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Sexism In English Language English Language Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Language
Wordcount: 5535 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Sexism in language represents one of the major issues in sociolinguistic studies. As a phenomenon of society, sexism is reflected through language that expresses inclination in favor of one sex and treats the other one in a discriminatory manner. Characteristically, the bias is in favor of men and against women. Thus, the language is presented as a powerful tool of patriarchy. Even though in English-speaking countries all the people are considered equal, discrimination against women exists and this fact is observed in language.

Given this evidence, the purpose of the research is to study morphological, syntactic and semantic peculiarities of English sexist language.

The research proposal will therefore seek to explore and investigate the following:

• To define the concept of sexist language;

• To identify and evaluate the cultural factor, social factor, physiological factor and psychological factor which influence the existence of sexism in English language;

• To examine the elements of sexism in the English language which occur in the syntax, morphology and semantics of the language;

• To determine the strategies for avoiding sexism in English language.

The main method applied in this study is a literary overview of the works in which is treated the topic “Sexism in English language”. The theoretical framework which influenced the elaboration of this research for the deeper insight into the problem of morphological, syntactic and semantic peculiarities of English sexist language is based on the relevant and recent works of such authors as Peter Trudgill in Sociolinguistics: An Introduction to Language and Society, Nilson, Alleen Pace and Haig Bosmajian, H Lee Gershung, Julia P Stanley in Sexism and Language, Nneka Umera-Okeke in Linguistic Sexism: An Overview of the English Language in Everyday Discourse and Hudson, R. A. in Sociolinguistics. These books were selected for the present research as they investigate the phenomenon of sexism in English language and they are recent studies from sociolinguistic domain. On the basis of their ideas concerning elements of sexism in English language, I will analyze and compare their assumptions and evidences about the topic under the discussion. Consequently, I will outline the similarities and differences between their points of view concerning the topic. In addition to this, I will try to determine if they contradict or share the same ideas about the problem investigated and if their arguments are reasonable and trustful, in order to clarify if English language is a sexist one, and if it is to examine the elements of sexism in the English language which occur in the syntax, morphology and semantics of the language.

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The motivation for choosing the topic of this research proposal is based on the fact that during the last decades a lot of questions and criticisms of sexist language have appeared, trying to identify whether English language is a sexist language or it does not. Thus, it would be relevant to perform a linguistic investigation of morphological, syntactic and semantic peculiarities of sexist language. On the basis of this investigation, we will identify the role language plays in the society and how it influences the social attitudes of human beings. Taking into account the fact that women were regarded as a weaker gender in society, being discriminated for a long time, it seems interesting and challenging to explore this topic in order to identify whether this stereotyped social phenomena or subordinate status of women in society is reflected and preserved in language. Due to the fact that many students encounter difficulties in determining the gender of the nouns, the results of this research will help them to distinguish between the common gender, female gender and male gender of the words and to justify their use. This research could serve as a didactic material for teachers of sociolinguistics and help investigate the main morphological, syntactic and semantic peculiarities of sexist language.

