You Said WHAT?: Understanding Linguistic Reinforcement of Gender

It started out as a simple conversation about the SlutWalk campaigns: I was talking to my roommate, Katherine P. (to whom this post is dedicated), and we were talking about linguistic reappropriation and the amelioration of the stigma associated with the word “slut”.  (So, just a typical roommate chat for us.)  And all of the sudden, Katherine looked at me and said, “You know what bothers me?  The way we talk about women’s rights.  We say things like ‘women have earned the right to be treated equally’ or things of that nature.  But this implies that men had an inherent right to their status and that women did not have an inherent right to the same status, that they were not born equal but had to elevate themselves to the position men had.”

She was right, of course.  When we say that women have earned equality, we are indeed conceding that they are not born equal to men.  This is contradictory to the basic idea of feminism, that women are inherently equal to men (just as it one of the tenets of the LGBTQ movement that homosexual people are inherently equal to heterosexual people).  This equality should not have to be earned.

But it did get me thinking about linguistic reinforcement.  Language and cultural each work to shape each other, and cannot really be considered distinct from each other.  For example, the use of the word “Shalom” in Hebrew to mean “Hello”, “Goodbye”, and “peace” is a reflection on the idea in Hebrew (if we’re honest, Jewish) culture that it is hoped that one will come and go in peace.  (This is not my strongest example but it is an easy one to understand.)

As a system of symbols meant to communicate meaning, language is a powerful tool for understanding various parts of a culture, including the way that gender is perceived.  For example, the French word for husband is “mari” but the French word for wife is “femme”—literally “woman”.  So if a man said “C’est ma femme”, he is saying “this is my wife” but in reality, “this is my woman”.  Pretty possessive way to say that, no?

French is probably littered with examples of male dominance.  Even the word “it” is masculine, using the same pronoun used to mean “he” (in French, “il”), so that if one were to say “it is cold” in French, it would be said “il fait froid”.  This even manages to top the de facto male in English in a way, delineating in French that the basic norm is male.  Anything gendered feminine in French is a variation on the normal base word.

In most Romance languages, too, a masculine dominance does emerge.  No, this is not me being nit-picky here…think about it.  If there is a group of three women being discussed, Spanish uses the pronoun “ellas” (she, plural) but even if it is nine women and one man, the pronoun “ellos” must be used to denote the presence of a male person.  French works the same way.

Moreover, in many languages that have gender built into their terminology, there are words for which there is only a male form.  There is, for example, no feminine word for “rabbi” in Hebrew; that position has been traditionally reserved for me and only opened to women in the recent past, and the actual noun is uniquely masculine.  In Spanish, there is no word for a female matador.  According to Professor Grandas of American University, even if a woman pursues a career as a matador, rather than refer to her as a matadora…the word matador would still be used to denote the masculinity assigned the profession.

English is by no means an exception to this rule.  Gender is present in everything, including the way we talk about…well…gender.  Want examples?  Forgive me if any of these sound a little crude but “Grow a pair”, “you’ve got balls”, “man up”, etc. are all obviously gendered expressions.  All of the ones I just picked refer to demonstrating maturity, or guts, or strength, or responsibility…unsurprisingly, all things that we are socialized to believe “men” should be.  As Penelope Eckert and Sally McConnel-Ginet pointed out in their 2003 paper on gender and language”, we assign gender from the moment of birth, with the announcement “it’s a boy” or “it’s a girl”.  They also point out that even developmental discourse is gendered, that we tell children that they are now a “big boy” or “big girl”, thereby implying that they grow, not just into adults or people but into boys and girls, men and women.

And then of course there is the discourse that I started this post by discussing, the actual discourse of women’s rights.  The entire concept of a right is that it is inherent, that we are born with it, that it is innate.  I have the right to vote in America because I am a US Citizen, and I am born to that right.  I did not earn it. Maybe I should have had to.  But we do not earn rights, we earn privileges, and when we describe equality as “earned”, we (knowingly or not) delineate it as a privilege, something that can be exclusive, instead of something that is inherent at birth.

So were all men created equal, and then women reached their level, or were they all created equal?  How we discuss equality does contribute to our understanding of what it is, and how we utilize language to pass on ideas does influence how those ideas become institutionalized and reinforced within society.  Sticks and stones may break our bones, but those wounds will heal far faster than the social rifts that words will reinforce.


Parrs, K. (American University, School of International Service)


~ by Randi Saunders on September 1, 2011.

2 Responses to “You Said WHAT?: Understanding Linguistic Reinforcement of Gender”

  1. I decided a couple years ago that I was tired of phrases like: “They’ve got balls!” to denote courage. I mean, have you met a pair of balls?! I very much enjoy balls, but they are anything but strong and courageous. They are vulnerable, and require love, affection, and protection. If you think about it, the metaphor just doesn’t make sense. And of course the classic: “You’re being a pussy!” to denote one’s weakness.

    So I do something else. When I want to use a metaphor for courage, I say: “They have a cervix of steel!” and when I want to denote vulnerability: “You’re a sack of balls!”.

    It’s amazing how just turning those phrases on their head force people to look at little things. The first reaction I always get is: “But that doesn’t make any sense!” Neither does the original, I point out. My version at least makes more logical sense. Then I usually get a dismissal like: “Silly feminist make mountains out of mole hills.”

    I do it because language is important, and the simple words we say enforce and reflect a lot of ideas and attitudes.

  2. It’s so true, and I think what you did was both interesting and amusing 🙂

    I get a lot of the “silly feminist” stuff too, and I get it about stuff like victim-blaming in rape cases sometimes, or equal pay, or whatever. But as you so correctly pointed out, even small issues are indicative of larger attitudes that are actually the problem

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