Language is one of, and probably, the most important pillars of any culture.
As we note in the article, languages isn't neutral. It inherently carries an opinion or a judgement. When we speak we don't express only objective content, we also express, subjective, emotions. This is neither bad nor good, it's a fact. human, contrary to machines, cannot emit, nor receive, an objective content. Whatever we give or receive is wrapped up with emotion, language included. This applies that language has to be either sexist or gender-free or in between, but it cannot be neutral.
As 7,151 languages are spoken today, you might wonder to which language do we refer. To all. How to refer to all, when I can recognize, at best, about 20? By deduction.
Any given language represents a given culture. As all culture, to varied degrees are sexist, this is also embodied in their language. A fundamental pillar of any culture, and definitely the most consistent one, is patriarchy - at least since the agrarian revolution, 12K years ago. No matter which culture we come from, patriarchy shaped all cultures. Thus, gender discrimination is so deeply engraved on all cultural institutions, language included.
Yet, linguistic objects have a singularity that turn them into a very particular and powerful resource used to propagate gender discrimination - They are not considered as wrong. Gender biased language is still perceived as neutral and as normative (see Hamilton, 1988; Ng, 2007; Stahlberg et al., 2007).
Since we perceive words as mere sounds we assume they don't inflict a damage by themselves. A speaker can discriminate without having an intention or even an awareness that this linguistic behaviour has discriminatory results. However, words aren't mere sounds, they actually shape the perception of how the world is, or should be, and this perception shapes our reality.
To better grasp how apparently neutral language objects discriminate, let's observe linguistic, exist in, most if not all, the 25 most spoken languages.
Throughout human history the male was prescribed as default, a construct that is reinforced through language. All languages are structured by the unwritten, yet consensual norm according to which the 'standard' human being is male (Silveira, 1980). A popular justification suggests that the default type is merely a random choice. That we can could have used female rather than male but arbitrarily selected men, the same as we could say tac instead of cat. Yet, historically and semantically wise this notion is false.
Our language doesn't consider male to be arbitrary choice nor it considers female to differ from male by form only (genital organs), but by its essence. Language shapes thought, a grammatical habit of speech leads to a habit of mind. Hence, the "standard-male" mechanism propagates stereotypes and deepen the discrimination. Countless studies proved, the default male structures our societies to follow a generic masculine framework. Before we consider the impact of this default man as norm, let's observe how it is applied.
Linguistic objects describing females are grammatically more complex than those referring to males. Language with grammatical gender (ex: French, German, Hebrew) often display longer suffix for women than men. A common usage is adding suffix to the corresponding masculine terms. Professor/Professoressa (teacher, Italian), arrivé/arrivée (arrived, French), katib/katibah (writer in Arab). This applied also to the "genderless" language like English, hero/heroine, actor/actress.
The female name is often derived from male name. This is created by adding the suffix as -E, -ie, -ine form, for example, Louise and Stephanie were respectively derived from male Louis and Stephen. Even the name 'female' is derived from male. On the contrary, male name based on the name of the female name is rare.
This mechanism of suffix is applied only to women. Hence, it reproduces the convention that the prototypical human is a male. When, for example, one uses the generic term to apply to people, it is assumed to be male unless otherwise indicated (Silveira, 1980). Establishing men as the default completely excludes women, even if one has no intention to. Men are established as the norm against which everything is judged, and women are treated as deviant from this norm.
By deriving female nouns from male nouns, language places the man at the center and suggests that the woman is his orbit. This embedded male bias in our psyche so deeply that even our collective identity is understood as masculine – we use ‘man’ to describe our species and ‘mankind’ as a way to unify us.
In many ways, language both reflects and creates the gender inequalities that exist in society.
Consider gender sexuality for example. Many languages lack of terms referring to one sex. Due to gender stereotypes that want women to be pure and family oriented, there is no male counterpart in current language use for terms such as virgin, working mother, or career women (cf. Maass & Arcuri, 1996).