Definitions of Sexist Language

One of the most important factors in the development of the world is language, which can be interpreted as a human creation. Taking into account the fact that humanity is divided into two spheres: the sphere of males and the spheres of females, it can be revealed a major ambiguity concerning the subject if the language is made by men or by women. Even though, English countries claim that all people are born equal, there are a lot of inequalities between men and women. It is put stress on this topic because according to sociolinguistic research, this inequality is reflected in language and this phenomena – sexism in language represents one of the major issues in sociolinguistic studies. According to Hudson, sexism in English languages has existed for a long time, which is reflected of the traditional ethics that men are superior to women [x; 38]. In this order of ideas, Deborah Cameron’ work, reveals that Men originate from Mars and Women originate from Venus [10]. Given this evidence, it can be seen that some gender differences do exist. Support for this interpretation comes from Peter Trudgell, through his work Sociolinguistics: An introduction to language and society [7; 100], who confirms that males are above females, due to the fact that in the past there existed the myth of superiority, when the entire power was in the hands of men. Thus, as a special social phenomenon, sexism is inevitably reflected through language and sexism in language reflects sexism in society. But, with the raise of women’s liberation, and the development of mass media, the whole English words start a social revolution to eliminate the sexism in the English language, because sexism in the English language is seen as a discriminating act of women. This point is particularly relevant for Nneka Umera-Okeke’s study Sexism in English Language, who asserts that sexism is a kind of discrimination by one sex against the other, especially by males against females [4; 7]. Applied to language, Robin Lakoff underlines that a sexist language takes a male-as-norm attitude, while female norms have a less positive connotation than males’. Thus, Robin Lakoff uses the example of master vs mistress to make the point: there are unequal connotations that surround these two matching terms – and to the detriment of the female – Master has strong and powerful connotation, while mistress does not [2; 67]. This evidence seems to indicate that a sexist language also presents stereotypes of both females and males, but more often to the disadvantage of females. A fuller discussion about sexist language appears in the study Beginner’s Guide to Language and Gender. Multilingual Matters, 2008, by Allyson Jule, who claims that a sexist language depicts women in the position of passive object rather than active subject, such as on the basis of their appearance (‘a blonde’) or domestic roles (‘a mother of two’) when similar depictions in similar contexts would not be made of men [1; 65]. On this basis it may be inferred that sexist language discriminates against women. Research by Nneka Umera-Okeke, Linguistic Sexism: An Overview of the English Language in Everyday Discourse, suggests that sexist language is considered to be any language that is supposed to include all people, but unintentionally (or not) excludes a gender -this can be either males or females. It is clear therefore that a look at sexist language is finding the relation between language and gender. A more plausible explanation for this phenomenon would refer to the moment when many people meet difficulties of making the choices between certain words in their everyday discourses. For instance, they wonder which to choose – the chairman has arrived for the meeting or the chairperson has arrived when referring to a woman. This fact lends weight to the argument that a sexist language excludes women and trivializes what women do [4; 32]. Sexist language is especially common in situations that describe jobs-common assumptions include that all doctors are men, all nurses are women, all coaches are men, or all teachers are women. These examples lend strong support to the fact that a sexist language transmits the stereotypes. Ivy and Backlund state that a sexist language refers to the attitudes/behaviors that denigrate one sex to the rise of the other. [5; 123]. Given this evidence it can be seen that sexist language is a verbal communication that transmit those attitudes and behaviors. Additionally to this, a sexist language can be viewed as an instrument used by the members of the society to damage someone.

Cameron rightly points out that a language can be called sexist if it represents or name the world from a masculine viewpoint. This means that language encodes a culture’s values, and in this way reflects sexist culture [10].

The opinion of Parks & Roberton concerning the definition of sexist language is that “words, phrases, and expressions that unnecessarily differentiate between women and men or exclude, or diminish either gender” [5; 127]. In other words, sexist language refers to the use of language expressions in such a way that it constitutes an unbalanced portrayal of the sexes. Hyde has drawn attention to the fact that in a sexist language “he” and “man” refer to everyone [3; 73]. This fact becomes clear when Slovenko examines English language stating that except for words that refer to female by definition (mother, actress, Congresswoman), and words for occupations traditionally held by females (nurse, secretary, prostitute), the English language defines everyone as male [6; 78].

Concluding this subchapter designed to the analysis of the definitions of sexist language, it can be entailed the fact that the sexist language excludes, marginalizes or discriminates against people on the basis of their gender and creates an unfair distinction between women and men. Sexism in language in general comes in three major forms: language ignores women; it defines women as less significant than men; and it completely opposes women. They can be located in the generic masculine terms. Thus, the sexist language is the use of words that cultivate stereotyped gender roles.

The Factors of Sexism in the English Language

Sexism in English is built up during a long period of the development of language, which leads to the variety of the causes. Thus, in the study An Analysis of Sexism in English Language, there are enumerated four factors which cause the appearance of sexism in language: [11].

