Beyond explores language and gender for A Level English Language, touching on the contentious topics of grammatical genders and gendered language. For a presentable PowerPoint on this topic, click here.
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Language and Gender: Grammatical Genders
English doesn’t have a grammatical gender as French, German and many other languages do.
- Le crayon (French masculine)
- La table (French feminine)
- Der Student (German masculine)
- Die Rose (German feminine)
- Das Instrument (German neutral)
English speakers might consider it peculiar to think of a crayon as masculine or a table as feminine. On the other hand, stereotypical gender conventions probably make it easy to envisage a rose as feminine. And instrument is a common noun so is naturally suited to being gender-neutral, though we could probably think of types of instrument that we would classify as feminine or masculine! This is the result of social conditioning rather than distinctions being hardwired into our language.
A Man’s World
In English, the only gendering is in pronouns and gender-specific professional labels such as ‘businessman’ or ‘waitress’.
Who do you visualise…?
If asked to draw the following, would they be male or female?
It is patriarchy that encodes these nouns as male rather than language. Casey Miller and Kate Swift’s study Words and Women (1976) made the case that this leads to women being excluded or rendered invisible. As explained by Allyson Julé, a leader on feminist linguistics and pedagogy, ‘one (man) is considered the norm, and the other (woman) is marked as other’.
Language and Gender: Gendered Language
Which is the better term for a female who acts, actor or actress?
Ascribing a male designation to supposedly gender-neutral terms is just one of the ways in which gender permeates our language.
Similarly, it is all too common for speakers or writers to use the gender-specific noun when stipulation is not required, e.g. asking ‘Have you seen a policeman?’ instead of ‘Have you seen a police officer?’ Some people might construe this as a natural habit that causes no harm; others would go so far as to describe an insistence on gender-neutral terms as ‘political correctness gone mad’. However, at what point does a trickle of examples turn into a flood that makes women feel discriminated against by their own language?
Another insidious illustration of the patriarchal nature of language is the comparison of words that were once equivalents but have changed over time and taken on very different connotations.
|An unmarried person||Bachelor||Footloose and fancy free|
|An unmarried person||Spinster||Crazy cat lady|
Compare the words master and mistress.
Do you say ‘Mr and Mrs’ or ‘Mrs and Mr’?
Rather than ladies first, the male version is generally expected to come first in binomials such as ‘men and women’, ‘boys and girls’, ‘brothers and sisters’.
Can you think of any exceptions other than ‘ladies and gentlemen’?
Why it Matters
Just as Adam holds primacy over Eve because she was created from one of his ribs, grammatical and syntactical rules are built in a way that feminine terms usually derive from the corresponding masculine form.
To avoid treating women like second-class citizens we need to be aware (however implicit) of the functions and effects of language.
Language is one of the most powerful means through which sexism and gender discrimination are perpetrated and reproduced. The content of gender stereotypes, according to which women should display communal/warmth traits and men should display agentic/competence traits, is reflected in the lexical choices of everyday communication. As a consequence, language subtly reproduces the societal asymmetries of status and power in favor of men, which are attached to the corresponding social roles.Gender Bias and Sexism in Language (2017), Michela Menegatti and Monica Rubini
Language and Gender Revision from Beyond: Advanced
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