Gender and Language

There are many things in our lives to be skeptical of. So many in fact, that we often don’t remember everything we should be skeptical of. Language is one of those things that permeates our lives, can affect the way we think, and that we often overlook in our skeptical thinking. Recently, I’ve been looking into something that frustrates me about English. English, in many ways, encodes sexism and encodes a gender binary. At first glance, that sounds like a lot of uber-liberal feminist jargon, but I’m going to try to break it down to convince you all that we need to be extremely careful with how we use language, and question the categories that our language provides for us.

While it’s not commonly held in linguistics today that language can determine the way you think, there is a good deal of evidence that the way you speak about something can affect your perception of it, and that the categories that a language gives you can make it easier to group things in certain ways. One clear example of categories in language are gender categories. When we use English, there is rarely a gender-neutral option. We don’t have a decent gender-neutral pronoun (although many have been suggested), we don’t have many gender-neutral names, and oftentimes our career words or descriptors are gendered (not so much as languages that have gendered nouns, but still prevalent). Many people find it awkward to substitute a gender-neutral equivalent like “policeperson” for “policeman”. And because our language requires that in many cases we identify the gender of a person, and does not give us options other than male or female, we cannot recognize any gender queer, intersex or simply non-binary people.

Our language makes it incredibly difficult to recognize the existence of these people, and it asks us to assume the gender of anyone that we refer to with a pronoun. Because English requires us to identify someone’s gender in the way we speak, it reinforces a.the importance of gender as an identifier, b.the gender binary and c.the idea that someone’s appearance is enough to determine their gender, or that we as observers are allowed to determine someone’s gender without asking them their preference.

It can be difficult to deal with language when it encodes beliefs about gender that simply don’t reflect reality. However many people have gone a long way towards trying to create gender-neutral pronouns and options, and with some care about the way we speak, we can avoid assuming someone’s gender or assigning a binary gender to someone who doesn’t identify in that way. The first step is to always ask if you’re uncertain what someone’s preferred pronouns are, or to simply remain as neutral as possible (the singular “they” can be a great option for more informal settings). Beyond this, we can be clear about the way we want to be referred to, and try to start a dialogue with the people around us about their pronouns, identity or language preferences.

In addition to the encoding of the gender binary, English also has many constructions and words that present “male” as the default and “female” as requiring marking as a variant or derivative. A clear example of this is the words male and female or man and woman, which have the male as the stem, and the female as a variation. Biologically, there is no basis for these linguistic conventions. There is no strict divide between male and female either on the chromosomal level, that of primary sex characteristics, or that of secondary sex characteristics. On a developmental level, gonads are present first, and only the presence of testosterone changes them into testes. This would appear to indicate that male is a variation on female. Our language does not match up with the biological reality of sex and gender because it encodes the gender binary and because it usually reverts to male as the default.

There are a whole variety of words that continue to perpetuate these ways of thinking. Most words for occupations have the default as male, and many include “man” in the actual word: for example policeman, fireman, or mailman. New attempts to introduce female variants of this or gender-neutral variants have been generally unsuccessful, and still seem to imply that the female needs to be specified while the male is assumed. The only occupation word that has its default as female is “widow”, a word which revolves around marital status and reinforces the assumption that the only place where a female is the default is in the realm of home and hearth. Many words also have etymologies that indicate female is for or derivative from male: for example vagina derives from the Latin word for sheath, while penis derives from that for sword, which reinforces the idea that the masculine is active, the feminine passive.

While we as individuals cannot change our language, and the only way for language to change is for assumptions about gender to change to the point where these sorts of conventions simply are not used by the majority of the population, we can fight them by being aware of our language, and by working to speak in more gender-neutral and female-friendly ways.

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Olivia is a giant pile of nerd who tends to freak out about linguistic prescriptivism, gender roles, and discrimination against the mentally ill. By day she writes things for the Autism Society of Minnesota, and by night she writes things everywhere else. Check out her ongoing screeds against jerkbrains at www.taikonenfea.wordpress.com

1 Comment

  1. December 24, 2012 at 4:12 am —

    For whatever it’s worth, it seems to me that gendered words for occupations are becoming less common. Firefighter, police officer, mail carrier, and server have largely replaced fireman, policeman, mailman, and waiter/waitress in daily use, and there are many other examples that I see and hear daily.
    The singular “they”, which causes some people to have conniptions, seems to be commonly used and has been used as a gender-neutral pronoun for centuries.
    I am not suggesting that there’s no room for further change, but language tends to change slowly and the fact that this much has changed in my lifetime suggests to me that the movement is in the direction of gender-neutral usage. And that’s a good thing.

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