Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Of wim and menwim

One of my favourite discoveries since learning about feminist linguistics and feminist literature is work that combines the two: creative writing that plays with language. Gerd Brantenberg’s novel “Egalias døtre” (The Daughters of Egalia) has so far particularly stood out – not only does it turn all our ‘oh-so-natural’ gender roles neatly upside down, it equally challenges the myth of ‘it’s-just-language’. And in Egalia, nothing is safe.

“That’s the way of nature, Christopher, my love. I give birth and you receive. After all it is menwim who beget children!” (Brantenberg 1985, 90) is not just an interesting take on the dominant understanding of reproduction, it also brings another problematic to light: the derivative nature of the terms we employ to refer to ‘men’ and ‘women’. In a world where only to be (a) ‘man’ means to be fully human, is the prefix ‘wo-‘ a convenient shorthand for women’s subordinate position? Just like ‘woman’ herself, her term is somehow like ‘man’ but at the same time, not quite like him after all.

To escape the semantic weight of ‘man’, many feminists prefer to use terms such as ‘womon’ (singular), or ‘womyn’ or ‘wimmin’ (plural). However, as the niche position of these adaptations shows, women do not generally take issue with being referred to as women. But what if the tables were turned? Would we think it just as ‘neutral’ to refer to ‘wom’ as the model (linguistic) ‘huwom’? And further, would ‘manwom’ feel just as content with being referred to as somehow like ‘wom’ but at the same time, not quite like her?

As one character aptly observes: “take the word ‘manwom’ […] it suggests that a manwom is just a certain sort of wom, though a wom isn't any sort of manwom […] And then there’s the way they say wom or womkind to mean the whole huwom race for huwomity. ‘The rights of wom’… ‘wom-made fibres’” (145-146). Maybe it’s unfamiliarity that makes the ‘neutral’ term suddenly stick out like a sore thumb, but all I can read and imagine is just one sex – and in a world which favours this very sex, how neutral is it to apply the label ‘wom’?

But “Egalias døtre” does not only encourage much needed linguistic nit-picking, it’s also lots of fun – which conveniently challenges another popular myth: whoever said that feminists don’t have a sense of humour? Mind you, they say that about the Germans too and judging from the German edition, they got it equally wrong. But then again, it’s a Gerwoman who translated it. Or even better, a Gerwom!

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Brantenberg, Gerd. 1985. The Daughters of Egalia. Translated by Louis Mackay. London: Journeyman.

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