Religious Factor

According to the Holy Bible (The Books of The Old Testament), God created man first of all, while woman made from one of man’s ribs was created just as a help meet for him [Holy Bible]. From the order of the birth, it is obvious to see the different importance of man and woman. Thus, man and woman are not equal at all because woman is only a part of man, which itself is the discrimination against women. Additionally to this, it is known the fact that the first sin was also committed by the woman. Consequently, the woman was punished to bring forth children in pain and was ruled over by the man. These two examples reveal the superiority of men and inferiority of women. In fact, the Holy Bible is actually a book of men and as Christianity is such a powerful religion in Western countries, it is clear therefore that this religious factor consolidate the inferiority of women.

Physiological factor

Due to the fact that men are stronger than women from physiological point of view, it can be stated that this fact determines that men play a more and more important role in social and economic lives. A man’s job is to work outside but a woman’s job is to stay at home, do the housework and take care of the children. Women are treated as the weaker ones and they realize their own values through their marriages to men. At last, women are lower in status. They have to leech on to men and are dominated by men. Gradually, people begin to discriminate women and think that they are inferior in intelligence. This wrong perspective reflects in language [7; 37].

Social Factor

Feminists all claim that we live in a patriarchal society: a society of men, ruled by men and for men. Patriarchy depicts men as the perfect norm against which women are measured and found lacking. Both the Western and Eastern societies use sex, to one degree or another, in allocating tasks, activities, rights, and responsibilities. As for the job done by men and women, there is a long-stereotyped notion of what they can do. In history, there has been a division of labor-a division in which women’s place was restrained at home for housework and child-care while men worked outside being the breadwinner. At last, men had dominance over women, and women had to be dependent on men. This was the turning point for women. Thus the sexism in the society has been in existence, the embodiment of which is necessarily the sexism of language. Guimei He in his work An Analysis of Sexism in English, adds that this factor is in a strong correlation with labor division [11].

Psychological factor

Because of the social and cultural factors, women are always considered to be the weak. People treat women as inferior to men. They educate men to be manly, decisive, and brave while women are required to be polite, conservative, obedient, and gentle. Because women are in subordinate status in the society, they have to constrain their emotion and give up their own need to meet the satisfaction of men. As time passes, when speaking women pay more attention to the elegance and standard of language than men. They use more pleasant and polite words in the hope that they can receive other’s approval. And they are taught to speak softly, to avoid contradicting others, to be obedient in communication, and to be aware of giving cues of strong confidence. They mould themselves to be inferior in their potential sub consciousness. Therefore, women try their best to strengthen their social status through their speech than men do. This also suggests that women are in a lower position in the society.

Additionally to this, Xiang Xu in his study The Sexism in English and Its Rebuilding, claims that history development also had a strong influence to the appearance of sexism in language. Thus, he exemplifies that from ancient time on, the ruling position in western society is almost held by male persons. After climbing to the high position, men began to look down upon women. This attitude could influence the ideology of the whole society. So lots of men-central terms with sexist’s color came into being during the stage of English forming. In the 14th century, Chaucer, who is concieved as the Father of English language, created a great deal of terms, later, Milton and Shakespeare competitively invented new words. They contributed a lot to English, at the same time, the negative side they brought can’t be ignored. These famous male’s contribution to English who were living in male’s society, accelerated the extensive transmission of the language of sexism [9; 101-103].

1.3 Elements of Sexism in English Language

In order to identify if English Language is a sexist language, we are going to focus on the identification and examination of elements of sexism which occur in the syntax, morphology and semantics of English Language.

1.3.1 Morphological Peculiarities of Sexism in English

a) Derivation

In English Language, derivation is a way of word formation with the help of derivational morphemes – affixes and suffixes. It forms a word with meaning and category distinct from that of its base through the addition of an affix. These affixes often change the part of the stem. Thus, affixes help us to identify relationships within words. The affixes are always bound morphemes, which carries information about meaning or function.

