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As good as his Word :An enquiry into the sexism in the English Language

A dog is a woman’s best friend.

Woman is a primate.

The househusband dropped the children off at school.

Of all the nurses at the hospital, only he can look after the patient in the third bed.

He has mastered the art of knitting.

Fire is the most important discovery of womankind.

Now, those sentences didn’t quite sit right, did they?

Well, that’s because the English language is sexist. And by using it the way we do, we have unknowingly allowed some of it to seep into our subconscious. Hence, an alternative that goes straight against the norm seems jarring.

As per the highly controversial Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, our native languages influence the way in which we perceive our worlds. An example to that effect would be the Ket language of Siberia. In Ket, objects such as fish or wood, objects related to hunting, assume masculine pronoun, while the household projects are relegated to feminine pronouns. Associating masculine pronouns with hunting, in a hunting society like the Ket, is a probable indicator of women’s status in the society.

Perhaps knowing that ‘a dog is a man’s best friend’ and not a woman’s, will help one ease into reality, the reality of false gender neutrality.  ‘Man’ and ‘he’ are treated as gender neutral terms.  They are innocuously used to refer to either (a) a person or persons of unknown sex; or (b) males or a combination of males and females.

Language ignores women. The ‘gender-neutral’ usage of ‘Man’ and ‘he’ deems them invisible, obscuring their importance and overlooking their existence. Women are treated almost as an afterthought. Such usage is discriminatory against women and the way in which it excludes them is downright offensive.

Interestingly, and in some ways unbelievably, it was a woman who first suggested that the pronoun ‘he’ could be used for both sexes. A New Grammar, published in 1745, was authored by the grammarian Ann Fisher. A New Grammar is considered to be the fourth most popular book on English grammar published in the 18th century and ran over 30 editions. In her words, ‘The Masculine Person answers to the general Name, which comprehends both Male and Female; as, Any person who knows what he says.’ This convention was further reinforced by an Act of British Parliament in 1850, with an aim of simplifying the language used in other Acts. It was decreed that the masculine pronoun was to be understood as inclusive of both males and females.

Feminists have been rallying against this invisibility cast on women by language since the second wave of feminism in the 60s and 70s, simply because the usage of the gender neutral masculine pronoun mostly makes one think less likely of women and adds to their invisibility. Such convention not only reflects inequality in the English language but also in some ways perpetuates it.

On the other hand, occupational terms such as lady doctor and manageress and comedienne, call attention to the position of women in authority, as deviants from the norm of maleness. Terms such as ‘mankind’ and ‘manmade’ further etch in the idea of maleness as the norm. We think in a language, a language rife with gender bias and it is through language and our reactions to it that stereotypes pan out in the social sphere.

According to Horn and Kleinedler (2000), ‘man’ wasn’t initially gender specific and then extended to be inclusive of both men and women. It actually, started off as ‘mann’, a gender neutral term that later developed a gender-specific meaning. Regardless, even Horn and Kleinedler agree that treating and using ‘man’ and ‘he’ as gender-neutral propagates the idea of men being the norm of humanity.

There are times that the English language forces us to ponder on irrelevant details like the sex of a person in question. We simply cannot accord a pronoun without establishing the chromosomal make up of the concerned individual. A person ought to be able to be referred to in second person, regardless of the reproductive cells they produce. This sexual marking tags a gender to an individual and adds a needless dimension to their beings.

The English language not only holds maleness as the norm but also a male worldview. It tends to hold a masculine perspective. Such is the dominance of this masculine vision that women were left wanting for words to express what they feel but men then were unaware of. Sexual Harassment, a  feminist innovation.  This word came about with the second wave of feminism in the 1970s. Think of this encoding of male worldview as, if men weren’t harassed sexually, then there was no sexual harassment, and hence no need for such a term. In this case language was inadequate for female expression.  But after naming the problem, it became easier to legally address it, fight it and educate others about it.

By propagating a male worldview, subordinating women or casting them in invisibility and holding maleness as the norm, one can’t help but notice a certain degree of maleness in the language. This maleness manifests itself as more words for males than for females, and more of them being positive; negative connotations associated with female equivalents of words;  greater and more frequent sexualization of words related with women than those associated with men.

For instance typing in the words ‘man synonym’ in the google search bar yields about 3,69,00,000 results, on the other hand googling ‘woman synonym’ leads to only about 6,36,000 results. Even thesaurus.com could come up with only 13 synonyms for woman, as opposed to 18 synonyms for man.

Think of the word Bachelor. What is the first thought that comes to mind, a B.Tech degree toting, green card holding, marriage material, not to mention a hit with the ladies of the generation preceding yours.

And now ponder on the word Spinster. The image of an old hag, surrounded by cats, invariably pops up. And is definitely not as exciting or attractive as a Bachelor.

The words Bachelor and Spinster, both refer to unmarried individuals. Yet, the word spinster assumes a negative connotation, as words for women often tend to. Ever heard of an eligible Spinster? Guess not. Well, now you know why.