Spinster, for instance, is an offensive term for “a woman still unmarried beyond the usual age of marriage,” but we don’t have a similar insult to describe an unmarried man. Unmarried men are called bachelors, a word that conjures images of hunky male celebrities and is often preceded by “most eligible.” Women who are perceived have sexual relations with a number of partners on a casual basis—have often been referred to as sluts, whores, and tramps. Yet there is no equally disparaging term for men.
So much of the language describing women is rooted in shaming their sexuality or reinforcing the idea that a woman’s value is determined relative to men. These asymmetries in words like mistress and housewife aren’t just descriptors: they are labels that reflect an undercurrent of sexism in society.
Language discrimination is deeply engraved on all language objects. Here we consider only one example.
When both sexes are provided in a timely manner, the word order is always male preceding female, which cannot be inverted. It is not difficult to find out the principle of “male first female “ after careful observation of the nouns and pronouns in English. As people often say, the husband and wife, king and queen, men and women, he and she, Adam and Eve, brother and sister and so on. It is rare to invert those words order. This is only one part of the problem.
Order isn't neutral, it dictates superiority, it attracts the attention, it prioritized the preferred choice. Consider the following: good and bad, rich and poor, day and night, life and death, it is not just a simple problem of before and after. We remember the girst and govget the second, the winner rather than the loser. Placing men before embedded the men's superiority and describes women as an inferior and less favourable state. When someone is considered that way, they are logically 'entitled to be treated less favourably". It justifies thus discrimination against women. order
As showed by Simone De Beauvoir man is regarded as "both the positive and the neutral, foreshadowing the notion that the typical contrast between opposites… is not symmetric." Rather, the contrast between oppositions is often asymmetric meaning "the positive, or unmarked, term can be neutralized in meaning to denote the scale as a whole rather than just the positive end; but the negative, or marked, term can denote just the negative end. All members of a category do not have equal status in the mind of the human perceiver; some members are instead perceived as more equal–or more prototypical–than other members… and the female is taken to be a variation of that prototype, a less representative example of the human species".
As long as this rule remains central to languages users of these languages will continue to classify the world on the premise that males are the standard, normal being and that those who are not male will be considered deviant. Speakers will continue to divide humanity into two unfairly biased parts. "By arranging the objects and events of the world according to these rules we set up the rationale, and the vindication, for male supremacy."
Language imposes speakers to focus on particular concepts that are grammaticized within its structure, resulting in language-bound representations. These are not mere grammatical differences but rather a mechanism through which language shapes thought, where a grammatical habit of speech leads to a habit of mind. This applies to any domain, not necessarily gender.
Empiric studies show that Making distinctions between objects (e.g., different colors, genders, and time orderings), vehicle the presumption that these categories actually exist in the world and are relevant (Boroditsky 2001; Boroditsky et al. 2003; Boroditsky and Gaby 2010; Danziger and Ward 2010; Fuhrman et al. 2011; Hunt and Agnoli 1991). 2 In one experiment in 2007, Russians could identify different shades of blue more quickly than English speakers because they have two words for the colour blue, unlike one in English.blue
This perception invades our reality:
Professional - Children choice at schools is influenced by the way they are perceived by the system. Boys are still considered to be more talented than girls are in math, whereas girls are more talented than boys in language domains . As children grow older and have more experiences in which stereotypes are discussed or endorsed by others, these stereotypes may become a more salient source informing children’s own attitudes. 5
Images of scientists are persistently masculine, and notions of scientific excellence affects the evaluation and selection of women in science.i) ii) Mothers are viewed as less competent than women who are not mothers, which isn't the case for fathers.
Even if women overcame these obstacles, it effects their career. Despite high levels of achievement, women can suffer from an "imposter syndrome". Lacking confidence in their intellectual accomplishments and ability, and a sense of belonging.
Both women and men are significantly more likely to vote to hire a man applicant versus a woman applicant with the same academic record. Data from the Spanish National Institute of Statistics shows that men associate professors are 2.5 times more likely than women associate professors to be promoted to full professors.
Health - abuse neglect and death - Stereotypes about gender affect how doctors treat illnesses and approach their patients. For example, a 2018 study found that doctors often view men with chronic pain as “brave” or “stoic,” but view women with chronic pain as “emotional” or “hysterical.” Thus, doctors were more likely to treat women’s pain as a product of a mental health condition, rather than a physical condition.
