Is the English language inherently sexist?
It has been said that the world has become a war zone of sexism and language has been our weapon of mass destruction. I’m sure feminists would like to argue that our language has been
It has been said that the world has become a war zone of sexism and language has been our weapon of mass destruction. I’m sure feminists would like to argue that our language has been corrupted and torn apart by men in order to slowly break down the rights of women, over time. But feminists forget that men are a victim of the language we have curated too. So, is the English language inherently sexist?
There is no doubt that language has evolved over time. It would be a bit unsettling if we still spoke like cave men. When we look at the works of Anne Bodine and Androcentric language (1975) it talks about the importance of false generics. The word ‘man’, in old English, referred to the ‘species as a whole’. This was named a false generic; a word that is gender free and neutral. Evidence has been found that the word ‘man’ naturally includes women from as early as 1553 when it was considered natural to place the male before the female.
We see this idea again in the word ‘human’. This word etymologically derives from the Proto-Indo-European word ‘ghomon’ which means earthly being as opposed to heavenly which would refer to the Gods. You see a small resemblance of hope in that word which does eventually branch off into the word for ‘man’ in some languages, but this is too smaller piece of evidence to believe that men somehow fabricated language to emphasise their dominance. So, what the hell happened? What happened to make us think that the English language wasn’t an inclusive language filled with false generics?
Men are valued, women are…?
I agree with the words of Dale Spender when he says there are over 220 words to describe a woman as promiscuous. In fact, there could be one whole dictionary of just these terms. Words like slut, bitch, dog, whore, hooker and many more to describe women, but there are hardly any used for men. The few words for men are rather mild and portray men with a kind of ‘macho’ image that women seem to woo over for some reason.
The word mistress happens to be the female equivalent of the word ‘master’, which means, a woman has control and authority. However, from the 17th century onwards, it was used to address a woman who was with a man other than his wife. Our English language has stolen women’s authority by continuing to label women with this name. This example of non-semantic equivalence shows societal changes and how it has tarnished our once gender free inclusive English language. When walking through the war zone of sexism and the evolution of the English language I can see many fairly dismal attempts at rectifying the language that we speak today. Gender Neutral Language (GNL), for example, was created to give a sense of equality within our English language. It was meant to set the stage that gender shouldn’t define a man or woman’s occupation. I
n hindsight, it seems like a good idea, right? No. The title of chairwoman first emerged in the early 20th century; it’s ability to highlight women’s professional success, reminding them of their worth and importance. GNL changed this title to chairperson which again raises the whole “society oppresses women argument”. But is it true? Women were given a landmark for over a century for their success and perseverance, Language didn’t miraculously decide to be sexist, no. We decided on these terms and (possibly), without realising, we tore down the tower that women seek to climb for professional acknowledgment
I think we are asking the wrong question. Is the English language inherently sexist? Most likely. WAS the English language inherently sexist? No not at all. We have changed, tweaked and twisted the English language of time – but what monumental event made us think to do this? The introduction of first wave feminism from 1848; the women’s suffrage movement getting the right to vote in 1918 or even the first female Prime Minister in 1979.
All of these events have one thing in common. What is it I wonder? Oh yes, they took power away from men. Language was used as a line of defence in this war zone of language to protect men’s power that has been built up over centuries. From women being the innocent, domestic housewives to the Iron Ladies at Number 10, men were shocked to see the continuous events that bought about the power that women still hold on to today.
So is our English language inherently sexist? Men are not inherently sexist (well, maybe sometimes). But if we actually try and nurture it then I’m sure that our language can be an inclusive and positive language. Don’t you agree?