Referring to the English lexicon, Guimei He in his study An Analysis of Sexism in English, claims that in the English lexicon one of the most obvious evidences of the sexism is the affixes which lead to a view of women as a derivation from a male term [11]. The feminine one is always derivative of the masculine one by adding a feminine suffix such as -ess and -ette. Actor, for instance, with the meaning of “a person who plays the part of a character in a movie or play” ,when attached to a feminine suffix -ess, becomes actress with the meaning of ” woman with profession similar to those of actor” . And as for -ette, when usher is adhered to -ette, it becomes usherette. Such pairs of the words are of long lists in English lexicon. Here just list some of them:

Masculine Feminine

ambassador ambassadress

duke duchess

Rovano lends weight to the argument that this kind of word-formation seems to tell that women are derived from men and attached to the men [3; 72-28].

On this basis it can be inferred the fact that the addition of a feminine suffix to masculine human agent nouns usually does more than simply change the gender reference of the word, it often attaches a meaning of triviality, of lesser status or dependence to the term. It shows that woman is affiliated to man, so it is a kind of linguistic discrimination against women.

But with further insight into the meaning of such pairs, Randall mentions that stereotyping in the terms governor and governess, and bachelor and spinster, the masculine and feminine forms have vastly differing connotations [8; 129]. Thus, he exemplifies that the suffix-ess not only marks the secondary position of the feminine words but also connotes the relationship between the female and male reference to the pair of words. Let us compare the pair of governor with governess. Governor is a ruler of a country, city and associates with power and high social status as well as honor and dignity; while governess is a woman employed to teach young children in their home. Because of the gender differentiation, these two words have dramatically different meanings, the masculine one of which belongs to high social class, but the feminine one marked with -ess belongs to a lower social class.

By making observation of many feminine words, which are formed through derivation by adding the suffix-ess, it must therefore be recognized that -ess is far a suffix marking the female category, it has semantic meanings. Preference for but discrimination against female can be clearly seen in ways of word formation.

Another aspect, touched by Trask I his study, concerned with this point is that English sex-paired words (here referring to the pair of words with gender contrast) the masculine one has greater flexibility in word-formation and mainly has a wider distribution of meaning [7; 39]. Take the pair of man – and woman – for instance (man – and woman – here are roots in the process of word formation). “Manhood” has three meanings in the Oxford Dictionary. (1) state of being a man, (2)qualities of a man, eg. courage, manliness,(3) a men of a country, while womanhood only has one meaning concept of” state of being woman” [12]. By comparison, it is clear that manhood has two more meaning concepts than womanhood. What means by having more meaning concepts? According to Trudgill, words are symbol of physical entities in reality [7; 39]. In this sense, the masculine words with much more meaning concepts reflect that men have more chance in social activities and in turn a more efficient way to express themselves and reinforce the masculine imagery. It comes to a conclusion that masculine words are common and general, while feminine words are mainly formed by attacking suffixes on the basis of the masculine words.

b) Compound Words

Another common way to build words in English through the combination of lexical categories is compound. Greenberg presented a taxonomy of gender for languages. In addition to languages that are without gender, languages are said to have either semantic (also called natural) gender or grammatical (also called anomalous) gender [4; 13].

Thus, he stated that English itself has no difference of gender. Many professionals such as doctor, engineer, lawyer, professor, judge, and surgeon can be used to indicate both males and females. However, actually due to the long-stereotyped view of the relationship between gender and profession, such word conventionally refers to one gender, either male or female.

Since occupational terms in English are often seen as a source of perceived sexism, McMinn et al. (1990) administered a test to check for the use of sexist language among college students [1; 67-68].

In written and oral protocols subjects were asked to respond to the following occupational terms, which had been placed in non-sexual contexts: business executive, nurse, professor, truck driver, librarian, robber, bank teller [10]. Their study shows that sexual bias in English goes beyond grammatical marking, that is, that simply finding terms unmarked for gender will not disabuse language users of their sexual stereotypes For example:

(1)My cousin is an engineer. (2)My cousin is a nurse.

