Examine the language in relation to gender, and observe its changing role in society.” A businessman is aggressive; a businesswoman is pushy. A businessman is good on details; she is picky… He follows through; she doesn’t know when to quit. He stands firm; she is hard…
His judgement’s are her prejudices. He is a man of the world; she’s been around. He isn’t afraid to say what is on his mind; she is mouthy. He authority diligently; she’s power mad. He’s closemouthed; she’s secretive. He climbed the ladder of success; she slept her way to the top.” From “How to Tell a Businessman from a Businesswoman,” Graduate School of management UCLA.
From the first moment a child begins to understand the spoken word, they begin to receive messages about society view of the different sexes. Language itself can not be deemed good or bad, but it does reflect individual or societal values. The above example displays the way in which language can be used to stereotype gender. Both sexes in the example are behaving in the same way but the language used has separated them, praising the male whilst disparaging the female. In order to explore the differences between males and females regarding language we must look at whether or not language is sexist, whether it is used differently by different genders and how language has changed, if at all, in relation to these points.
Women’s roles in society have changed considerably over time, and they are now valued more than ever in society. Chafe tz (1990) has claimed that this has largely arisen due to the media. She says that newspapers and magazines now largely avoid sexist language, and even advertisers have changed their depiction of both genders to some degree. Universities have expanded their curricula to include courses for women, even hospitals have changed their policies pertaining to childbirth in directions originally propounded by women’s movement activities; i. e. developing birthing centres etc.
These examples are merely a few of the multitudes of changes that have occurred. Trask (1995) has pointed out that the utilization of language differs with gender. For instance, women have more of a tendency to use finer discriminations than men do in some areas such as colour terms. Women would be more at ease using the labels ‘crimson’, ‘ecru’, or ‘beige’, than men and men would be found to use the simpler version: “It’s blue, not cornflower; what the hell is cornflower” (my dad when looking at paint. ) Trask also noted that men have a tendency to drop more expletives into a conversation than women, although some women do swear, especially younger females (just sit in a student common lounge for a while to back this up); which is becoming worryingly commonplace. Je person, an early linguist, included a chapter on ‘The woman’ in his book “Language: Its Nature, Development and Origin” (1922).
He claims that the women’s contribution to the language is to maintain its purity, caused by the way they shrink from coarseness and vulgarity. (A totally outmoded theory. ): There can be no doubt that women a great and universal influence on linguistic development through their instinctive shrinking from coarse and vulgar expressions and their preference for refined, and (in certain spheres) veiled and indirect expression. Jespersen 1922.
He does maintain, however, that it is men’s language which is endowed with vigour, imagination and creativity. Without it, he states, ‘there is a danger of the language becoming languid and insipid. He goes on to claim that women have a smaller vocabulary than men and that which they do have they tend to misuse. As examples he quotes that women use intensifying adverbs ‘with disregard of their proper meaning, as in the German ‘ klein’ (gigantically small), the English ‘awfully pretty’, and ‘terribly nice’…
Danish ‘ moro som’ (awfully funny) ‘. (1922) He claims that women also suffer from an inability to finish sentences and while there is more talk from women there is less substance. Talbot assures us that none of these claims were based on evidence but were mere conjecture on Jespersen’s part. She goes on to add that the women that he encountered may well have ahd smaller vocabulary than the men, but that women then were often denied the education permitted to most men. She also says that the statement that women talk more is a familiar folk linguistic claim and that there is not a substantial body of evidence to the contrary. She adds that it has been suggested (by Spender 1985, for instance) that the volume of women’s talk has not been measured against men’s but against silence.
Perhaps a more controversial issue raised by Trask, is the likelihood for women to drop more tag questions into the conversation; ending statements with “isn’t it?” , “aren’t I?” or “haven’t you?” . This gives the impression that a women wants or needs some sort of reassurance from whoever she is talking to. Women also tend to start sentences with “I might be wrong” or “It’s just an idea but. .” , apologising in advance for their existence or showing a lack of confidence.
