Why girls say ‘holded’ more than boys


Address for correspondence: Michael Ullman, Brain and Language Laboratory, Department of Neuroscience, Georgetown University, New Research Building, 3970 Reservoir Road, NW, Washington, DC 20057, USA; e-mail: michael@georgetown.edu


Women are better than men at verbal memory tasks, such as remembering word lists. These tasks depend on declarative memory. The declarative/procedural model of language, which posits that the lexicon of stored words is part of declarative memory, while grammatical composition of complex forms depends on procedural memory, predicts a female superiority in aspects of lexical memory. Other neurocognitive models of language have not made this prediction. Here we examine the prediction in past-tense over-regularizations (e.g. holded) produced by children. We expected that girls would remember irregular past-tense forms (held) better than boys, and thus would over-regularize less. To our surprise, girls over-regularized far more than boys. We investigated potential explanations for this sex difference. Analyses showed that in girls but not boys, over-regularization rates correlated with measures of the number of similar-sounding regulars (folded, molded). This sex difference in phonological neighborhood effects is taken to suggest that girls tend to produce over-regularizations in associative lexical memory, generalizing over stored neighboring regulars, while boys are more likely to depend upon rule-governed affixation (hold+-ed). The finding is consistent with the hypothesis that, likely due to their superior lexical abilities, females tend to retrieve from memory complex forms (walked) that men generally compose with the grammatical system (walk+-ed). The results suggest that sex may be an important factor in the acquisition and computation of language.