A Note on “Sexist” Language

In RW’s article “The Mirror Men Strike Back” (seeThe Mirror Crack’d), he raised the common charge that women in our society have suffered from masculine language bias.

In his article, RW related the charge that women have suffered from the masculinity of language. But have they?

As near as I can tell, the argument is as follows. Our society has had bias against women; our language has gender; therefore the latter caused the former. No one would get away with that in an elementary logic course.

Two problems spring to mind. The French language has gender for all kinds of inanimate objects. How does this relate to the hypothesis? Even more to the point, Thai is practically a gender-free language (except for the personal pronoun), yet the Thai culture is male-dominated to a much worse extent than ours.

From this arises a simple argument. Thai language and culture show that gendered language is not necessary for sexist societies. This proves that other factors are sufficient cause. Therefore there is no need to suppose that the cause of sexism in our society is due to “gender bias” in our language. Have the proponents of the “sexist language causes sexism” school analysed this issue? Perhaps someone more versed in such things can enlighten us.

Further Comments

In the English language, the convention is that “masculine” pronouns do double-duty as gender-neutral pronouns. If this convention is understood, the whole gender bias “problem” disappears. Since many words in English have multiple meanings depending on context, why this should be such a big issue in certain circles is odd. Indeed, an amusing aspect of the debate that I have noticed is that many people of the “politically correct” persuasion who are most keen to attack the double-use of the “masculine” gender to cover any gender are also vehement in their defence of the appropriation of the word “gay” to mean “homosexual”, on the grounds that “many words in English have multiple meanings so what’s your problem with this one?”

Since there are already gender-neutral pronouns that happen to also be masculine, since the feminine gender is specifically female, and since attempts to invent alternatives are unsatisfactory (invented double-gender pronouns including combinations like “his/her” are clumsy; continual swapping between “his” and “her” is both annoyingly coy, and by focussing on gender has, in my opinion, the opposite effect of that intended – sounding as if specifically males or females are intended), this site follows the normal English convention.

Philosophy applies to any person male or female, so any use of either gender applies to the other unless demanded by the context.

The one sensible alternative I’ve read to the above is by the excellent and amusing Word Detective. In columns on this topic, he (yes, he!) points out that “they” is a perfectly acceptable gender-free pronoun for singular nouns, even historically (it used to be common English usage). Given the resistance to the above comments on the use of “his”, I am inclined to accept this suggestion.

© 1993, 1996, 1998, 2003 Robin Craig: first published in TableAus.