Although this may not be picked up on by many women, it shows a subordinate side to women, surely they shouldn’t need to have reassurance from a man, as they are or should just as confident and capable of judging for themselves. It is also claimed by Trask that men interrupt a conversation more often than women do; which may come as a surprise to many men who seem to think it is the other way round. Another interesting piece of research by Trask has shown that a woman’s discourse tends to be co-operative whereas a man’s, on the other hand, tends to be competitive. Trask argues that this is due to women’s capacity to sympathise with others and to support the contribution of others.
Conversely, men are seen to compete with one another in conversation, trying to outshine one another and scoring points off each other; arguably a typical masculine characteristic. From as long ago as 1974, Fromkin and Rodman have argued that language does reflect sexism in society, although they point out that language alone is not sexist, but it can promote sexist attitudes as well as attitudes about social taboos or racism. Fromkin and Rodman relate their discussion to some interesting examples and resort to dictionaries to clarification of terms. They found that in the American Heritage Dictionary, the terms ‘manly courage’ and ‘masculine charm’ were illustrated without any reference to women.
This gives the impression that there is no such thing as ‘womanly charm’ or even ‘womanly courage’. It is also implied that men are brave to go out and fight, and assumes the women stay away from it all, locked up in the home being passive. Women were included in the dictionary, but not for the same reasons as men. Instead, terms cropped up such as ‘womanish tears’ and ‘feminine wiles’, which are not exactly complimentary terms to be compared to. In relation to men, Franklin and Rodman highlighted that the word ‘honorarium’ was defined as a ‘payment to a professional man for services in which no fee is set or legally obtainable.’ Once again the description is more flattering to males than females, especially with the implication that it is only males who perform such tasks of honour.
From research conducted by Fromkin and Rodman, they found that the US American Men of Science did not change its name to include ‘and Women’ until 1921, and until 1972, the women’s faculty toilet doors were labelled ‘women’ whilst the men’s were highly labelled ‘Officers of Instruction’. I would imagine this would have been quite a set back for women, as here they were still apparently regarded as inferior, or not as highly ranked as the men, who were considered as ‘officers’. Cameron (1995) claims that the controversy over sexism the language pre dates the political correctness debate by some years. She claims that no one who has been involved in a campaign for non sexist language, or followed one closely, will be astonished to learn that it remains a issue. Cameron draws upon reference to an article that was featured in the New York Times back in 1991 containing a brief section on ‘avoiding sexist language’. Cameron felt that this event would be insufficiently remarkable to merit editorial comment in the Times.
Many tabloid newspapers over time have contained derogatory depiction of women, or at least non too flattering comments. This is evident through the use like ‘blonde bombshell’ and ‘sexy’. Men are rarely depicted in this derogatory fashion, instead they are described as ‘handsome’ or ‘smart’. Cameron argues that in 1990, the university of Strathclyde’s Programme of Opportunities for Women Committee put out the drafting of a leaflet on gender free language. She says that the finished product, entitled ‘gender free language: guidelines for the use of staff and students’ was issued to the staff in 1991, and publicized outside of the university through a press release. It had been endorsed by the university’s governing bodies, the Senate and Court, and this information, states Cameron, was included on the leaflet, giving it some considerable status as official policy.
However, in relation to civility and fairness, Cameron argues that ‘senior people’ in jobs were unwittingly offending their females colleges by using non inclusive phrases like ‘the best man for the job’. She states that this is made objectionable as the women, who were already in the minority, were made to feel even more excluded. The guidelines I mentioned earlier made much of a point of this as they claimed that sexist language could lead to alienation of female students, and so non sexist language was designed to include all the potential addresses. Cameron tells us that they asked lecturers to consider the feelings and emotions of the females in their classes, and showed that to take no account of people who were actually sitting in front of them was ‘ill-mannered’, and that the educational institution would be placing women students in an environment which was not conductive to learning. On this issue, Cameron concludes that from a ‘civility’ point of view, the point of using non sexist language is not to challenge linguistic representation of the world at large, but to avoid offending/ alienating women in the immediate context. She states that this makes sexism a matter of individual men giving offence to individual men giving offence to individual women, rather than a systematic social process.
