the power of language, the power in language


When we learned about the Declaration of Independence in grade school, we were not asked to question the phrase, “All men are created equal.” And it’s unlikely that those watching the moon landing on TV in 1969 were retorting indignantly, “Excuse me? What about womankind?” in response to Neil Armstrong’s famous quotation. These phrases were not meant to be exclusionary — generally the word “man” used in contexts like these is understood to mean “people.” “Humankind” is more acceptable to use now and sounds much better than mankind (though the origin of the word ‘huMAN’ is self-explanatory), but it can sometimes be difficult to get around using “man” in a broad, abstract way (e.g, “Man’s eternal quest for truth”). This is just one example of a history of gender bias in the English language.

Along the same vein, “he” had long been used in formal documents as the default to refer to all genders. Many states — about half, from what I gather — have laws requiring that all new legislation be written in gender-neutral language. Some states, including New York and Washington, have gone back and revised their old laws and state constitutions to reflect gender neutrality as well. When Washington made this change in 2013, Liz Watson, Senior Counsel at the National Women’s Law Center, was quoted in Governing, saying, “Words matter. Words help shape our perceptions about what opportunities are available to women and men. This is one piece of a much broader effort. Words alone are not going to achieve all of the things that need to happen, but this is one easy part for us to do.” Gender-neutral language in official documents matters because language is a reflection of culture, and when language erases everyone but the male gender, it reinforces social inequality between men and women. virginiawoolf

So the country is definitely getting better about avoiding use of the masculine form as the default in laws. And it’s been standard in the vernacular for a while — in colloquial speech, we are in the habit of using “they” when gender is ambiguous, and in formal writing, “he/she” is accepted. Lucky for English speakers, we don’t have to worry about nouns reflecting gender as well — otherwise, it would be a lot more difficult to eliminate gender bias from our grammar. For example, in Spanish, a group of male friends would be “amigos.” A group of female friends would be “amigas.” But a group of 10 girls and one boy would be “amigos.” It is a lot harder to escape the masculine form as the default form with this construction. And in English, when we say something like “I hung out with my friend last night,” the gender is left unknown. But in Spanish, the speaker would have to choose either “amigo” or “amiga,” disclosing the friend’s gender and making it a factor in the statement, whether or not it was relevant information.

However, Spanish has an advantage over English. In English, it is impossible use a verb without assigning a subject: You can’t just say “runs”; you have to say “he runs” or “she runs.” But in Spanish, the subject is inherent in the verb, so to say someone runs, it is sufficient to simply say “corre,” leaving the gender of the subject unknown. In English, we can be vague by saying “one runs,” but there is no standard way to refer to a specific person and leave the gender ambiguous. This is an issue for people who are born intersex — about 1 in every 1500 to 2000 — as well as for those who do not identify as male or female. That the only personal pronouns we have are “he” and “she” perpetuates the idea that gender is a rigid binary and that all individuals conform to one or the other. While “they” is often used in everyday speech to avoid assigning a gender when the subject is unknown, some choose to use “they” as their personal pronoun rather than “he” or “she.” While “they” as a singular pronoun has been around since Middle English, somewhere along the way it became grammatically incorrect in the guidebooks, and for some reason, people who cannot conceive of the idea that anyone could be something other than male or female become grammar purist defenders of the English language when confronted with the idea. Proponents of gender-neutral language have also created new personal pronouns, such as “ze” rather than “he” or “she” and “hir” rather than “him” or “her,” which would be very useful if they became standardized and slipped into mainstream usage, but that has yet to happen. The use of these alternative pronouns does not yet come naturally to most people, and the groups of people who use them may be outside the mainstream consciousness, even though there are enough where that shouldn’t necessarily be the case. But language is fluid, and new words get established when they are invented and catch on — we can even see this in action now thanks to the Internet. So there’s really no reason why we can’t establish and standardize a third, gender-neutral personal pronoun if enough people see the value in such an addition to accept and promote it. But this would likely present challenges due to both opposition from more intolerant groups, and flat-out indifference from the unaffected majority. However, the ability to refer to people in a gender-neutral way is valuable for more than just those outside the binary, as exemplified by the actions of a Swedish nursery school.