‘Mistress’ is the female equivalent of the word Master and means ‘a woman having control or authority’. Owing to disparagement of women and the frequent sexualization of the words associated with them, post 17th century Mistress has denigrated to mean no more than “a woman other than his wife with whom a man has a long-lasting sexual relationship”

Language is embedded with many old stereotypes and beliefs. It is also embellished with many new-fangled trends. With the usage of ‘Man’ to refer to all members of ‘Mankind’, one half of population is ignored. This half grows up to believe that they don’t count, or worse don’t matter. And why won’t they, seeing that most things are said and written with him in mind.

If the internet connection is slow, it is a bitch. If a football team loses miserably, the team was raped. If someone is teary, they are crying like a girl. These are expressions we have all heard or read, and not thought twice about while using them. These phrases have crept into our conscience and the commonness of their usage has normalized them.

But language is also sensitive to the growing concerns of our times. It is pliable and governed by the understanding of the present. Thus, with the growing understanding of our faults, language has taken a path towards reform. And hopefully these reforms too will go a long way in improving our perceptions, removing the tints of discrimination and uprooting stigma.

Perhaps using genderless titles would be a place to start. Go for ‘flight attendant’ instead of ‘stewardess’, ‘homemaker’ in place of ‘housewife’,  ‘humanity’ over ‘mankind’. The words ‘Person’ or ‘One’ can prove to be effective alternatives to the word ‘Man’. For example, ‘Spokesperson’, ‘Chairperson’.

(Although I’m not entirely sure about ‘personhole’)

And coming to pronouns, ‘him or her’, ‘she or he’ or even ‘s/he’ is encouraged as opposed to just ‘him’ or ‘he’. While it works almost all the time, sometimes its repetitive use can break the flow. Hence, it is advisable to use it sparingly.

The author of the endearing Winnie-the-Pooh, AA Milne wrote: “ If the English language had been properly organised … there would be a word which meant both ‘he’ and ‘she’, and I could write: ‘If John or May comes, heesh will want to play tennis,’ which would save a lot of trouble.”

While ‘heesh’ may not have caught on, but singular ‘they’ is being used as an epicene alternative. And it isn’t even a modern invention as it appears in the writings of major English authors like Chaucer, Shakespeare, Austen, Woolf to name a few.  And following are some examples from major works:

“If everybody minded their own business,” said The Duchess in a hoarse growl, “the world would go round a deal faster than it does.”

(Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland)

There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me./As if I were their well-acquainted friend.

(Shakespeare, The Comedy of Errors)

A person can’t help their birth.

(Thackeray, Vanity Fair)

I know when I like a person directly I see them!
(Virginia Woolf, The Voyage Out)

The gender-neutral singular they was chosen as the Word of the Year in January 2016 by the American Dialect Society. “They was recognized by the society for its emerging use as a pronoun to refer to a known person, often as a conscious choice by a person rejecting the traditional gender binary of he and she” (American Dialect Society press release, January 8, 2016).

Not just literary geniuses but even Facebook has started to allow people to choose ‘they’ as their preferred pronoun since 2014 (‘Wish them a Happy Birthday!’).

But gender isn’t dichotomous. Transgender prefer their pronoun: he or she as desired. A minority of them choose neither and instead opt for ‘they’.  Yet sometimes when gender is unknown; or one wishes against assuming one; or when one is neither male nor female in gender and using he or she, or even s/he can be potentially inappropriate and hurtful, non-binary pronouns such as ‘ze’ and ‘hir’ or ‘zir’ are employed.

One can find more such non-binary pronouns here.

In 2009, the University of Vermont led a movement in which the students were asked to mention their preferred pronouns ranging from ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘they’, ‘ze’ as well as ‘name only’.

Looking at other languages, ‘Hen’, a gender neutral personal pronoun of Swedish was announced to be included in the official glossary of the Swedish Academy in July 2014. In Hindi, the ‘Hijra’, a transgender people, tend to refer to themselves in the male pronouns when used in the past tense, and female pronouns when in present, as per study. Moreover, languages such as Hindi and German, accord gendered identities to even inanimate objects, whereas English deems them as sexless and employs ‘it’ for their reference. In Portuguese the word ‘mulherão’ means ‘voluptuous woman’. Funnily enough, the word is masculine. Additionally, the Spanish, Latin, German, Polish, Russian and Hindi words for ‘manliness’ are feminine. Along with Sino-Tibetan and most Native American language families, Modern English is not considered to have grammatical gender. However, Old English did.

Language is a medium through which we process the world and respond to it. It bears the reflection of our cultural attitudes. The way we treat words is a sense which has been imbibed from the vernacular. To put simply, we affect language and language affects us. The dictionary keeps on getting updated and the human conscience keeps on beckoning to newer and improved ideas, and these influence the communicators, through words and practice.

Until now, a man had been as good as his word, but hopefully now they’ll be better.

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