These attitudes increase the risk of patients dying. For example, the idea that heart attacks mainly occur in males — and a lack of awareness about how they affect females — contributes to the higher rates of females dying from heart attacks.
The above examples are far from being unique. It has been shown that this “linguistic normativity effect” (e.g., “ Compared to men, women are . . .,” or “Compared to fathers, mothers are . . .”) implicitly favours the first mentioned group, which becomes the norm against which the other is compared (Pratto et al., 2007).
When men are mentioned as the referent group of comparison in a typically male (leadership) context, status inequalities are perceived as more legitimate and the gender stereotypes of men as agentic and women as communal are more readily endorsed.link Specifically, (Bruckmüller et al. 2012).
The default type shapes not only how other perceive us but also how we perceive ourselves. When people are considered as deviance they develop a feeling of being different from the typical member of their social group. They also feel less social belonging and identification with their social environment. Those who feel part of the group find it easier to pave their way.
The insidious consequence is that people perceive gender bias in language as normative and enact gender discrimination by simply following communication rules (Ng, 2007). Yet, ig we aim to tackle this problem it might be helpful to consider why we our communication is so bound by the rule 'men as norm'.
the default type provides some immediate advantages: it's no-brainer, socially attractive and simplifies our current communication.
We are so ingrained to think that the male is the prototypical representative that we all speak it. We only have a female prototype for roles which are very heavily stereotyped as female (like ‘secretary’ or ‘witch’). By contrast, the tendency to assume that a ‘generic’ X will be male doesn’t just apply to the most stereotypically male roles (like ‘shopkeeper’ or ‘construction worker’), it applies to any role that isn’t almost exclusively reserved for women.
Consider for example this joke: A man walks into a bar with a piece of asphalt under his arm and says “A beer please! And one for the road!”
This joke here does not depend on the sex of the client. The punchline would have been the same had it been "A woman walks...".
Yet, a joke is a condensed kind of message. It will fail if the recipient doesn’t ‘get it’ at first glance. A good joke has shigt our focus on the central point, and avoid distraction by incidental background details. As Cameroon says: "One way to accomplish that is to depict something that’s instantly recognizable because it matches our prototype for the relevant social setting (be that a workplace, a classroom or a stone-age hunt). It’s not that we can’t make sense of non-prototypical scenarios when we encounter them in real life, but we process information faster when it doesn’t conflict with our default expectations. So, messing with the prototype is something that tends to happen only when the point is to challenge conventional expectations. effect."
To keep the joke ‘clean’, you have to avoid distracting people with unexpected background details, like a female placed without comment in the slot for a generic category-member. But the result is that women are either absent from jokes which aren’t directly about women, or else they only appear in very stereotypical roles where their presence is in line with our expectations.
This masculine norm applies to other form of speech. Less is always more in any type of communication, not only jokes. To well defend our ideas it always better to focus on the essence and avoid background information.
Jokes can be gunny even if the use their male-norm, even some sexist jokes also. Default masculine is needed in so many form of communications and even feminists use it. But from a feminist perspective it’s important to try to shift them.
A substantive and lasting equality would only be possible when new ways of speaking become normalized and treated as unremarkable. When we stop needing extra time to process a sentence that refers to an engineer or a manager as 'she'. When we don’t think ‘hey, a woman!’ if it’s a female voice that addresses us from the flight-deck. When the minor characters in stories and jokes—generic bar clients, stone-age people or football supporters - can be equally female or male because nobody pays attention to it. When no ones is avoided, eliminated of pushed to the background. When a female is not just a ‘no-man’, i.e. a no-person.
If our language is systematically flawed and/or rests on an understructure of invalid rules then we are misled and deceived at a fundamental perceptual level. The rules by which we make meaning, ones intrinsically associated with language, had to be invented and defined (Dale Spender).
Change, for anyone, comes when we see how hard things are now and realise they won’t change on their own. We don't think of our task as crowbarring a change people don’t want; we try to look for ways to ignite their wish to feel better than this language currently allows.
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