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May 4, 2009 | by  | in Opinion |
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sexsism adn lanugage

“Language forces us to perceive the world as man presents it to us.”—Julia Penelope, lesbian and feminist activist and academic.

Bien dit, Ms Penelope, bien dit. Words have not been kind to us women. For the most part, they have failed to advance along with the feminist movement, and it’s positively ridiculous that some are still everyday terms in the 21st century. This being the women’s issue of Salient, it seems an appropriate forum in which to explore Ms Penelope’s statement, and as a grammar nerd, I am more than happy to take over from Mr Langdon this week to give a feminine perspective on what is, undoubtedly, a very controversial issue.

From my research, it appears that language is, in its essence, skewed towards the male of the species. ‘Man’ is used as a generic term that refers to all human beings, regardless of gender, while many common experiences continue to be phrased exclusively in male terms (for example, ‘to each his own’), which makes them exclusive of women. We have firemen, policemen, foremen, chairmen and fishermen, while nurses and secretaries are deemed feminine professions—so decisively so, in fact, that Gaylord Focker (whose very name, and the fact that it is designed to be comedic, raises a whole heap of problems—but we’ll have to tackle those in another issue) felt it necessary to introduce himself as a ‘male nurse’ to his potential in-laws. Well, duh, Gaylord.

Germany appears to be ahead of the times in the endless rephrasing of gender-specific terms. Dr. Richard Millington, lecturer in German here at Victoria University, notes that these days, Germans “go to great efforts to be gender inclusive in forms of address”. Most terms of address in German have masculine and feminine forms, and it has become the norm to use both words when welcoming a group of people, much as we use ‘ladies and gentlemen’ in English. Dr Millington makes an example of the word for ‘spectator’, which can be used as Liebe Zuschauerinnen und Zuschauer (‘dear spectators’, of both gender) and, when it is written, merges its masculine and feminine forms to create a gender-inclusive term, ZuschauerInnen.

Sadly, not all foreign languages are so progressive. Indeed, some have very dodgy ideas, and ones that can only be interpreted as being sexist. In Spanish, the word ‘wife’ (esposa) is, when in its plural form, the same as the word for ‘handcuffs’ (esposas): goodness knows what kind of an anti-marriage (or pro-S&M) message that is putting across. Dr. Millington has further insight: “Romance languages—at least the ones I know—have separate plural forms for masculine and feminine. The masculine form is used even when there’s only one masculine object among a whole lot of feminine ones.” Does this make them sexist? “Maybe.”

As a student of French, I’ve found this concept intriguing. The personal pronoun for a group of men and women (‘they’) is the masculine ils, while a group of women are referred to as elles. As soon as you throw one man into the mix, the pronoun immediately changes to ils. It doesn’t matter if it’s just one guy, who’s maybe wandered into the wrong room in search of a cup of coffee, or a place to sit down and have his lunch—that’s the rule. Essentially, Joe Blow here is more important to the correct formation of the sentence than any woman in his company, no matter how many they outnumber him by. The same goes for plurals in Spanish, which take the masculine endings unless everything of what is being described is feminine (so, amigas is acceptable if you’re referring to your female friends, but if you’re including at least one male, it has to be amigos).

Of course, the implication of this is that men are more important than women are, and one is forced to question the weight of this belief in our modern times. The Finnish are among the minority of languages that have one sole pronoun for both masculine and feminine forms, and thusly avoid distinguishing between ‘he’ and ‘she’: a sort of more personal ‘it’. Dr. Millington wonders, “Does this mean that all languages with separate pronouns are discriminatory? Well, yes, strictly speaking it does, but the question is what meaning we attach to this discrimination, and whether or not it becomes an instrument of oppression, either explicitly or implicitly.”

The Doc has a point. While many conventions of language are outdated and can be taken as being derogatory, they are also ages old. Steps are being made to render them more appropriate for our modern times, but in my opinion, it’s not so much the words themselves that are offensive, but rather the intention behind them, or the way that they are used. So, if Ms. Penelope is to be believed, and language is the boom box that men hoist onto their shoulders and blast the world, perhaps we should make the decision to turn the volume down, or change the channel altogether.

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About the Author ()

Elle started out at Salient reviewing music. In 2010, she wrote features and Animal of The Week, which an informal poll revealed to be 40% of Victoria students' favourite part of the magazine. Alongside Uther Dean, she was co-editor for 2011. In 2012, she is chief features writer.

Comments (1)

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  1. Jess says:

    A little strong…
    Is using ‘the male form’ where people of both gender are present really sexist? Or is it born of conveniece? Having to weigh up whether there are more males or females in a room and so choose the correct masculine/feminine form before addressing a crowd is a waste of time, likewise using two words where one would suffice is hardly necessary. Using just ‘the male form’ does not mean the exclusion of the females in the group, both are included unless otherwise intended (i.e.if this is what the circumstances dictate and the speaker intends it to be so). Language means what it is intended to mean by the speaker – you can’t tell someone what they mean by what they say. In that respect language is quite a personal thing.
    Language does not ‘force us to percieve the world as man presents it to us’. How we talk does not have to dictate how we think/percieve. Gender in language is grammatical and so to accept this statement would mean believing that grammar controls us and they way we think. Surely it was designed to express meaning not define it.
    I see what you are saying, but I personally think language is a tool of expression not repression.

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