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Language's Role In Sustaining Inequality Between The Sexes
Although it is disputed whether language causes sexism or sexism causes certain language, language does play a part in sexism (Wikipedia). Given that the development of society has gone hand in hand with the development of language, it is unlikely that the causation will ever be determined. However, whether language causes sexism or sexism causes certain language, it is clear that language plays a key role in sustaining inequality between the sexes.
At its most basic, language is a system of symbols used by human beings to communicate with each other. However, language is not simply how humans communicate with one another, but also how humans communicate within themselves. Therefore, if language is sexist, then the actions, and even the thoughts, that it describes are sexist (West). For example, words with gender-based connotations imply that the attributes necessary to perform the duties related to those words are limited to only one gender (West).
Language perpetuates inequality in a variety of manners. The most dramatic example of language-based sexism is when gender or sex related words are used in a pejorative manner. Less obviously sexist is when gender-linked words are used to reinforce the idea that masculinity is superior to femininity. Furthermore, there are certain gender-neutral words that have come to be so linked with one sex or another that their use to describe a person of the other gender is preceded by a gender designation. Language also reveals how pairs of words that should be equivalent across genders have lesser connotations for the feminine part of the pair. Furthermore, the gender bias in terminology associated with leaders and rulers perpetuates a bias towards male leadership. The use of male pronouns and nouns to describe people of both sexes tends to marginalize the existence of women in society. Additionally, the manner in which married women and men are referred to, both in titles and in the verbs associated with marriage reveal a society biased towards the idea of women as passive or as property. Even the names given to male and female children demonstrate that men are expected to be strong and virtuous, while women are expected to be decorative and pretty. In addition, grown women are referred to as girls or ladies, rather than as women. Furthermore, the metaphors that are associated with men and women show a tendency to describe men as more substantive and stronger than women. Finally, the sexualizing of women's body parts is rampant in language, with body parts being used in manners wholly inconsistent with their actual use or designation. While any one of these trends in language, on its own, might not do much to foster inequality of the sexes, combined they help shape and create, and, in turn, are shaped and created by, a society that still regards women as less than men.
Gender-based words also play a role in maintaining sexual inequality when used in an insulting manner. For example, some of the most pejorative insults in the English language consist of calling a person a derogatory term for a vagina. Not only is the "p" word one of the ultimate insults that a person can levy towards a man, it has also become synonymous with an absolute lack of courage. Given that women use their vaginas to bring forth life, in what is almost universally recognized as an extremely painful process, the fact that a euphemism for the word "vagina" has become synonymous with the word "coward" indicates how language helps perpetuate sexual inequality.
Furthermore, not only women's body parts, but the very nouns used to designate a female human, are used as insults. For example, the words, "girl" and "lady" are used as labels of inferiority when applied to both men and women, and to "make a man" out of someone is to make them more or better (Bartlett). It is an insult to tell someone, even a woman that she throws like a girl or runs like a girl. It is also an insult to call a person of either sex a "sissy," even though that word was derived from sister (Nilsen). Furthermore, while never-married women are referred to pejoratively as old maids, so are "pretentious and fussy old men" (Nilsen).
The use of the feminine as an insult is hardly something new. In fact, not even goddesses were immune from the demonizing or trivializing of the feminine. While Mars spawned the positive adjective "martial," Venus has the dubious honor of being the root of the word "venereal," as in "venereal disease."
Not only are feminine nouns and pronouns used in an insulting manner, but masculine words have positive denotations rarely associated with feminine words. The word "womanly" is defined as "having qualities generally associated with a woman," or "being appropriate in character to a woman" (Mish). In contrast, the word "manly" is defined as "strong" and "virile." A little girl who is considered unusually active is referred to as a "tomboy." Furthermore:
When a little girl is told to be a lady, she is being told to sit with her knees together and to be quiet and dainty. But when a little boy is told to be a man he is told to be noble, strong, and virtuous- to have all the qualities that the speaker looks on as desirable. The concept of manliness has such positive connotations that it used to be a compliment to call someone a he-man, to say that he was doubly a man (Nilsen).
Today, the term "manly-man" is still used in a complimentary manner.
Furthermore, some gender-neutral nouns have become so-associated with one gender or another that, when used to designate someone of the opposite gender, they are preceded by a designation of female or male. An example of this is the word "prostitute." While the word "prostitute" can be used to define either men or women who engage in sex for money, one frequently hears the phrase "male prostitute," but never the phrase "female prostitute." Likewise, the word "whore," while technically defining a person of either gender who engages in sex for money, is used almost exclusively to describe women. Both "prostitute" and "whore" have extremely pejorative connotations. In contrast, the term "gigolo," which defines "a man supported by a woman usually in return for his attentions" does not have the pejorative connotation of either "prostitute" or "whore" (Mish). In addition to its less-negative connotation, the word "gigolo" differs significantly from "prostitute" or "whore" in another manner; unlike the other two words, it can only be used to describe a person of one gender.
Furthermore, pairs of words that one might assume would have similar meanings, regardless of gender, are frequently associated with sexuality. While "a callboy is the person who calls actors when it is time for them to go on stage," "a call girl is a prostitute" (Nilsen). While a master is someone who has perfected a certain skill, such as a chess master, the term "mistress" is most commonly used to describe a woman having an affair with a married man. Furthermore, the terms sir and madam, while initially used to indicate people of the same rank, but different genders, have come to have vastly different connotations. "Sir is a term of respect, while madam has acquired the specialized meaning of a brothel manager" (Nilsen). One of the more dramatic examples of this phenomenon is the difference in the connotations between the words "wizard" and "witch." While both words refer to magic users and would seem to imply a superior knowledge, the word "witch" has come to be used very negatively to describe women with bad personalities or cruel temperaments, while the term "wizard" or "wiz" is used to describe someone that excels in a certain area, such as a "math wiz" or a "science wiz."
It is not surprising that sexual inequality is revealed most dramatically in the words used to describe sex or gender. What is surprising is how pervasive gender-bias is in language terms that appear to have little to do with sex or gender. For example, people give little thought to the use of the word "kingdom" to describe a country ruled by royalty, even when the ruler is a queen (Nilsen). In fact, few people seem to question the idea that a king marries a woman who becomes a queen, whereas a queen marries a man who becomes, at best, a prince. A woman who is the rightful heir to the throne has the exact same title as a woman who marries an heir to the throne. However, a man who marries the queen can never attain the title of king. Furthermore, all of the titles given to royalty show how sexual inequality cuts both ways by demonstrating that males can be disadvantaged by the assumption that they will be the more powerful member of a pair (Nilsen). When a man holds a title, his wife is automatically given the female equivalent of that title.…[continue]
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