Throughout the known history of much of the world, including the regions where the English language originated and developed, society has been dominated and controlled by the patriarchal rule. The resulting product of the Language represents this dominance by means of categorizing the realities of society. Male references in everyday speech dominate language usage simply because males have historically dominated society and, to a large extent, still do.
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Sexist language can be deliberate, concealed, or controlled. The deliberate use of obvious and overtly derogatory sexist terminology is generally considered discriminatory and is patently unfair treatment of women as compared to men. Controlled sexism is subtle and more usually not intended to be disparaging or harmful. This type of sexist language is integrated into society’s everyday speech, is considered to be normal, and is not recognized by most people as the unfair or unequal treatment of women it is. People may use sexist language simply because the use is habitual, and they find it hard to alter terms or phrases used most or all of their lives. Additionally, people are continually exposed to sexist terms in the spoken and written language. To not disrupt a normal, rhythmic, and understandable conversation, people use these terms without a thought of inappropriateness. “Conversational sexism is learned at an early stage, from the time a child is learning to speak” (Parks & Roberton, 1998).
Though women tend to use fewer gender-specific pronouns, both males and females use similar references to gender when describing occupations, another study discovered. According to the study, stereotypes are equally prevalent in both male and female college students’ vernacular when describing a person’s professional title. They typically refer to a college professor with the correct feminine or masculine pronoun, but when describing a nurse or corporate executive, revert back to stereotypical language usage, feminine for nurse and masculine for the executive. This matched other studies that also reported ‘occupational stereotyping’ is frequently associated with pronoun use that is of gender bias (McMinn, Troyer, Hannum & Foster, 1991).
The sexist language of society represents the actions, beliefs, and characteristics of males as if they are the model for humans representing all people, both male, and female. Women are not only excluded, they are invisible in terms of language usage. The status of women in language often depends on or is derived from the independent status representing men. By consigning women to a subordinate, dependent standing, the sexism ingrained in language precludes the representation of men and women as dissimilar yet equal persons. One example of this entails pairs of terms that obviously restrict referencing of gender, with the term describing females usually encompassing the less complimentary meaning of the pair. The words master and mistress are a typical example of this language pairing. ‘Master’ refers to ‘host,’ the feminine version ‘mistress’ refers to ‘hostess.’ Master also means the dominant one in a relationship, and mistress can also mean the man’s lover outside of his marriage, a negative connotation. The word mistress is dependent on there being a man involved who is the dominant one in the relationship. ‘Governor’ is a term referring to an individual who has been chosen above all others to rule over or to ‘govern’ a state, but the term ‘governess’ generally refers to a maid or caretaker of children. ‘Professional’ is a word that, when used to describe a man, means a highly qualified, well educated, and/or well-paid person. (Liu, 2005).
When someone says, ‘he’s a professional,’ the meaning is generally interpreted as a man who is a lawyer, doctor, or football player, for example. By contrast, when someone says, ‘she’s a professional, most interpret the meaning as a woman who makes her living as a prostitute. The word ‘tramp,’ when directed at a woman, also has the same meaning, but when applied to a man, it refers to a homeless person that travels around and is not steadily employed. The phrase ‘the man on the street’ refers to an ordinary guy, but ‘the woman on the street’ refers to, again, a prostitute. A shrew is a small animal that can become ill-tempered when provoked. The dictionary defines a shrew as an animal or as an ill-tempered woman. The word ‘shrewd’ is an adaptation of the word shrew. This word is commonly used in a phrase such as ‘he’s shrewd in his business dealings.’ Its meaning for men has evolved in language as being quite different than for women. The use of sexist terms to describe and usually demean females is typical in the English language. Another good example is schoolchildren who have many degrading terms of a sexual nature in which to describe females, but there are much fewer to describe males. “American English has no fewer than 220 words for a sexually promiscuous woman, but only twenty for sexually promiscuous men” (Liu, 2005).
The English language illustrates the implied inferiority of women in society, such as in the titles Mrs. and Miss. It is unimportant for men to be identified as married or not as their status does not change in either case. When a woman is identified as Mrs., they now belong to a man and are deemed more important to society, albeit in a subordinate role. Though in recent years this particular type of labeling has all but disappeared, the historical significance is relevant as the subordination of women as identified in the ‘Mrs.’ and ‘Miss’ categorizations remain apparent in language usages. The stereotypical imagery in these types of words is rooted in the generalized and simplified behaviors of men and women as seen through the eyes of a patriarchal based society. The images portrayed in language are inaccurate and impede how the evolving functions of women are typically characterized by both males and females.
Men are seldom portrayed through language by what relationship they have with women. Men are rarely described in terms of their appearance, while women are routinely described in such a way that serves to exclude other features of women. The stereotyping of men and women often occurs relative to archaic gender roles and occupations. Professional women, those who are employed, are still referred to as being the ‘mother of,’ ‘daughter of,’ or ‘wife of’ someone, while professional men are much less likely to be referred to in this way. The use of ‘he/his, him’ as generic nouns and pronouns for both genders is a frequent form of sexism in language. Suffixes such as ‘better and ‘ess’ trivialized the social status of women. The English language “does not possess a third person singular pronoun which is gender-neutral; instead, the ‘masculine pronouns ‘he,’ ‘him’ and ‘his’ are generally used to refer to both men and women” (Liu, 2005). These inaccurate terms are confusing and demean women.
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The language closely reflects the attitudes of a society. The prevalent sexism that permeates society has resulted in sexist language. Until recent times, women, throughout many generations of humankind, were thought of only as secondary to men in society. They remained at home and had little or no voice in the family or societal matters. For example, black males were allowed to vote in the U.S. approximately 60 years before females of any color. The country where all ‘men’ were ‘created equal has been a place of severe subjugation and repression, especially for women. This fact has been well represented in the language. Sexism present in the language is a reflection of people’s sexist perceptions, which, by the use of this language, only perpetuates this societal shortcoming. Therefore, if the language is to be altered so as to be inclusive to women, the perceptions of society must first change.
Liu, Xiaolan. “Sexism in Language.” E-writer Magazine. (2005). Web.
McMinn, M. R.; Troyer, P. K.; Hannum, L. E.; & Foster, J. D. “Teaching Nonsexist Language to College Students.” Journal of Experimental Education. Vol. 59, (1991), pp. 153-161.
Parks, J.B. & Roberton, M.A. “Contemporary Arguments Against Nonsexist Language: Blaubergs (1980) Revisited.” Sex Roles. Vol. 39, (1998), pp. 445-461.