She states finally that if there were no women present at a meeting or in the class, then there would be no offence given and therefore no need to be attentive to sexism. Going back as far as 1867, there was an attempt made in Parliament to give women the vote, although it came to be unsuccessful. Barker and Canning (1995), showed how an article, written by a female contained vocabulary which was literally begging for women to be able to vote. There were words and phrases contained such as ‘I beg’ and ‘if you are gallant enough’, (referring to the men in parliament). This letter shows a weak side to women, as they give praise to the men of parliament, and almost lose respect for themselves in the process. The feminist movement has challenged assumptions over time about male and female stereotypes.
Someone de Beauvior, an author in the 1940’s, analysed women’s perceptions of their roles. She stated that “woman herself recognises that the world is masculine on the whole; those who fashioned it, ruled it and still dominate it today, are men.” This view would now probably be challenged a great deal, especially by feminists, who say that we should over throw patriarchy. Studies of women’s language use have revealed sufficient distinctive features for it to be recognised as a variety and to have earned it the name ‘gender lect’ by Barker and Canning. In their publication ‘English Language Topics’, Trudgill observed the pronunciation of male/ female speakers in Norwich and found that there was a tendency for women, especially lower middle class women, to move towards a more prestige form on more formal situations. For example, they used (ing) rather than (in) for words such as ‘running’ or ‘digging’. Barker and Canning claim that sometimes the desire for correctness led to hypercorrection.
For instance, they say that (h) is seen as a prestige form, but does not occur in RP in words such as ‘honour’ or ‘honest’. Dale Spender (1995), pointed out the fact that men tended to use non standard forms with covert prestige as a form of bonding (downward rather than upward convergence). Barker and Canning again show that, with regards to RP, women are more likely than men to move away from their local dialect, and towards standard grammatical forms. Chesire (from Barker and Canning 1995) carried out research concerning the speech of Reading teenagers and found very significant differences in the syntactic features of male and female groups. The research showed that in 86% of cases, boys said the double negative in sentences such as “I ain’t got no sweets” and for girls the outcome was only 51%. Chesire’s study found that ‘ain’t’ replaced ‘hasn’t’ or ‘isn’t’ in 92% of the boys cases but in only 62% of girls.
Barker and Canning show that girls are more inclined to shift their style according to the social context; i. e. adopting more standard forms in classroom than in the playground. Alternatively, the boys, when alienated from the school culture, used more non standard forms in the classroom as a way of expressing rebellion. One other connected factor, they say, is that women, in wanting the best for their children, tend to try and impose a standard of correctness for them. According to Talbot (1998) a substantial body of non-feminist work on language and gender came out of wider studies of social dialect.
These were sociolinguistic studies performed in the sixties and seventies, which claimed to find a difference between the language used by men and women: namely that women in all social classes used the prestige or standard variety of a language more than men did. The best known survey of this type having been done by Labov (1966) in New York City. Research in England involved looking into the use of “ing” (the prestige forms) as opposed to “in” (the vernacular). Peter Trudgill, a British linguist, conducted a survey in Norwich which was modelled on Labov’s New York one. As with Labov’s study it was intended to elicit different degrees of formality. His results showed that in most cases women were using a lower percentage of the vernacular, non-Standard variety then men in the same social category.
The only exceptions being in upper working class women in reading styles and lower middle class women in casual speech. Trudgill suggested reasons for this, he said that explanations are centered around notions of status consciousness. He claimed that women in our society are more status conscious than men, generally speaking and are therefore more aware of the social significance of linguistic variations. He also gives two possible reasons for this. Primarily he says that the social positions of women in our society are less secure than that of men, and that women are usually subordinate to that of men.
He believes that it may be on account of this that women find it more necessary to secure and signal their social positions linguistically. The second reason he gives is that men in our society are rated by their occupation, earnings, and their own abilities, in other words what they ‘do’. Therefore they may not be as concerned with how they are heard as women. Talbot points out some problems with this study. She says the first phenomenon requiring expiation is why it is necessary to explain women’s greater use of the prestige form rather than men’s lesser use of them. She goes on to explain that feminist critiques of this kind of study have explained this in terms of the male as norm theory.
