Tuesday, 11 October 2011

A language fit for woman

There is a strange persistence about the term ‘man’. Man-made, mankind, manpower, the man in the street, or simply, man – all fine, if we agreed that ‘man’ had just one definition: “an adult human male”. However, at some point it was decided that, for convenience’s sake, ‘man’ would not only mean ‘man’ but simultaneously: “human beings in general; the human race” (Oxford Dictionaries 2011). The question is: why is this the case? Why is it ‘man’ that is the universal and not ‘woman’? And what does this single universality mean for humanity?

Historically, society consisted only of men, that is, ‘adult human males’. Women had no place within it but at the side of men – the ‘tradition’ of taking the male partner’s surname in marriage still shows to this day: women belong(ed) to men. Up until recently, women could not vote, they (largely) could not read and write, they could not participate in public discourse such as science, politics and religion, and they could not affect real change. Therefore, it was only ‘natural’ that men should refer to themselves only when speaking of and to humanity, that is, other ‘adult human males’ but never women. ‘Man’ equalled ‘human’.

Fortunately times have changed considerably since those dark days for womankind. Today, women (in the UK) are able to do all of the above as (relatively) full members of humanity. But while woman might finally be allowed to put her thoughts into actions, we disconcertingly continue to disallow her from putting her actions into thoughts, or indeed, words. To give a few examples: “Baroness Warsi becomes new Conservative Party chairman” (BBC 2011), “Serena [Williams …] let herself down and showed poor sportsmanship” (Reuters 2011) and even in fashion, the bastion of women (workers), fabrics continue to be “man-made” (Guardian 2011). When it comes to being a full member of humanity, it seems woman has to (linguistically) man up.

But why does it matter if we ‘read’ man instead of woman when in ‘reality’ woman can be (fully) human?

As the linguist Edward Sapir argues: language is not only part of reality but “the ‘real world’ is to a large extent unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group” (Carroll 1973, 134). If we continue to read and hear ‘man’ as the only human, woman can, and will, continue to be refrained from taking her rightful place within humanity. Moreover, if we allow 'man' to continue to think of himself as the only human, we continue to keep women's rights confined to the specific, that is, seperate from human rights. The feminist linguist Senta Trömel-Plötz therefore believes: “[n]icht ausgeschlossen zu sein, sichtbar zu sein ist der erste Schritt, um nicht degradiert zu werden” - '[n]ot to be excluded, to be visible is the first step not to be degraded' (Trömel-Plötz 1994, 65, my translation).

Women’s visibility in language is a paramount step towards ensuring her visibility beyond. Employing terms that openly connote ‘man’ do nothing to help woman towards fully participating in humanity, that is, as an equal member in her own right. We have to remember that the apparent universality of the term 'man' stems from a time when man was the only human, to allow woman to be(come) equally human such pseudo-universality needs to be confined to the dustbin of the past. If we, as women, are finally able to shape our present, we should equally be concerned with putting the writing about it on the wall. After all, if the present continues to read like the past, it might all too easily once more become our future.

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Carroll, John B, ed. 1973. Language, Thought, and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf. Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Trömel-Plötz, Senta. 1994. Frauensprache: Sprache der Veränderung. Frankfurt am Main: Fisher Taschenbuch Verlag.

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