Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Why challenging the English language matters

On a recent trip to Germany I went to the “Deutsches Hygiene Museum” in Dresden – which is not a shrine to the German quest for cleanliness but all about the human body. And from a German perspective things were certainly looking up with regard to humanity. No longer was “der gläserne Mensch”, which roughly translates as “the transparent human” but always used to be a man, the star attraction but “die gläserne Frau”. That’s right, woman is a/the representative human!

However, from an English perspective that was about as far as the good news went. “Der Mensch”, according to the ever-present English translations, was still the one and only: “man”. And the linguistic overruling of woman’s (bold) presence did not stop here; a photography exhibition advertised with a female chimney sweep above the capture: “Kleider machen Leute” read instead of the literal translation “Clothes make people” as “Clothes make the man”. In short, we might (be allowed to) see ‘woman’ but at least in the English language, we definitely read only ‘man’.

Clothes make the man?
Clothes make the man?

But why does this matter? Well, a less critical eye, or indeed most second language learners, might take these (mis)translations as read and simply accept the linguistic reduction of ‘human’ to ‘man’. And in a world where English is pretty much the default language for international communication, the meaning of humanity might just conveniently regress back to connoting just the one human. And in one giant sweep patriarchy puts all of women’s global (linguistic) achievements back to square one.

So swiftly to the point, we need to keep challenging the English language if we want to (continue to) be considered fully human. Not just for our own sake, but for the sake of all our feminist linguist sisters who daily chip away at the dominance of ‘hombre’, ‘homme’, ‘uomo’, ‘丁’, ‘мужчи́на’, ‘Mann’...


  1. Where I come from (somewhere in the South West of England) "him/he" is used to refer to objects as well as males.

    A: What did you do with that book?
    B: I left him on the bookshelf.

    A: What happened to your leg?
    B: He's broken! Fell over and snapped him, didn't I.

    A: What did you think of that film last night?
    B: He was rubbish. I ain't a fan of they kinds of films.

    As a man, does this make me feel like an object? Does it make me feel less than human? No. There are languages that make no distinction between objects and males, there are languages that make no distinction between genders at all, there are languages that assign an arbitrary gender to every object or concept, and so on. It's just the way people talk. It really doesn't matter at all.

    This is a problem that exists only in the mind. I'm not suggesting that there aren't real issues that are worth your time, I'm just saying that this isn't one of them. It makes you seem a little paranoid, if I'm being honest. Why not instead talk about something that matters? I don't know, the treatment of women within various religions. Wouldn't something like that be more worth your time and energy?

    If you enjoy writing this stuff, then do it. It's an interesting topic. Just try not to take it so personally when the conventions of language, being somewhat arbitrary and having evolved gradually over thousands of years, are not what you would like them to be.

  2. I am uncomfortable with the concept that language is “just the way people talk. It really doesn't matter at all” for two reasons in particular: firstly, it removes people’s responsibility to think about how they express themselves, and secondly, it presents language as something separate from and therefore inconsequential to our reality.

    However, one brief look at history quickly shows that language has far from been ‘just’ a means to express ourselves – in fact, it has played a crucial role in cementing many discriminating ideologies; be it by dehumanising African slaves or naming and shaming gay men and women. So treating language as ‘just language’ is problematic to say the least.

    Regarding the arbitrariness of grammatical gender, referring to books and legs as ‘he’ might not be (so) much of a problem but this changes abruptly when applied to terms relating to human beings. There are plenty of studies which show that the supposedly gender-neutral pronoun ‘he’ rarely makes readers think of women, which in turn restricts our view of humanity to ‘just’ men (this is an interesting overview: http://goo.gl/AegBR).

    And in a world where men have for millennia been, and still are, considered the norm, is their linguistic dominance not just a little uncanny?

  3. You see, what you're doing there is misrepresenting my position. I wasn't talking about slavery or homophobia, and to equate normal language use with such things is a bit of cheap shot really. Yes, the deliberate targeting of a group of people in that way is obviously not acceptable but it's a different subject entirely - a more important one, in fact.

    My main point (which you ignored) is this: "There are languages that make no distinction between objects and males, there are languages that make no distinction between genders at all, there are languages that assign an arbitrary gender to every object or concept, and so on."

    How does your theory mesh with languages that make no distiction between genders? How does it mesh with languages that give every object an arbitrary gender? Why are these conventions not the same over the whole world? Could it be because they are arbitrary? Why is referring to books, legs, toilets and turds as "he" or "him" not demeaning to men? To take everything as an indication of some kind of underlying motivation that is sexist is not a healthy path to go down, in my opinion. How far down the rabbit hole would you be prepared to go?

    One thing to consider is that the more arbitrary grammatical structures become, the less people have to spend time thinking about them, and the less time people have to spend thinking about grammar, the more time they have to think about things that actually matter.

    If you take the word "woman", analysing the roots show that it is descended from a word that originally meant "wife-man", but how many people actually think of that when they hear the word? If you look at a language like Sranan (which incidentally makes no distinction between the three genders with its third-person-singular words "a" and "en"), where "woman" has become "uma", you see just how arbitrary it really is. Few people who say "uma" are going to be thinking "this word originally meant 'wife-man'" but analysing the roots of the word show that it is descended from a word that did originally mean that. Of course, the reasons for the existence of words like this probably do have to do with the fact that women were seen as lesser at the time of such words being coined, and that shouldn't be overlooked, but to suggest that "woman" in its modern usage is an intrinsically sexist word because of that would be absurd, in the same way that it would be absurd to suggest that "uma" is an intrinsically sexist word. You see, these conventions of language really are arbitrary. The reason they are used is so that people can understand what each other are saying. What word do you suggest people should use instead of "woman"? How are you going to persuade the entire English-speaking world to start using your alternative word? Of course, the simple answer is that you wouldn't be able to do it, so perhaps your energies might be better focused elsewhere, but, also, you have to wonder if there would actually be a good reason to do such a thing, if that were possible.

  4. That’s exactly my point: sexist language use is considered ‘normal’ and ‘less important’ because it has been around for so long – your first paragraph confirms just that by assigning a higher value to addressing one form of (linguistic) discrimination over another.

    Regarding the supposed arbitrariness of meaning, as you state yourself, the word ‘woman’ originated from a specification of the word ‘man’ which in turn confirms that there is nothing arbitrary about the term ‘woman’. However, I did not argue that the use of ‘woman’ was sexist (although this is certainly an interesting angle to consider) but the use of the term ‘man’ as a universal for ‘woman’ and ‘man’.

    And as to persuading ‘the entire English-speaking world’, that will always be a failed mission – all I can, and indeed intend to do, is give a different perspective on language use, which to me is never ‘normal’, ‘neutral’ or ‘insignificant’.