In any society, linguistics is the biggest tool of not only communication but also exchange of culture, rituals, habits, ideas, thoughts, beliefs and practices. From the moment a child learns to talk, language shapes his or her personality and mannerisms. The way we speak, our choices of words, are part of our entire thought process. And this thought process helps shape our behaviour and in, some cases, our prejudices.
When we talk about gender prejudices against women, we talk about a struggle for equal rights and status, that has existed in the world for centuries. From the first women’s suffrage movement to a continuing fight for equal pay, we have come a long way. We can fight for and achieve freedom and rights on paper, however, social change is required to ensure the same is implemented in our society. Studying linguistics will help us understand the treatment and role of women in society in the past as well as the present.
The entire text of the Mahabharata can be understood as social commentary on how family and kinship units functioned after the 9th century CE. An analysis of the accounts reveals how even though the women had an extremely powerful character, their role in the story, was merely written to support evidence of men’s valour, dignity, virility, fallibility or courage.
A couplet by Tulsi Das describes the condition of women in Medieval Period as, “dhor, ganwar, shudra aur nari, ye sab taadan ke adhikari” , which can be translated as animals, the illiterate, untouchables and females deserve punishment. This literature has preserved in time, the attitude towards women’s place in society.
With ancient texts long forgotten, we are left with other evidence of misogyny in our colloquial language and general linguistics.
One of the most common ways in which language is gendered is false gender neutrality. Many terms are gender specific, yet are used to describe the entire population, the biggest example would be “mankind” , “manmade” and “early man”.
In many famous quotes, all males and females are referred to as “man” and so these are all ways in which gender ideologies that have historically sidelined or dismissed women are encoded in our day-to-day lives.
When talking about colloquial language, we must also notice how the pronoun “he” is used for all genders. You have probably encountered documents that use masculine nouns and pronouns to refer to subject(s) whose gender is unclear or variable, or to groups that contain people who are not actually men. Another example of gendered language is the way the titles “Mr.,” “Miss,” and “Mrs.” are used. “Mr.” can refer to any man, regardless of whether he is single or married, but “Miss” and “Mrs.” define women by whether they are married, which until quite recently meant defining them by their relationships with men. A simple alternative when addressing or referring to a woman is “Ms.” (which doesn’t indicate marital status).
This false gender-neutrality is not limited only to English. The Hindi word for a male is “purushya” derived from Sanskrit’s “purush,” which actually means “human.” Similarly, the words, “insaan” (human) and “aadmi” (man) are colloquially interchangeable to mean both. These generic masculine pronouns contribute to making women’s existence invisible.
Some of the first phrases we hear as children are ‘Don’t cry like a girl’, ‘Be more ladylike’, ‘Don’t be a sissy’, and they all point to the fact that girls are expected to be sensitive, dramatic, polite, courteous, and not behave entitled.
At the same time phrases like ‘Boys will be boys’, ‘Man Up’, ‘Grow a pair’, all suggest that boys should be expected to grow up brave and courageous, should not display emotions as much and toughen up in their approach towards most things. These terms are harmful to both the sexes, since they re-establish hetronormative gender norms. It is acceptable for a woman to have courage, speak her mind and be bold, just as it is acceptable for men to be emotional, sensitive and expressive.
In almost all languages around the world, swear words are targeted as aggressive insults towards women or female relatives of a person. They all insinuate and propagate rape culture and in one way or another, demean the status of women. They indignify the female sex organs, a woman’s promiscuity or suggest sexual aggression towards somebody’s mother or sister. The way we outrage very clearly represents how we think and says a lot about our beliefs.
They say that anger makes us more honest with our feelings and so, when we outrage, we tend to express our most honest aggressive thoughts, it showcases in that moment all underlying beliefs and views one might not exhibit normally.
In an attempt to try and balance linguistics, some intersectional feminists have come up with the term ‘womxn’, that they say is an attempt at ‘bashing patriarchy’, by using a term that is not a derivative of the word ‘man’ or ‘men’.
Verbal communication is probably one of the most powerful means of reiterating and implementing newer ideologies and introducing a change of any sort in the society. It encompasses both how you deliver and receive a message and that is where linguistics can either aid sexism or help combat it.
By changing our lingo, or rather sensitizing ourselves more towards the words and phrases and their truer meanings, we can get closer to the social change we talked about in the beginning. Like we said earlier, our fight for equal rights is an ongoing one and has won us equality on paper; but our struggle with the longstanding sexism that continues to exist has to be fought on cultural grounds and not legal ones.
Maybe, ‘womxn’ won’t give us social equality tomorrow, but it is a step in the direction of making linguistics truly gender neutral, or rather gender friendly.
With small changes in our daily language, we can work towards our much larger goal of an egalitarian society.
The Informed Individuals
B.A. Journalism and Mass Com.