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An investigation into sexist language

An Investigation into Sexist Language.

One of the most important political and social movements of the twentieth century has been the drive towards achieving complete equality for all people regardless of race, colour, class, gender identity, mental state or physical impairment. One area that has remained resistant to change is language. While it is has been widely accepted that some aspects of language are clearly sexist, for example the use of ‘he’ as a genderless pronoun (Cameron 1998, Wardaugh 1992, Pauwels 1998), there is still argument as to whether or not changing these forms of language is necessary. Some claim that the use of "politically correct" terms is not only unnecessary but disempowering (Jernigan 1994) because it forces a group of people to refer to themselves by a term that was invented by people who are not of their group. This essay will examine some of the different kinds of linguistic sexism in the English language, some of the reasons why these forms of language are harmful and finally some ideas of how these forms of language can be changed for the better.

As stated above the most obvious example of sexist language is the use of the male pronoun to describe groups of people containing both males and females. For example in the statement "if a child wants to buy some chocolate then he will need some money" the ungendered term "child" is replaced with the gendered pronoun "he" in the latter half of the sentence. On a very basic level this is clearly simply inaccurate since roughly half of the children in the world are female. However the consequences of such usages might go well beyond a simple inaccuracy of language. Graham (1973 in Thorne, Kramarae and Henley 1983, 9-10) conducted a computer analysis of one hundred thousand words from children's schoolbooks and found that "male pronouns outnumbered female ones by almost four to one." It was further found that this was not wholly due to the use of the masculine pronoun as a generic: "97 percent of the uses of ‘he’ referred male humans or animals, or to persons presumed to be male" (the examples he cites are sailors and farmers). What this suggests is that not only are male pronouns used as generics, as would be expected, but also that writers tend to write about males more often than females. In fact in Graham’s study males were referred to seven times as often as females (Graham 1973 in Thorne et al 1983). It is not far-fetched at all to suppose that part of the reason for this phenomenon is the prominence of the male pronoun. An additional factor is the widespread use of ‘man’ to derive sexist job titles from occupations (e.g. ‘Salesman’ from ‘Sales’, ‘Businessman’ from ‘business’ etc.). Once again this is a very obvious objection but the repercussions are larger than one would think. Silveira (1980 in Thorne et al 1983) found in a series of studies that while women tended to interpret gender-biased ‘generic’ pronouns as generic men tended to interpret them as meaning ‘male’ and that this included terms that simply contained the word ‘man’. Silveira also found that both men and women tend to visualise male figures when they read the masculine ‘generic’ or hear it being used. With this in mind it is easy to see why writers in general tend towards describing males even when the situation is wholly ambiguous (as in the example of animals in children’s school books cited above).

Thorne et al (1983) points out another kind of linguistic sexism that more even clearly demonstrates the social disempowerment of women in the English language. This is the tendency to refer to women in terms of their relations to men. While the argument still rages as to whether (and how) women should take their husband’s names when they marry Thorne et al points out that there are many other instances of this tendency. For example referring to a woman as "Harold’s widow". It would be extremely unlikely for anyone to refer to a man as "Jane's widower" even if the term ‘widower’ was still used in our society. In fact Wardaugh (1992) believes that the fact that terms like ‘widower’ and ‘spinster’ have died out while terms like ‘widow’ remain popular is another example of this trend; the tendency to use language to enforce power relations. According to this view ‘widower’ has died out because it is disempowering to men and ‘bachelor’ has remained while ‘spinster’ has faded because ‘bachelor’ has developed positive connotations of freedom and individuality.

Deborah Cameron (1998) found an even more extreme example of this form of sexism in an article written for the Sun newspaper. The article speaks of how "a terrified 19-stone husband was forced to lie next his wife as two men raped her" (Cameron 1998, 11). Here the crime seems to exist only from the perspective of the husband. The rape that was committed against his wife is only a crime because he was forced to endure it. As if she were a valuable possession that was being damaged before his eyes.

It is quite obvious that inequalities do exist in the English language. But some remain unconvinced that this is really a bad thing. There are many arguments as to why linguistic sexism is bad. Maria Escalas appeals to writer’s self-interest: "inaccurate or offensive language will make readers lose faith in a writer’s argument" (2001, Page headed "Being Politically Correct"). Escalas’ point of view is not very popular. A point of view that is quite popular is that of Valian (1971, in Martyna 1980, 26) She believes that "it isn’t a question of linguistics, but of how the people involved feel". In this sense what is important about sexist language is that people are genuinely hurt by the usage of sexist terms and society should attempt to change in order to make them feel better.

