• Reading Level 5
Geography | Modern Foreign Languages | PSHE

How sexism is ‘built-in’ to most languages

Could many languages be holding women back? A growing movement argues that changes to grammar and vocabulary are an essential step towards ending the tradition of male dominance. Bob and Gale could hardly restrain their laughter. The newly engaged couple were in church to hear their marriage banns read, but the vicar was using some very odd traditional terminology. It was fine to call Bob “a bachelor of this parish”; but how could he call Gale – a young, attractive woman about to get married – a “spinster”? Technically, there was nothing wrong with the word. Its prime meaning is simply: an unmarried woman. But over the centuries it has acquired a secondary one: a woman who is unmarried and unlikely ever to marry, because she is old and unattractive. Bachelor, on the other hand, carries no such connotations: it simply means: an unmarried man. He could be young or old, attractive or unattractive. The same distinction is true of the equivalent Italian words, scapolo and zitella. This is a prime example, feminists argue, of the way in which languages treat women unfairly. Many define women by their marital status, but not men. In French, an unmarried woman is mademoiselle and a married woman madame, whereas a man is always monsieur. Urdu has a derogatory phrase for a divorced woman: talaq yafta, but no male equivalent. Korean has the same double standards: doenjang nyeo means someone who tries to elevate their status by scrimping to buy foreign luxuries and refers specifically to females. In Europe, however, the main debate is about grammar rather than specific words. In the French parliament last month, both government and opposition politicians enraged feminists by resisting the introduction of “inclusive writing”. At present, all French nouns and pronouns are either masculine or feminine, and this is reflected in their accompanying adjectives. A brave policeman is “un policier courageux” and a brave policewoman is “une policière courageuse”. But many nouns – including those for job titles – only have a masculine form. Until two years ago, the Académie française insisted that a female president should be called “Madame le président”. Feminists have argued that this holds women back by making them think that such posts are only intended for men. On top of that, masculine words take precedence, meaning that if you have a room with ten women and just one man, you have to describe the whole group as masculine. The same rule applies in Spanish. Inclusive writing advocates creating feminine versions of all professional nouns, and using a floating full stop to indicate that both women and men are involved. A mixed group of musicians would be called musiciennes. Critics say that this is simply making an already complicated language even more difficult. Newspapers have carried headlines like: “Inclusive writing: the new factory for idiotes.” Could many languages be holding women back? Gender agenda Some say, yes. Language shapes our perception of the world: if some professions have specifically masculine names, then of course women will feel instinctively excluded from them. Giving masculine words grammatical precedence over female ones simply reinforces male dominance in society, as does the existence of words that are neutral for men, but derogatory for women. Others argue that language is a red herring. Changing it would make very little difference: we should focus instead on issues like job equality and access to education. Prominent Spanish-speaking writers such as Carmen Posadas and Almudena Grandes have said that they have no problem with the generic masculine. Countries with less sexist language do not treat women any better. KeywordsConnotations - When a word or object suggests another idea.

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