Nine out of ten come with the first response that “my cousin” in sentence (1) is male and in sentence (2) female. Only one of all ten tells with hesitation whether “my cousin” is female or male. Professions involving power and strength such as president and chairman are more likely to be associated to men, because these satisfactory jobs are traditionally viewed as ones qualified only by males. But when indicating females’ position, professions, etc, these words are created by adding a bound morpheme or by combining them with a word referring to female, a compound form of combination of a female title such as woman, female, lady or madam and the professional term comes into use, for example, woman lawyer and madam chairman. On the other hand, professions involving patience, service or lower social status are more likely to be associated with woman, for example, nurse, dressmaker and secretary. If on special occasions a male involved, then the compound form of a masculine title male or man and a professional term is used for example, newsman, policeman, businessman, fireman, salesman, fisherman, etc. It makes clear that men monopolize the high status professions. Women can only do service work or low social status work. Take the compound word “callboy” and “call girl” for example. The former refers to the waiter in hotel or the person who calls the player ready to stage in theatre; the latter means the prostitute summoned by phone. These words have manifested the discrimination of language towards female from the angle of word matching.

Using compound forms to specify professions between men and women is somehow a reflection of the reality that women are exclusive from professions with higher social status and to some extent the form of language usage in turn reinforces such a social phenomenon.

1.3.2 Syntactic Peculiarities of Sexism in English

a) Generic Pronouns

In English there are a group of nouns of common gender, which refer to either male or female such as student, person, teacher, etc. When such nouns are used with generic reference in single form, the traditional grammar advocates using the masculine pronouns in the context for the purpose of coherence with generic nouns [4; 12-14]. Generic pronouns are pronouns that are said to refer, with equal likelihood, to women and men. But the English language ignores women by allowing masculine terms to be used specifically to refer to males and commonly to refer to human beings in general. The generic pronoun “he” is perhaps the most well known example of the gender-specific of sexist language, and is frequently referred to be “he/man” language. The most significant manifestation of the sexism is in the use of generic masculine pronouns “he” and its variants “his”, “him” and “himself” in such sentences as:

(1) If one wants to see the ruins, he must find his own guide.

(2) He who laughs last laughs best.

(3) Everyone must do his homework well.

(4) Everyone should learn to solve problems himself.

In the above examples, “he”, “his”, “him” and “himself” are used not sex-specifically, but generically, that is, although the pronouns refer grammatically to the single male citizen, they should be taken to refer to both male and female citizens in general. On the formal occasions, ‘he’, ‘him’ or ‘his’ can be used to refer to such indefinite pronouns as each, everyone, everybody, no one, someone, anyone and so on. While ‘she’, ‘her’, ‘herself’ don’t have such usages.  In other words, the masculine pronoun is the representative either female or male reference. Thus, it seems like a linguistic edition of the social inequalities.

b) Generic Nouns

Another well-known example of generic masculine term is “man”. Man and woman as two equal components of human race are actually not equal in English lexicon. Man, besides its reference to male human being can also refer to the whole race. The usage in a general sense of man makes woman invisible. For example; (1) All men must die. (2) Man is a social animal. It is easy to see that “man”, and “men” can be used generically to refer to both male and female. But “woman” and “women” cannot be employed in reference to men. When man appears in discourse, it is commendatory and positive in main circumstances [3; 75-76]. Look at the following idioms: (1) be man enough: brave enough (2) be one‟s own man: be able to arrange and decide things independently. However, situation involved woman is quite different: Look at the following examples:

(1) Wine, women, and song: drinking, dancing, etc, and enjoying oneself

(2) Make an honest woman of somebody: marry somebody having had sexual relationship with her.

In the English language, some words referring to female firstly are commendatory words, but afterward slowly have derogatory senses.