Sweden, a more progressive country when it comes to gender equality than the U.S., recently added a gender-neutral personal pronoun to their national dictionary: “Hen” to accompany the feminine “hon” and the masculine “han.” “Hen” has been around since the 1960s, but its entrance into mainstream usage came in 2012 when a nursery school decided to start using “hen” for all children, to avoid identifying them by gender. Obviously this is was a controversial decision for some who believe the schools are trying to deny biological sex differences, or question why it is beneficial, and there has been some angry backlash. But the idea is that by not distinguishing students by gender in their learning environment at this young, impressionable age, the teachers can help avoid teaching gender stereotypes to young children. Inspired by a 1998 Swedish law that schools must create equal opportunities for girls and boys, the teachers at the nursery school decided to film each other in order to examine their interactions with the students, the New York Times reported. The teachers found that there were many disparities in how they handled each gender. For example, they tended to comfort girls for a longer time when they were crying, while they were more likely to tell a boy to stop. If a girl was doing something dangerous, like climbing a tree, they tended to tell her to stop but would not do the same for boy. The nursery school implemented changes to ensure that all children were treated equally, which included adding male teachers to the all-female staff, using “hen” for both genders, opting to simply call everyone “children” or “friends” instead of “boys and girls,” and avoiding steering children of a particular gender to any particular type of toy: It is equally accepted for girls to play with trucks as it is for boys to play with a toy kitchen. Now there are several other Swedish nursery schools whose official policy is to use “hen,” and teachers often choose to follow suit even if it is not official policy. As a result of the term being publicized, “hen” is becoming more and more frequently used in Sweden in everyday speech.

How language develops as biased in favor of men can be better understood through Muted Group Theory, which states that because language is tied to culture, and because men have historically had more cultural power than women, men have had more power over the development of language — resulting in a language that is biased toward expressing the male experience (leaving women/non-males as the muted group). The theory originated with anthropologist Edwin Ardener, who noticed that cultural documentations normally excluded the voice of women and other marginalized groups. The communication theorist Cheris Kramarae interpreted this research in terms of language, arguing that men have had more influence over language and use language to maintain their position of social power. Some examples: Words like “bitch,” “slut,” “whore,” and “cunt,” are derogatory terms exclusively applied to women, with words like “gossip,” “whine,” and “bitch” (as a verb) to describe their speech, and “chick lit,” “diary,” and “romantic” to describe their writing. These words reveal a linguistic invalidation of the female experience. And while male genitalia are associated with strength and power, their lack-there-of is associated with weakness — when a man is seen as being weak or “feminine,” he is told to “grow a pair,” and called a “pussy,” while an act of bravery is called “ballsy.” (Which brings to mind a quote frequently misattributed to Betty White, actually from a joke by comedian Sheng Wang: “Why do people say ‘grow some balls’? Balls are weak and sensitive. If you want to be tough, grow a vagina. Those things can take a pounding.”) Enough said.

As an additional example of gender-bias in language, certain negative terms are disproportionately applied to women in positions of power. A Pantene commercial from about a year ago showcased this: A man in charge is called “boss” while a woman is called “bossy;” an assertive man is called “persuasive,” an assertive woman, “pushy.” A man devoted to his work is “dedicated” but his female counterpart is “selfish.” It’s hard not to recognize the truth to this, and it’s backed in research: Linguistics PhD student Nicolas Subtirelu found using random samples from the Corpus of Contemporary English that the word “bossy” is almost three times more likely to be used in reference to women than to men. And with only a fraction of women in high-up positions of power as men, you have to wonder if it’s self-fulfilling: If a little girl is referred to as “bossy” as a negative trait, rather than being praised as a natural leader as a little boy might be, will she be less likely to seek positions of power as she gets older? It is exactly gendered associations like this that the aforementioned gender-neutral Swedish nursery school seeks to avoid ingraining in young children.

The documentary Miss Representation exposes how media portrayals of women as valuable for their beauty and sexuality, rather than for their leadership abilities, leads to the under-representation of women in positions of power, citing the statistics that the U.S. is only 90th in the world for the representation of women in government, and women hold only three percent of prominent positions in the mainstream media. Yet according to Caroline Heldman, a professor of political science, “Little boys and little girls in equal numbers when they’re seven years old want to be president of the United States when they grow up, but if you ask the same questions when they’re 15 you see the massive gap emerging.” The media reflects cultural values in the same way that language does, and the media’s “limited and often disparaging portrayals of women and girls” contributes to their under-representation in powerful positions. Gender-biased language does the same: With language that is grammatically structured to use men as the default, with female as the only linguistic alternative to male, and with words that disparage specifically female power and assertiveness so commonplace, patriarchal culture is reinforced, the reality of anyone outside the gender-binary is erased, and female ambition is devalued and discouraged.

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