They state that the man’s behaviour is normal where as the women’s is a deviation that needs accounting for. The question that Talbot asks is “Are women really more preoccupied with keeping up with the Jones es than men are?” Several British linguists have demonstrated that the work Trudgill claims backs up this theory is very shaky indeed. It has been claimed that because women lack status, particularly this women who are not in paid employment, they try to aquire it through the way they speak. Talbot says that if working women could be shown to use fewer standard forms than women working in the home, then it would back up claims that women are using Standard forms in order to gain prestige.
She goes on to say that in fact the research that has been done showed that women who worked in the home used fewer standard forms than women in paid employment. Talbot does conceded, however, that there are differences in the pronunciation patterns of men and women. She says that although the findings have differed the most consistent have been that women’s speech overall, tends to contains more prestige forms than men’s. While it has proved most unsatisfactory to account for these differences, it is clear that pronunciation can be used to signal gender. Regarding discourse features, Barker and Canning (1995) state that women are more likely to use hedges. i.
e. ‘sort of’ or ‘kind of’, and they use many polite forms; i. e. ‘would you mind?’ or ‘do you think you could’ and previously stated, they use tag questions i. e.
‘isn’t it?’ or ‘aren’t we?’ . Finally Barker and Canning argue that in consideration of all the features of language used by women, there is a distinct pattern of speech which is more expressive and polite rather than direct and informative, which is the prestige form. They do claim, however, that role and status may be a more significant issue than gender, and relate this to recent studies which have revealed that educated and professional women do not display many of these speech traits. According to Susan Basow, in her book ‘Gender: Stereotypes and roles.’ From the first moment a child begins to understand the spoken word, she or he also begins to receive messages about the way society views the sexes. Language has and still does play a major role in defining and maintaining male power over women. She believes that sexism in the English language takes three main form: ignoring, stereotyping and depreciating fe males.
According to Basow the most striking way that the female of the species is ignored is through the use of the masculine gender in referring to human beings in general, for example ‘chairman’, ‘the working man’ and ‘everyone should do his best’. The use of the masculine pronouns as a generic term for all makes maleness appear to be the norm and femaleness the exception. Basow believes that people do if fact perceive the masculine generic to refer to predominantly males, backing up this claim with studies from numerous researches. For example Hyde (1984) asked students from first grade through to college, to make up a story about the average student in the school. Only 12% of those who read the pronoun ‘he’ in the instructions told a story about a female student. When the pronoun they encountered was ‘they’ only 18% told a story of a female, but when it stated ‘he’ or ‘she’ 42% of the stories told were about females.
Basow says that this shows that the pronoun ‘he’ is not sex-neutral, and that children in primary schools don’t realise that when it says ‘he’ the term is supposed to include women. Therefore the ‘generic he’ allows many to ignore half of the population, the female half. Even the neutral pronoun ‘they’ may connote mainly males as, apparently, do other gender neutral terms such as ‘he / she ‘, ‘person’, and ‘adult’. (Concluded from research by Gas til 1990; Hamilton 1991; Wise and Rafferty 1982) these result seem especially pertinent for male listeners who appear to have difficulty remembering there is another gender on this planet. Henley (1989) outlines research which shows that the use of the generic ‘he’ can affect a reader’s comprehension, memory and career perceptions. For example when a job is described using only male pronouns, elementary and college students rated females as least able to do that job.
Basow concludes that as this example shows the sex which suffers the most from the use of male pronouns are females. Although females are less likely to perceive ‘he’ as solely male, most still do. Therefore, she says, the use of ‘he’ is not an arbitrary custom, but a continuing statement about the social roles of women and men. Susan Henk man in her work “The Feminist Critique of Rationality” has written that concepts formed from a male point of view create a male reality which renders the female invisible. She argues that although men would have women believe that the term ‘man’ is generic, that it includes both the experiences of men and women, a simple statement proves this false: “man has difficulty in childbirth” this statement is nonsense and therefore proves that ‘man’ can not be a generic term Language also defines women by labelling what is considered to be the exception to the rule, for example ‘lady doctor’ or ‘career girl’ reinforcing gender stereotypes. Trask (1995) explains that the word ‘nurse’ is just one of a number of professional nouns which have become gender specific.