Neither of those two arguments is particularly compelling. The problem with these two views of the nature of linguistic sexism is that both of them unknowingly imply that the problem could be solved far more easily by simply returning women to the state of ignorance that they experienced in centuries past. If this happened then there would be no problem of "offensiveness" as Escala says because women wouldn’t be reading the offending articles anyway and women would no longer feel bad about sexist language as Valian says because they would not know that such a concept existed. This argument is obviously not proposed as a serious answer to the problem (one could expect to have a brick thrown through one’s car window very soon if it were). However it does serve to illustrate that there is an important aspect of sexist language that is being ignored by Escala and Valian and others who think as they do. Quite simply put they are ignoring the power relations implicit in the language use and their consequences.

Earlier in the essay it was pointed out that the use of ‘he’ as a neutral pronoun was problematic because of its inaccuracy. It has been argued by those who are against linguistic reform that this does not pose a problem because the term ‘man’ has been accepted as applying to both men and women (Kanfer 1972 in Martyna 1980). Unfortunately an examination of the realities of legal distinctions between men and women has shown this to simply be false. Marguerite Ritchie studied several hundred years worth of Canadian court records and discovered that ‘man,’ the supposedly neutral pronoun, has been interpreted as either including or excluding women depending on the political climate of the time and the personal bias of the lawmaker involved (Ritchie 1975 in Martyna 1980). Clearly social realities play a very important role.

The social reality is that the problem with pronouns is much deeper than merely that of the male pronouns being used exclusively. A study performed in 1980 (Finegan and Besnier 1980) discovered that the female pronouns were actually being used in ambiguous situations but only with regards to roles that had low social status. For example doctors, lawyers and politicians were generally given the male pronoun whereas secretaries, nurses and teachers were generally given the female pronoun. In light of this it becomes clear that the relationship between linguistic inequality and social reality is very real and very close.

There is clearly a link between language and reality but the question of the nature of this relationship remains. Fasold (1984 in Pauwels 1988) claimed that the relationship between language and reality is that language merely reflects the reality. In other words sexist language exists because of the sexist nature of society and thus changing the language will serve only to mask the underlying inequalities in the society. Whorf (1956 in Pauwels 1988) believes that the exact opposite is true: Societal reality is directly created by the nature of the language with the society. According to this view as soon as the language is changed it will immediately begin to metamorphose the society into one that more accurately reflects the language.

A far more compelling point of view is that while there is an interaction between the social and the linguistic this interaction his bi-directional and dynamic. The language does not create the society and the society does not create the language rather the two work together to both construct themselves and the other. Sometimes the brute force of reality has more influence (as in chemistry and mathematics) and sometimes the language has the casting vote (as in amorphous topics like Psychology and Linguistics). There is, in a sense, a metaphorical pendulum of interaction that swings between the linguistic and the social. Every time it swings it takes some of the meaning from the language and deposits it on the society and vice versa. This is the interactionist or social constructionist view (Shotter, 1993 and Gergen, 1999).

An application of the social constructionist theory to reality can be seen in the use of the word ‘they’ as a genderless pronoun (e.g. ‘If a barber wants more business then they should advertise’). Using ‘they’ in this manner has been opposed by those against language reform on the grounds that it just sounds odd and one must say but this is true to assert extent. However it is interesting to note that originally ‘they’ was often used as a genderless pronoun and that it was only when the prescriptive school of grammar became the dominant grammatical paradigm that the word ‘he’ was enforced as the correct one (Bodine, 1975). While it is galling to note such a blatant example of sexism becoming so entrenched in our language this example is ultimately positive: after all if a word can be intentionally promoted to the point where they use of another word seems instinctively incorrect then surely it can be changed back again.

The most important question that remains is how the language should be changed. Pauwels (1998) promotes several strategies for changing sexist language she calls these: "Causing linguistic disruption", "Creating a woman-centred language", "gender neutralization" and "feminisation". These four approaches are very interesting and definitely require investigation.

What Pauwels means by "causing linguistic disruption" is simply calling attention to the inequalities in the language. By writing articles or novels or simply by talking to people about these issues one can raise awareness. This strategy is particularly effective in languages like French where all nouns are gendered. By writing articles in French in which all the nouns have been assigned a feminine gender writers can call attention to the arbitrariness of such rules. Other strategies include rewriting popular sexist jokes and phrases with the genders reversed to make the subtle sexisms stand out more.

