Feminism Ideas and Sexism in Language Part 3

About sexism in language, a look at the power of words in our ideas of feminism and women, development in history.

Sexism in Language

Even more drastic examples of women's speech are found in foreign languages and cultures; there are even isolated cases of separate women's languages. The Yahi, a new-extinct Indian tribe of Upper California, had one language used by males and one used by females, each with its separate vocabulary. (For the Yahi women, this meant learning a language which they themselves never spoke--men's language.) Since women as mothers have the most contact with children, children's speech is women's language. As boys mature, they surrender this language. The fact that children share women's speech does nothing to enhance its status in the eyes of society. One wonders if some of the baby-talk quality of women's speech doesn't stem from generations of confinement with young minds and tongues.

The Women's Liberation Movement has attempted to alter the English language as it touches women. Ms. (pronounced "miz") existed before the women's movement in secretarial handbooks as the solution to the sticky problem of unknown marital status, but its use was not ensured until the publication of the most widely circulated magazine associated with the women's movement, Ms. The U.S. Government Printing Office, official stylemaster for government and civil-service publications has condoned the use of Ms. However, a 1973 Gallup poll found that disapproval of its use among women who knew of the term outweighed approval, 5-3. Some women say that "miz" sounds a little too much like "massa," or that the abbreviation already stands for the word "manuscript." The term's acceptance has been primarily as a written and not a verbal form of address. While "Ms." has been the most successful attempt to alter language, other attempts have included using "he/she" or a newer form "s/he" to replace "he." Replacing "men" with "people" or "persons" has become popular (almost a game or joke for some). "Jurymen" becomes "jurypeople," "postmen" becomes "postpeople," and so on. History now has an adjunct "herstory," not because the etymology of history is history (it isn't), but because "herstory" emphasizes that women have been written out of regular history. And the "Madam Chairmen" of the world (a linguistic contradiction to begin with) have been deposed by hundreds of "chairpersons."

Some anthropologists claim that woman invented language. As hunters, men had small need for communication, while women, in tending crops, mothering children, and providing a stable community network, needed a complex language. If this is true, it is an unsubtle irony that language, her own creation, has turned on her to become one of the tools of her oppression. Is there a way out? There are those who would contend that as society itself becomes less sexist, so will language reflect this by becoming more egalitarian. On the other hand, since the use of language molds perceptions of reality, some hope that by changing sexist language, society may be forced to become less sexist. In Orwellian terms, societies can be manipulated by language, and New-speak itself creates the reality in which the Ministry of Peace deals with war. What seems un-debatable is that society and language are inextricably linked, and alterations to one will affect the other.

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