He specifies that sailors, doctors, taxi drivers and judges are still, to a greater extent, associated as jobs for men. Nurses, models au pairs, secretaries and even prostitutes are labelled as jobs for women, and that some of these jobs are a cover for further exploitation of women; especially prostitutes and even models. Today we have male nurses and male models but as with the terms ‘career girl’ or ‘lady doctor’ they seem to be the exception which proves the rule. There are still the explicitly sex marked terms such as ‘chairman’, ‘postman’ and ‘milkman’, which women, especially feminists, have argued over. As on the other hand, females have ‘cleaning lady’ and ‘tea lady’, to which feminists have objected. I can see their point on this issue as the titles for women refer to labour and doing housework, implied strongly in their titles.
Many feel that we are verging on the brink of older days when a woman was confined to the kitchen to take care of her husband with regard to keeping him fed and watered and clearing up after him. Holmes points out that many words in use today reflect a view of women as a deviant, abnormal or subordinate group. For example, English morphology generally takes the unmarked male form as its base and then adds a suffix to indicate ‘female’, i. e. lion / lioness , count / countess , actor / actress , usher / usherette etc. The male form, being unchanged is indicative of the norm whilst the female form conveys a message of deviance and abnormality, even, to an extent, of lesser importance.
This morphology also helps in the deprecating of women, so says both Holmes and Basow. They both believe that the female form of certain words trivializes them i. e. poetess and authoress carry the connotations of a lack of seriousness, something poet and author doesn’t do. Basow shows that another way to deprecate women is to them. For example dame and madam have double meanings where as lord and sir do not.
Studies from Fromkin and Rodman analyzing the language that has been used by men referring to women (often having sexual connotations) stretch back in history, have entered our language with no pejorative meanings but have gained them over time. They say that from the Old English ‘hus wife’ (housewife) came the term ‘hussy’, a contemporary derogative term. According to their original meanings, a laundress merely made beds, a spinster tended the spinning wheel, and a nurse cared for the sick, but all of these women acquired secondary duties in some households, because according to Fromkin and Rodman, all became euphemisms for a mistress or a prostitute at some point in existence. They also point out that while a governor governs a state, a governess take care of children; a mistress is not strictly a female master and nor is a majorette a woman major.
This helps to prove that the male form is that of command, power, whilst the female is trivial in comparison. It is claimed that we can speak of ‘unwed mothers’ but not ‘unwed fathers’, of a ‘career woman’ but not a ‘career man’ as there has arguably been no stigma for a bachelor to father a child, and men are supposed to have careers. The double standard in our language helps to keep alive the aura of female as being deviant to males. Another way of deprecating females is to insult them.
Stanley (1977) found 220 terms for a sexually promiscuous female, compared to only 22 terms for a male. (I was surprised he found that many, when I can only think of about 2. ) Animal imagery is another example where images of women seem less positive than those of men. Females are often likened to birds, i. e.
chicks. Holmes illustrates this bird obsession by telling the life of a female through chicken metaphors: “The chicken metaphor tells the story of a girl’s life. In her youth she is a ‘chick’, then she marries and begins feeling ‘cooped’ up, so she goes to ‘hen parties’ where she ‘cackles’ with her friends. Then she has her ‘brood’ and begins to ‘hen-peck’ her husband. Finally she turns into an ‘old biddy’.
Birds are widely regarded as feather-brained and flighty, hardly flattering. Then one must consider animal imagery of a male; wolf, stud. These both give a positive impression of male, carrying connotations of sexual prowess or wiliness. There are more positive images of women, through use of terms such as kitten or chick, but then these are sweet but helpless pets who need looking after. It is not just animals women are compared to but also food, which is equally as insulting.
Saccharine terms such as sugar, sweetie, and honey are mainly but not exclusively used for addressing females. Less complimentary terms such as tart or crumpet are definitely female only. Terms which were originally meant as neutral or affectionate have evolved into insults for women, their meanings focusing on women as sexual object. Holmes argues that by contrast there is little food imagery referring to males only, although, as she points out, there are the negatives of veg and cabbage.
