LANGTIVIST: SEXISM IN LANGUAGE

By Rahaman Onike

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Nowadays, the use of gender-based references in usage has become subject of criticism among grammarians. This is one of the aftermath effects of the women liberation struggles in the global linguistics contexts.

This shows that there is now widespread awareness which was lacking a generation ago, of the way in which language covertly displays social attitudes towards men and women.

The criticisms have been mainly directed at the biases built into English vocabulary and grammar to reflect a traditionally oriented view of the world, and which have been interpreted as reinforcing the low status of women and myth of male gender superiority over female gender.

The women’s movement and the activities of the gender advocates have in recent years drawn considerable attention to the problems of masculine bias in the use of language. The issues here are more social than linguistic.

Like earlier linguistic issues, sexism has ignited global debates and further interrogations by linguists and grammarians beyond what can be dismissed with a wave of hand.

Roughly since the 1970s, certain established uses of language have specifically come to be regarded as discriminating against women, either because they are based on male terminology or because women appear to be given a status that is linguistically and socially subsidiary.

Sexist language therefore results when a writer fails to use the same terminology when referring to men and women. Hence, writers are cautioned against using generic he/him when your subject could be either male or female. Use the third person plural or the phrase he or she, if possible to avoid controversy.

Not so long ago, there was also a distinct male bias in grammar. Words where gender is not known is not referred to such as student, pupil, entrant, employee, fan and worker were always accompanied by a masculine personal pronoun such as he or him, or masculine determiner his.

This was formerly standard practice e.g. if a student fails the exam twice, he will be asked to leave the cruise. In recent times, it has been acknowledged that this tendency to use the masculine pronoun is sexist.

Some gender specific nouns in the English language is implicitly considered discriminatory against women. To this school of thought, it is an aberration for one to use a word like chairmen to refer to a group of men and women. Your expression will be seen to be discriminatory against women in the group.

In such circumstance, a better option would be chairpersons or just chairs. Likewise, female-marked terms such as poetess and hostess are considered as a discriminating way of giving prominence to gender than the performance or act. Instead of poetess and hostess, the more acceptable alternatives are poet and host.

In general, it is better one avoids gender-marked terms in situations where a person’s gender is not of any relevance. Instead of using gender-specific nouns, it is better one uses non-sexist equivalents for such words.

The word supervisors can replace foremen, humanity in place of mankind, police officers for policemen, salesmen can be substituted with gender-neutral alternative salespersons among others.

Parts of the guidelines for non-sexist usage is to avoid peopling your examples with one sex. It is also important one avoids using modifiers or suffixes to nouns to mark sex of reference unnecessarily as such usage tends to promote continued sexual stereotyping e.g.

instead of saying lady secretary, it is preferable to simply say or write secretary or just say professor instead of lady professor.

In the past, “A doctor should listen carefully to his patients” was an acceptable sentence. Such sentence is no longer acceptable today because doctors can be male or female. Using only male pronoun (his) to refer to all doctors is therefore inappropriate and sexist under the current usage.

The three most effective techniques for avoiding sexist pronoun usage include: making the pronoun and its antecedent plurals; rewording the sentence, and using an occasional disjunctive pronoun such as he or she.

To make the pronoun and its antecedents plural, the sentence will read: “Doctors should listen carefully to their patients”. If the same sentence is to ne reworded, one needs to recast thus: An important part of medical practice is listening carefully to patients.

The third illustration is the occasional use of disjunctive pronoun in expressing the same thought: A doctor should listen carefully to his or her patients.

The three revisions done to the unacceptable sentence have subtle differences in tone and meaning. One revision might work best in a certain context; another might be best in a different context.

Good writers do not rely exclusively on any single technique for avoiding sexism, writers should instead use whichever one you deem most appropriate in situational contexts.

The efforts to get rid of sexism in vocabulary was profound and far-reaching since 1970s as earlier stated. Hence, global attention is now being paid to desexing grammar.

The use of each and every is therefore encouraged in usage to get rid of sexism. It was one of the established rules of grammar that each used either as an adjective (or as a determiner as it is now known) or pronoun should be accompanied by a singular verb, as in, ‘it’s difficult to make a choice because each seems equally suitable’.

The same was true of the adjective or determiner every. It, too, had to be accompanied by a singular verb, as in, ‘every worker is to be given a share of the company profits’.

Despite the prominence of the given examples of use of each and every, there are still sentences we can construct using each and every that will take us back to sexism again e.g. every worker was given his share of the company profits. However, the sentence can be restructured to get rid of sexism thus: every worker was given their share of the company profits.Although,the sentence may equally be a subject of contention.

To make language truly inclusive, sexist terms therefore need to be avoided. By so doing, the writer would be seen treating men and women equally. For example, many feel that women are excluded when man is used to refer to both men and women e.g. man’s achievements in the twentieth century are impressive.

With the new global linguistic trends, there is considerable interest in finding substitute suffix for – man in a number of compounds like spokesman, chairman, anchorman, draftsman etc. The gender-neutral alternatives are spokesperson, chairperson, anchorperson, draftsperson etc.

Despite the criticism of words regarded as either derogatory or discriminatory against women, the protagonists of gender-neutral words and advocacy against sexist language have not succeeded in its entirety as there is no proof that gender-biased words have been completely eradicated from current usage.

Given the historical antecedents and other socio-linguistic considerations it has become an imperative that writers should avoid as much as possible the use of words that have been labelled gender-biased particularly in formal writing, public communication and general administration.

FURTHER READINGS

  • Andrea L. &R. Connors (2000) The St. Martin’s Handbook: New York, St. Martin’s Press.
  • Crews F. (1999) The Random House Handbook: New York, Random House.
  • Crystal D. (2000) The English Language: A guided tour of the Language: England, Penguin Books Limited
  • Hacker D. (1999) A Writer’s Reference: Boston, Bedford Books of St. Martin’s Press.
  • Hadges J.C. et al (2001) The Writer’s Harbrace Handbook: New York, Harcourt College Publishers
  • Hult C.A. and T.N. Huckin (2008) The New Century Handbook: New York, Pearson Longman.
  • Kirszner L.G. and S.R. Mandell (2000) The Holt Handbook: New York, Holt Rinehart and Winston Inc.
  • The Merriam – Webster of English usage (1989): Springfield Massa Chusetts, Merriam Webster Inc. Publishers
  • Webster’s Better English usage by Glasgow, Geddes & Grosset

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1 Comment
  1. Azeez Soliu Abiodun says

    God bless you for shedding more lights on this sir.

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