Survey in the dictionary on the illustrative idioms of man and woman as a quantity observation, derogation of woman is clearly seen. There are totally 33 illustrative idioms for man, of which 15 are with positive meaning, five negative and the rest are neutral with five shared by both man and woman in structure and meaning; While in case of woman, there are only 8 illustrative idioms of which five shared with man in structure and meaning, the rest are all derogatory. From this, one can know that in English using “man” or “men” indicates “the human race”, they treat man as the center of the society, an embodiment of criterion and totally ignore the existence of woman.

c) Word order

Graddol, D.&Swam,J. in their study “Gender Voices” attest the fact that

sexism in language is also reflected in word order. When men and women are presented together, usually words denoting male sex are put in front of female sex. Making females come second reflects the sexist attitude that men are superior to women [6; 71].

1) Good morning, boys and girls

Such a language phenomenon seems to appear so natural as to be widely accepted as a language norm. In 1553, Wilson insisted that is more natural to place man before woman, as in male and female, husband and wife, father and wife. His point lends weight to the argument that males come first in the natural order, and this is one of the first examples of a male arguing for not only just the superiority of males but that this superiority should be reflected in the structure of language [8; 110-111].

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However, Atkinson, K. claims that there are also cases in which male-female order is reversed, for example bride and groom, and ladies and gentlemen. He explains this phenomena by stating that marriage is important to women and the latter is influenced by the notion that men should protect women. Putting ladies before gentlemen doesn’t show that women are more superior to men or ladies first, but indicates that in men’s mind, women, the same as children, are the weaker ones [4; 167]

1.3.3 Semantic Peculiarities of Sexism in English Semantic derogation of women

The study of Cameron, D. in his work Language, Gender, and Sexuality: Current Issues and New Directions is relevant for the reason that he states that language has a tendency to neglect women, treat women as submission and also demean women. The process of words that refer to women acquiring demeaning or sexual connotations has been widely observed, and has been called semantic derogation [10]. Non-parallel semantic developments of paired terms

Hudson, R. A claims that words become negative when shifted into the female sphere, while male has remained pure and neutral [1; 34].

For example:

King and Queen

The first noun is masculine, the other feminine and both mean “ruler of an independent state”. However, king has preserved its initial meaning, but besides the core meaning of queen, queen is also used as “a disparaging term for a gay or sexual man”.

Master and Mistress

Both of them indicate ‘someone who possesses and/or has power over someone or something else. For example: “He is my master.” usually means “He is my boss.” or “He has more power than me.” While “She is my mistress.” is more likely to be interpreted as meaning ‘She is my illicit lover.’ Mistress originally refers to a woman in a position of authority, control, and ownership, as the head of a household like a housekeeper, but it implies a woman who has a continuing sexual relationship with a usually married man who is not her husband and from whom she generally receives material support. Semantic collocation and change

a) Semantic collocation 

Fromkin, V., R.Rodman & N.Hyams asserts that in English, a word may have different connotations when it is used to describe different sexes [6; 73-79].

For example:

a. He is imposing. b. She is imposing.

Sentence a) means “He is impressive and admirable.” While sentence b could be interpreted to mean that “She is disgusting and apathetic.” When the sex changes, so does the meaning. Loose seems a neutral word for both male and female. But “a loose woman” reminds people of “a woman considered being sexually promiscuous” whereas “a loose man” just means “a casual man”.

b) Semantic change

Besides, words, which begin with either neutral or positive connotations over time, acquire negative implications and finally end up as “sexual slurs”. For example, the term hussy derives from Old English huswif (“housewife”), which means “the female head of the house”. The term gradually deteriorated to “a rustic rude woman” and finally comes to mean “an indecent, impudent woman or prostitute” [3; 78].

Strategies for Avoiding Sexism in English Language

Any form of sexist language, whether on purpose or not, will probably stand off or offend some social member or group. Language and language use mirror social attitudes and stereotypes and bias. Along with the women’s liberation movement, people began to realize the importance of the language reform and desexism becomes necessary. This evidence raises the question: Should sexist language be changed or avoided? The answer is definitely positive.

In her early discussions of sexist language, Renshaw presents an article entitled “Twenty-nine ways you can help eliminate sexism i


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