(Where I come from both can be applied to girls though! ) Even the American Sign Language, says Basow, reflects gender stereotypes. For example references to men and masculine pronouns are signed around the top of the head. This part of the body is also the reference point for signs depicting intelligence and decision making. References to women and female pronouns are signed around the lower of the face, the part associated with emotion and feelings. As previously stated, some jobs have become gender related and as Fromkin and Rodman, have stated, if someone was to say ‘my cousin is a nurse’, then the likelihood was that the cousin would be a woman. They say, however, that it is less evident why the sentence ‘my neighbour is blond’ is understood as referring to a woman.
Their conclusion on this issue is that physical characteristics of a women in our society assume greater importance than those of the men because women are very often exploited as sexual objects. This is a point which is drawn upon by Basow too. She believes that women are described by their appearance, while men are not, the implied message being that looks are more important for women and also the cause of their circumstance. She says that when an newspaper runs the headline “Blonde Found Murdered”, the reader knows the corpse is a female, (men are rarely described solely by hair colour) and one receives the impression that her hair colour had something to do with her death. (If blondes have more fun are they also more likely to get murdered? ) She also claims that the in the statement ‘the doctor and his pert assistant’ it is observed that the assistant is assumed female, males do not tend to be described by appearance, especially by words such as pert. Basow also suggests that females are defined by the group to which they are linked.
For example the frequent grouping of ‘women and children’s ugg ests a similar dependency. Women are often viewed as possessions i. e. ‘the pioneer moved west taking their wives’. This view was asserted by the faculty at Oxford University, who passed a ruling that if reference to spouses, no one was allowed to say ‘my’ partner, they had to use the article ‘the’ instead. I.
e. ‘The wife’. Personally I think this sounds a lot more derogatory than being referred to as a possession. Basow points out that a females place in society is reflected by the order in they are usually referred to; ‘boys and girls’, ‘man and women’. Females always come second, suggesting inferiority. Women are predominantly referred to by relationships, says Basow: “Jane Doe, ‘wife’ of John Doe, and ‘daughter’ of Mr and Mrs Joseph Smith” When women marry they generally lose their name and take on that of their husband and are thereafter often referred to as Mrs.
John Doe. (I once asked my mum why a letter was addressed to Mrs Brian Ross, instead of using her name, and she merely replied, “because this is how it is!” ) As Basow says, even the fact that women are referred to as ‘either’ Miss or ‘Mrs’ indicates marital status is more important for women than men. In fact, women who use ‘Miss’ or ‘Mrs’ are perceived as having lower instrumental traits such as leadership and competence, but stronger in expressive traits and are apparently more likeable than those who use ‘Ms.’ This change in the language appears to be threatening to males invested in traditional patriarchal roles. Basow gives the example of a judge in a Pittsburgh in 1988. The judge insisted upon calling a female lawyer by her husband’s name, (with Mrs before it, ) even though she had not changed her name and preferred the title ‘Ms’.
Her co-counsel defended her actions only to find himself in contempt of court. This shows that even if women try to shrug of patriarchy oppression, there will always be someone older and more powerful there to oppose her. Fortunately for women society is changing, trying to move away from sexism in language. In their publication ‘ An introduction to language’, Fromkin and Rodman claim that there are changes in the English language which reflect the feminist movement, and the growing awareness, by both men and women that language reflects attitudes of society and reinforces stereotypes and bias. They show that the word ‘people’ is increasingly replacing the word ‘mankind’, ‘personnel’ instead of ‘manpower’ and ‘nurturing’ instead of ‘mothering’. Basow shows that a positive sign of change is that in the 1982 edition of ‘Roget’s Thesaurus’, there had been an elimination of sexists words i.
e. ‘mankind’ replaced by ‘humankind ” Some gender specific occupational titles have resulted in such an outcry that they have been changed, so as not to cause gender bias. Job titles which have undergone this transformation have included: ‘fireman’ to ‘fire-fighter’, ‘postman’ to ‘post person’ or ‘deliverer of mail’ and ‘dustbin man’ to ‘refuse collector’. Their are some titles which have mutated even further: first there was ‘chairman’, this changed to ‘chairperson’ and now one must say ‘he / she is ‘the Chair’. Cameraman underwent a similar transformation instead of ‘camera person’ we have ‘camera operator’. According to Sunderland university’s language policy, if there has been some way of denoting gender through the form of a word or through a combination of words, one must choose the base form of the words; i.
