Gendered world languages reveal discrimination
In light of the recent sexual abuse scandals that have arisen from the political, athletic and entertainment sectors, this year’s International Women’s day could not have come at a better time. This staple of the women’s rights movement was memorialized in 1909 and has been going strong every year since. From strikes and sit-ins to ‘women in business’ panels and concerts, the varied activities that commemorate this day are centered around women’s empowerment, love and appreciation. Internationally, both women and men have banded together on a unified front to show support for their sisters.
As I was reading about a young French woman who created a feminist rendition of a famous rap in Le Figaro, the very words on the page made me question the equality of this pro feminist piece. The divide between masculinity and femininity within this French text made me reflect on the gender segregation within the English language. I then realized that, throughout time, language has been used to demoralize women and remains a method of sex discrimination today.
Within Romance languages, there are masculine and feminine forms of vocabulary. Within sentence clauses, there is an inherent degree of sexism due to the unique differentiation between words based on sex. For example, in French the word for intelligent in the masculine form is “intelligent,” and in the feminine form is “intelligente.” The real problem lies within the gender specific words that correlate to positions of power within society. The best example would be “le président, le juge, le procureur,” which translates to “the president, the judge and the prosecutor” in French, all of which have no feminine form equivalent. Fundamentally, the founders of this language could not fathom having these high profile positions filled by women, and wrongly neglected to give them the chance of ever being recognized as such by not creating a feminine counterpart. It is the job of men and women to right these wrongs by creating words and melding them into common conversation. Fed up with this ridiculous notion, the progressive public moved towards integrating its own progressive words into their language, like “la présidente,” “la juge” and “la procureure.”
This problem is worsened once we look at the plural forms of words. In languages such as French and Spanish, these words are always trumped by the masculine. If a group has at least one male, no matter the number of females, it will be referred to in the masculine, thus being the reference point for all plural context. Considering that these are two major world languages, this commonality within the languages can be seen internationally. These are also two of the oldest and most widespread languages spoken today, and thus the effects of this blatant sex disparity are seen by far more in our current lives.
The English language is no better than every other language that has vulgar curse words with a feminine connotation; it is home to derogatory trigger words that are abused by those wanting to inflict emotional pain onto others. Such words range from “bitch” to “hoe” and escalate to “pussy.” These words have a female connotation, but are not used in a positive light. A classic example is when a person does not do what is expected of them: he or she is referred to as a “cunt.” It is a problem within our society that this slang word for a female body part is being used as an insult. Instead of choosing to live in a genderless word, we are linking female anatomy with inadequacy and a failure to live up to an expectation. Similarly, people are called “dicks” when they are being rude, thus giving male anatomy a negative connotation. That these derogatory names are about, and used by, both sexes does not make it all right. It goes without saying that we should be supporting one other rather than tearing one another apart. These words feed the all-too-well-fed patriarchy, and it is our job to support the women’s movement rather than verbally undermine it with negatively charged gender-based slang.
However, there are other, more subtle words in our vernacular that feed into this patriarchal view. Can you spot the similarity between words such as hero, woman, human, and female? ‘He,’ ‘man’ and ‘male’ are the roots of these very common words. Essentially, women were never given the opportunity to be perceived as separate from men; after all, you cannot spell ‘women’ without ‘men.’ The sneaky effect is not noticeable at first because it is so ingrained in our culture that it is usually accepted without a second thought. Yet imagine the impact it had on you when you were in your formative years, first learning how to read and write. Whether you realized it or not, the spelling of these words made it visually clear that the patriarchy is rooted in something as inconspicuous as our language. Reformers, similar to France, wanting women to feel empowered by their language, have created words like “shero” to make it clear that women hold just as important a role in the written and verbal word as men. Yet it is only when society catches onto this language that we might see this subtle gender discrimination start to dissipate.
But who can forget about the misogynistic phrases that we have all heard throughout our development? Whether it be “you throw like a girl” or “man up,” these phrases have successfully classified ability based on sex. Mental, physical and emotional strength, power and stamina have nothing to do with genitalia; rather, they have everything to do with the individual. Thus, these phrases further the creation of a meritless society based in stereotypical expectations opposed to reality.
Furthermore, while tradition and a desire to maintain the original dialect and grammar of a language is understandable, it is an unrealistic standard for the constantly evolving organism that is language. Dictionaries have to be updated constantly as the years pass because new slang and words become norms in our vernacular. An obvious example of this comes from changing technology, as nouns like Google and Facebook are added to our language because of how often they’re used. Instead of mindlessly abiding by these offensive, non binding “rules of language,” we should break free from this mold and use words that call for gender equality in all languages.
Ultimately, I am not suggesting we erase or recreate an entire language; rather, it should undergo a progressive refashioning. While it would be hard to recreate words like ‘woman’ or ‘man,’ it is easier to modify pre-existing words or phrases to account for the gender disparity. It is important to be mindful of what you say and how you say it. Although it is not your fault that languages are inherently patriarchal, you could do something to change the way words are perceived. Although this might not seem like a massive step, it, nonetheless points in the right direction of making people feel equally loved, appreciated and accepted.