Sunday, February 25, 2007

Gender linguistics

I have always been interested in the mechanisms of language, starting out by reading some anthropologists who stated that the language of a people is the language of the men of that people. After the anthropologists came the sociolinguists, with in the ‘50’s their books and dissertations stating that languages vary according to socio-cultural factors. In the 60’s the attention was focused on the different use of language between men and women. Then followed the women studies and the difference between 'sex', the biological concept and 'gender', the culturally defined aspects of one’s sex. In linguistic studies the differences in language use were interpreted as a result of the masculinity and femininity concepts as they exist within a given community. This is gender linguistics. We all know about mainstreaming in different fields and this is just another example of this present trend. The field of research is obviously limitless, yet there is unity to be found in the diversity.
Another interesting field of research deals with the correlation between changes in society and changes in language. The conclusion is that changing one’s language would subvert the dominant culture and would break the dominance in thought and action of that culture. A start in this direction is being made with paying attention to gender charged words, expressions and even structures in language. This way we no longer accept the normal order of things. The least it would do is make us more aware, more sensitive and more attentive to how we formulate and thus beginning to formulate in a less viricentric way.
The Dutch author Agnes Verbiest put together directives for non-sexist language use and even for non-sexist language structures. An example could be avoiding the use of generic terms that require a masculine pronoun. Using a plural will often solve the problem. Direct sexist language that is degrading to women should be avoided according to her just as indirect sexist language. Does it matter in a professional setting? Yes. In introducing a professional woman, they will not only say DR. So and So but they might add they have children. Introducing a man, this never is done. This is stereotyping the self-image of women and men. By the way, this has nothing to do with political correctness which in my mind is often counter productive, and a different subject.
Of course there is the whole issue on how to deal with the names of professions and how to deal with gender neutrality in this context. Some professions are not marked for men or women. Usually the male name for the profession will be used in these cases: doctor, teacher… We are all aware that solutions have been sought for words like chairman, going first to chairwomen then to chair. Some solutions are outright ugly or inelegant; for senator they came up with senatrix … In cases were the female form is awkward I prefer the male form: it is known, has status and in case of need a person might call is there a doctor in the room without differentiating between male and female. That is just fine for me because then it is normal when women respond since the sex of the professional doesn’t matter. The downside, however, is that it makes women invisible. Did you know that female jobs considered to be of lower status are prettified by using ‘lady’: a lady wrestler, a cleaning lady… yet I am not convinced that a sanitation specialist would be a better option. Jobs do seem to have a different connotation according to the male and female versions of the job: our secretary general is not the head of the pool of secretaries. What is the difference between a tailor and a seamstress?
Linguistic studies of dichotomies or opposites like man/woman it have proven that the first element of such a pair enjoy higher status or more appreciation: day/night, life/death, love/hate, sun/moon. It makes one wonder about war/peace…
Whatever we feel about all this, we should never forget that men’s language, and this includes the male way of behaving in a conversation and in meetings, has higher status. White males in Europe use more difficult words, women know more names of colors and use more diminutives. This leads to difficult choices for women who either have to start using the male tactics and would loose out on their perceived femininity. In job interviews, particularly when asked about their aspirations and professional dreams this can create a lot problems, as the existing stereotypes are very powerful and thus the assumptions about the candidate are influenced by those stereotypes. They are necessary in communication, because in order to understand one another well there has to be ‘trust’ that each partner will play according to the established rules. So a woman with power is in a difficult position much of the time. Linguistically women and power haven’t quite come to terms yet.
Next time you read a text watch out for the transpositions of males to humans or vice versa: often when one begins to pay attention to these things women are not included in mankind. Often women are depersonalized or made into an object: albeit an object of desire.
Look also at the visual representation of women in publicity: women will look at you when the image is trying to attract you by the sexuality of the woman, in most other circumstances women usually are portrayed as looking away, eyes cast down…
Does it matter terribly? Maybe not. It might be useful and healthy - if only for one’s own soul - to question all that is presented to us as being normal. Normality only sustains power were it used to be and that is in the patriarchal society. Question and think…

No comments:

Post a Comment