e. not ‘Peter is a male nurse’ but ‘Peter is a nurse’. This helps to expel the reasoning that men such as Peter are the exception that proves the rule. In order to deflect the argument that the suffix, ‘est’, for women diminishes the seriousness of the position language policies today ask that it be dropped; i.
e. women are now ‘actors’, ‘poets’, and ‘authors’ as well as men. There are, however, in our present day, argues Trask, a few problem words which we, at the moment, are unable to modify without seeming to be lacking in seriousness; words such as ‘manhole’ and ‘man-eating shark’. He believes that to replace man with person would seem to suggest that they being derogatory In the early seventies, describes Talbot, a debate took place in the letters page of the ‘Harvard Crimson’ over the use of ‘he’, ‘mankind’ and ‘man’ as generic pronouns and nouns. It began with the linguistic faculty an attempt by a theology class to eradicate sexist language from its discussions.
The faculty stated: The fact that the masculine is the unmarked gender in English… is simply a feature of grammar. It is unlikely to be an impediment to change in the patterns of sexual division of labor towards which our society wish to evolve. There really is no cause for anxiety or pronoun-envy on the part of those seeking such changes. They were claiming that it was merely a feature of grammar and unrelated to the issue of discrimination. There was a response from some linguistic students who posed this hypothetical situation: In culture R the language is such that the pronouns are different according the colour of the people involved rather than the sex…
The unmarked pronoun just happens to be the one used for white people. In addition the coloured people just happen to be the oppressed group. Now imagine that this oppressed group begins complaining about the use of the ‘white’ pronoun to refer to all people. Our linguists presumably then say, “Now, now there is really no cause for anxiety or pronoun-envy.
The ‘R’s he explains presumably stands for ‘racist’. The implication of this reply seems to be that instead of being a mere feature of grammar, the use of the masculine pronoun as a generis term for everyone, is actually an aspect of society’s sexism. Unfortunately, according to Talbot, the media picked up on this debate and it was ridiculed in “Newsweek” under the title “Pronoun-envy.” Fortunately there is a search on for a gender neutral pronoun to replace the ‘generic he’. Many researchers have suggested that ‘they’ the pronoun most favoured at the moment, is not neutral and still gives the impression of males, rather than females.
Trask, claims that the choice is not a straightforward one. He states that some people have gone so far as to propose a new pronoun, unmarked for gender, such as ‘herm’ (a combination of ‘her’ and ‘him’) or ‘han’ (borrowed from Finnish. ) He does say, however, that little enthusiasm has been displayed fro these innovations as they do sound odd, but states that to the present day there has been no indication of an agreed upon solution. For the most part people try to avoid ‘he’ and replace it with ‘they’. The pronoun is not the perfect solution but it is the best one we have as yet. There has, however, been some resistance to change as pointed out by Talbot.
The primary resistors have been the media. Their negative publicity over the strive for inequality in language has not helped the cause. As cited by Talbot, the British press had a field day when staff in a local supermarket changed the labels of their Gingerbread men to Gingerbread ‘persons’. The newspapers ridiculed this action, showing their feelings through headlines such as “Gingerbread person takes the biscuit.” Talbot also states that there have been struggles within the realms of journalism itself. The NUJ (National Union of Journalists) printed an ‘equality style guide’. This however was met with resistance and wasn’t pushed by the NUJ for fear that they may appear to be censors.
In drawing an overall conclusion we have found that language itself is not sexist, but has been used by a male dominated society to oppress and denigrate females. Slowly but surely through a wave of feminist movements, this fact is being recognised. Steps are being taken to try and correct this and to give females a chance at being equal and not second class citizens. The more we became engrossed in this assignment the more we realised (being female) that we are being belittled by men’s use of language. It is true that many women apologise for their existence (as we have found ourselves doing) when conversing in general but more especially when interacting with men. This appears to be due to a general feeling of inferiority or lack of confidence.
When society itself institutionalizes such attitudes, the language reflects the bias. When everyone in society is truly created equal and treated as such there will be little concern for the asymmetries that exist in the language.