How sexist is the English language?

Written by Anika Maßmann from @wanderingmind_blog

Today, I have a very special guest post for you written by Anika from @wanderingmind_blog. She writes about how sexist the English language is. If you are interested in any of her posts, here is her blog. All her posts are in German, though. Enjoy!

Level B2

“Language, as the medium through which we conduct almost all relationships, public and private, bears the precise imprint of our cultural attitudes. The history of language, then, is like a fossil record of how those attitudes have evolved, or how stubbornly they have stayed the same.”The Guardian

The German language is sexist. I wrote about this in my latest post. I also talked especially about the need to genderise our language. A noun describing a person in German has a male and a female form. When we use plural forms we often only mention the male form – the so called ‘generic masculine’. This is a bad thing because by this technique we cut out half of the population and half of the people addressed. So, when I talk about the people reading my blog I always have to talk about “Leser und Leserinnen”. In this way everyone is addressed. 

The subject of every sentence is male

When thinking about the English language, my first idea was that it’s not as sexist as German. This is because there simply is no male or female form. The English language only has one grammatical form to describe both sexes. Sadly, I soon realised that this doesn’t solve the problem at all. This is because of the personal pronouns. In English, similar to German, we assume that the subject of every sentence is male, if it is not clearly highlighted.

  • “Each student chose his own topic for his term paper”. This leads the reader to assume that all the students in class are male.

A better option would be to use plural forms because they are neutral in English:

  • “Students chose their own topic for their term paper”*

Language bias

Another problem of the English language is the wording. On the one hand, there are job titles that are not neutral. Therefore, this leads to the assumption that some jobs are for men while others are for women. But mostly there is an easy fix if you just think one second about it:

  • Fireman – firefighter
  • Stewardess – flight attendant
  • Male / female nurse –  nurse

On the other hand, there is pejoration: the meaning of a word gets a worse connotation over time. “Linguists have long observed that words referring to women undergo this process more often than those referring to men.”**

  • hussy –  actually: contraction of “housewife” / today: “a disreputable woman of improper behavior”
  • mistressactually: “a woman having control or authority” (equivalent to the male “master” / today: “a woman other than his wife with whom a man has a long-lasting sexual relationship”
  • governessactually: “a woman who holds or exercises authority over a place, institution, or group of people” / today: “a woman responsible for the care, supervision, or direction of a person, typically a child or young lady”

And on an even more general level, let’s talk about the word: MANKIND. This only word reveals that in the English language – and therefore in the thinking of its speakers! – the male is the norm. Male equals human. At the same time that means … the female is the deviation to the norm, the other. If you want to use an inclusive and non-sexist language, talk about humankind or humanity. But never ever (!) about mankind. 

If you are aware of what you want to say you can be more aware of what you are saying. And thus, make a difference not only in talking but also in thinking. 

Sources

*Example from: https://grammar.yourdictionary.com/style-and-usage/sexist-language.html

** https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/jan/27/eight-words-sexism-heart-english-language


If you liked this post and would like to know more about the author Anika Maßmann read my interview with her here or follow her on Instagram or Facebook

1 thought on “How sexist is the English language?”

  1. Pingback: Interview with Anika Maßmann from @wanderingmind_blog - Learn English with Tommy

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