Creating a woman centred language is far more difficult because it requires a separation from many of the basic methods of speaking in one’s language and the creation of entirely new kinds of meaning systems. Spender (1980 in Pauwels, 1998, 106) uses a very expressive example: "I’d like a word for the next time I complain about doing the cooking, and my husband says, ‘But dear you are so good at it.’" In other words this approach to language change holds that women’s experience of the world is notably different to men’s. Furthermore it holds that since language has been male-dominated from the start there simply are not structures available to facilitate accurate expression of these differences of being. Thus women need to create words and metaphors for their ‘lost experiences’ for themselves.

Gender neutralisation is possibly the most popular approach to language change. Simply put it involves identifying areas of bias (like the use of ‘he’ as the basic pronoun) and replacing them with words and phrases that are truly gender-free (like ‘they’). The ‘feminisation’ approach disagrees with this method because while it does remove the bias in favour of men it does nothing to improve the status of women. Pauwels refers to women as "the invisible sex" (Pauwels, 1998, 112) because even when ungendered pronouns replace the gendered ones in written text people reading them still tend to visualise men. She believes that this is because the sexist structures already present in the individuals within the society overpower the neutrality of the gender-free language. In other words the solution lies not in a language that promotes neither sex but a language that promotes both. This is the argument behind using ‘his and her’s’ instead of ‘his’ or ‘their’. Furthermore the feminisation approach is in favour of alternating use of gender specific pronouns in situations where the use of ‘his and her’ is inappropriate or stylistically weak. For example say that the following statement appeared in the first chapter of a book on legal etiquette: ‘if a lawyer needs his or her bag for his or her case then he or she should ensure that he or she has his or her case before her or she goes to court’. The style is clearly highly verbose and would weaken the impact of the entire book if it were to continue. The feminisation solution to this problem would be to use ‘she’ as the basic pronoun in the first chapter of a book and ‘he’ as the basic pronoun in the second and so on.

The only question remains is whether such measures would be enough to facilitate change. To answer this question one must return to the social constructionist argument. As stated above this perspective believes that: "Our ways of talking about our experiences work not primarily to represent the nature of those experiences in themselves, but to represent them in such a way as to constitute and sustain one or another kind of social order (Shotter 1990 in Gergen 1999, 134, underlines added). In other words our language exists to enforce the accepted social order. According to this view it is the language that is most active in keeping society sexist. However it does work both ways and the language that enforces social norms can also be used to change them. If everyone becomes aware of the importance of changing the language and they are given workable strategies for implementing change then the language will change and the new structures will become accepted as the norm. Once people begin to use new structures of expression change will progress from the merely linguistic to the social. The social constructionist pendulum will swing back and the inequalities of the society will be replaced by the equality implicit in the language. In fact Pauwels (1998) says that progress is already being made in the use of generic nouns and pronouns in the media and in university publications, the acceptance of the title ‘Ms’, the widespread proliferation of guides to non-sexist writing and many others. It remains to be seen if there is a genuine social change going with these cosmetic changes but Pauwels is confident that there is.

In conclusion sexist language is real, widespread, subtle and damaging. Combating it is not a simple issue and change will be slow but there are many ways of fighting it and advances are being made. As long as awareness of the problem continues to grow and the issues become clearer progress will be made until eventually equality in both society and language will be reached.



Bodine, A. (!975) Androcentrism in Prescriptive Grammar. In Cameron, D.

(Ed). The Feminist Critique of Language. London: Routledge

Cameron, D. (1998). The Feminist Critique of Language. London: Routledge.

Escalas, M.M. (2001). Being Politically Correct.

Finegan, E., Besnier, N. (1989). Language: Its Structure and Use. Orlando, Florida: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Gergen, K.J. (1999). An Invitation to Social Constructionism. London: Sage.

Jernigan, K. (1999). The Pitfalls of Political Correctness: Euphemisms Excoriated. Washington D.C.: National Federation for the Blind.

Martyna, W. (1980). Beyond the He/Man Approach: The Case for Nonsexist Language. In Thorne, B., Kramarae, C., Henley, N. (Eds) Langauge Gender and Society. Henle and Henle Publishers.

Pauwels, A. (1998). Women Changing Language. New York: Addison Wesley Longman.

Shotter, J. (1993). Conversational Realities. London: Sage.

Thorne, B., Kramarae, C., Henley, N. (1983). Langauge Gender and Society. Henle and Henle Publishers.

Wardaugh, R. (1992). An Introduction to Sociolinguistics. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.

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