Is Language Sexist? Is Sexism Linguistic?

by Anna Wawrzonkowska

Do we think what we say, or do we say what we think? The difference is slim, but extremely important. In other words, the dilemma could be phrased as: is language shaped by our thoughts and opinions, or does it shape them?

The visual statement made by the graph above is clear and simple. Every ‘she’ is a modification of a ‘he’; every ‘female’ is just an addition to ‘male’. ‘Woman’ and indeed even ‘human’ suggests ‘man’ with an add-on. Viewed like that, language might seem a tool used to make ‘male’ default and ‘female’ derivative. The stance that the creator of the sign seems to be taking is, English is intrinsically sexist. They further comment on it with a caption, which reads: “men fabricated the idea that they are the default sex (…) this is not just the “natural order” this is the language of a patriarchal culture”.

Is the poster justified in making such advanced claims? In other words, does our language make us sexist?

Extensive research on this, known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, analyses the complex relations between language and culture. The hypothesis can be simplified to one sentence: Language shapes (strong version) or influences (weak version) the culture which it is spoken in. Going by this hypothesis, one might say: yes, calling someone a “female” and someone else a “male” immediately shapes the idea of who is the default. In that sense English can indeed be perceived as sexist; it conveys intuitive notions that might shape the speaker’s point of view.

It is fairly intuitive to divide the words as the graph does: fe-male, s-he, wo-man. However, it is important to note that although this point can be made orthographically (relating how the words are written), it comes undone when we consider the phonetic form of the words above (or, how the words actually exist in a language). In the IPA transcript, the picture would have looked like this:

female [ˈfiːmeɪl] vs. male [meɪl]

she [ʃiː] vs. he [hiː]

woman [ˈwʊ.mǝn] vs. man [ˈmæːn]

human [ˈç?u.mǝn] vs. man [ˈmæːn]

person [ˈpʰɚ.sɨn] vs. son [ˈsʌːn].

Although less obvious, this brings up an important point: only one pair of those is identical and holds up to the natural phonetic division (female-male). This comes from the fact that, actually, they come from completely different etymological backgrounds: for instance, English son ’comes from Proto-Germanic *sunuz, whereas person derives from Latin persona – two completely separate and different sources. The words have not been “fabricated” to promote patriarchy, as the poster claims; the way the words are written is not representative of how the words are, and their origin is completely and utterly innocent.

It’s easy to forget that language in itself has no mind and no agenda in its creation; it is an impossibly complex result of hundreds of years of communication, connecting between cultures and mindsets. Franz Boas, one of the first American linguists, noted that Northern Canada’s Inuits have multiple words for the single English snow; Ancient Greek, with its philosophical focus, has several, distinctly different nouns for the umbrella term love. Language rather reflects culture than shapes it; it is a mirror in which a culture can see its own multifaceted image.

Looking in that mirror, we might find out that although some things that we have inherited from our linguistic ancestors are innocent (e.g. person is not related to son in any way at all), some others might reflect systematic discrimination – not present in a language in itself, but in the culture.

And so, glancing at our reflection in speech, we should ask ourselves an important question: do we make our language sexist?

Feminine pejoration is a well-attested occurrence. It is the process where, from two gendered nouns that are otherwise identical, emerges a degradation of the female noun. What, we might ask, is the reason for hound keeping its canine meaning, but bitch gaining another sense entirely? Mistress and master used to be equal in meaning; now master evokes power and excellence, whereas mistress is someone with whom you can cheat on your wife. Incidentally, you cannot use master in the same way. Speaking about wives and husbands, hus-bonde is ‘the master of the house’ – where’s hus-bonda, ‘the mistress of the house’? Words change their meanings whatever field they concern; however, if there emerges a pattern, it’s likely that some other factors are at play.

For instance, when German speakers describe a bridge (feminine Brücke), they would use adjectives such as ‘beautiful’, ‘elegant’, ‘fragile’, ‘peaceful’, ‘pretty’, and ‘slender’, whereas Spanish speakers, describing the same bridge (masculine puente), use terms like ‘big’, ‘dangerous’, ‘long’, ‘strong’, ‘sturdy’, and ‘towering’ . You cannot blame the bridge itself; I doubt that anybody has ever asked it what gender it was! You cannot blame language either; linguistic gender is abstract and draws on our own experiences to give it shape. And yet there is something in our heads that associates feminine with ‘pretty’ and masculine with ‘strong’. The only possible explanation is that language reflects and reinforces the culture of its users.

Is language sexist? Just as much as the user is. Is sexism linguistic? Not only linguistic, but yes, the evidence in glossaries and grammar is enough to conclude so. So how can we possibly fight linguistic sexism and sexist language?

Unfortunately, fighting language resembles a blinking match with a mirror. It will not blink – unless you do. Because at the end of the day language is, above all, a reflection of us – and only through evolving so that our society is no longer sexist in thought, we can make it no longer sexist in speech.

In summation:

  • If the written forms of the words are related, it does not mean that the words themselves are. (A little bit like people.)
  • Language is a reflection of culture.
  • If language is sexist, it is a symptom, not the illness itself. To change it, we must first change the culture.

Read more here:

  • The full discussion on s-he, wo-man, per-son etc. with the original graphic.
  • Lera Boroditzky’s 2009 study on gendered thinking (German and Spanish bridges).
  • More information on feminine pejoration.
  • The BBC’s coverage on sexist language.
  • For an easily-accessible comprehensive book on linguistic relativity: Deutscher, G. (2011). Through the language glass. Why the world looks different in other languages, Arrow Books, London.
The Poor Print

Established in 2013, The Poor Print is the student-run newspaper of Oriel College, Oxford. Written by members of the JCR, MCR, SCR and staff, new issues are published fortnightly during term. Our current Executive Editors are Siddiq Islam and Jerric Chong.

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