat-call, but I learned very quickly to recognize it as such here. Additionally I find cat-calling to be less frequent here than in other places I’ve lived. Apparently it’s especially common in Brazil. It would be possible to document frequency and form of cat-calls in public places and/or collect survey data in different parts of the world.
3.2 Variation in interlocutors
Cat-calls are typically directed towards a lone individual, and often (but not always) come from a group. Psychology research seems to back this up. Are cat-calls more likely to occur when the object of the call looks local, or non-local? As a stand-out Caucasian in a Latin American town do I get more or less cat-calls than women who are from here? When & where does this have an effect? Observation and interview or survey data would be needed.
3.3 Variation across cultures
In a Spanish and Zapotec-speaking town where English speakers are not common, I have been cat-called with the phrase “Hey baby” on a surprising number of occasions. I have never been cat-called with the Spanish or Zapotec equivalent of this phrase, and only rarely have I been cat-called with words (the hissing being more common). My untested hypothesis is that men who spend time in the US learn the US cat-call genre (more vocal and more frequent than the local Oaxacan genre) and apply it when they see someone who fits the US ethnic stereotype. I would need to stop ignoring these comments and start asking men where they learned them in order to test this hypothesis. I’m not sure it’s worth that effort.
3.4 Variation across time
When I commented to some friends that cat-calling does not seem to be very frequent here, they started reminiscing about a practice that they say was common a few decades ago, but is no longer used. This involved either A) whistling in time to match the pace of a woman as she walks down the street, or B) whistling a sequence mirroring the syllables and prosody of the Zapotec phrases “Napalu guichi la?” or “Napani guichi la?” (“Do you have hair [yet]?” or “Does it have hair [yet]?”). They claim that everyone knew what the whistled sequence meant (and understood its reference to puberty) although the actual words were never used. Numerous interviews would be needed to back up this anecdote.
- Is verbal hygiene justified?
Will a more detailed description of this register somehow make it shrink? I would be happier if this register would disappear, although that seems unlikely given its cross-linguistic presence. Although I’m generally not a fan of policing or coercing speech, I think that it might be justified in this case. In the meantime, since the register isn’t disappearing, and it’s impossible to ignore completely, choosing to think of those hisses and comments as an interesting speech genre seems like the best approach to take.