Can Language be Sexist

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Updated: Feb 20, 2021
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“Language has been regarded as an important practice in human culture. It reflects history, culture and belief of an ethnic group. In most culture, sexist that bias in favor of one sex and discriminates another seems to be common. In such belief, men are conventionally treated as superior while women are inferior. Since there is a correlation between language and culture, it has sometimes been discussed that whether there is sexist language. This essay will argue that language can be as sexist. This will be asserted by arguing that language could create a mentality that men are standard and women are the exception, and it would shape the way we think about different genders.

Language can be sex prejudice to create the message that men are standard and have more power than women. This is because language is built upon the ideology that male is default (Franks, 2010) and women are derived from male category. The grammatical systems of serval languages exemplify this. In Spanish, the masculine plural is used for a group of people with a male element and a male-female pair. For example, the meaning of “los Presidentes” is “the President and First Lady” while the masculine plural “los” is used. The use of masculine plural emphasizes the existence of men and makes women disappear. These gender asymmetries reflect the stereotype that females are subordinate to males in society. Besides, the unmarked gender of words usually refer to male and women’s linguistic status have to be derived from them. Being the most spoken language, some nouns can only be acquired by adding a certain kind of suffixes such as “-ette”, “-ess”, “-trix” to the masculine nouns in English (Lei, 2006). For instant, “princess” is originated from “prince” and “usherette” is originated from “usher” by adding the morpheme “-ess” and “-ette” respectively. Even other language like Spanish has this kind of rules. The Spanish word “inglesa” (girl English), for example, is a derivation from “inglés” (boy English). These examples deliver the message that women are dependent and are appendages of men. Language can thus be sexist because the more we use these languages, the mentality of the dominance of the masculine gender is reinforced, and it implies the sex inequality of male and female.

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Language contains sexist that can create gender stereotype in the society. Language is the shaper of ideas and decide what we can think about (Whorf, 1956). It has the ability to influence people thoughts about reality, so is the gender. A study showed that language can create the thought of gender inequality (Wasserman and Weseley, 2009). In this study, student respondents were asked to read a passage in English, Spanish or French. English is natural gender language while Spanish and French are grammatical gender language, in which all nouns are assigned feminine and masculine gender. After reading the passage, they are required to respond a questionnaire about sexism. The result concluded that students who read in gender language had a higher level of sex bias comparing with students who read in natural gender language. This study indicates that language can shape attitudes about gender and can reinforce discriminatory attitudes. The names of profession in several languages also illustrates how language can create stereotypes. Although names of occupations are often gender unmarked, they usually imply their default gender. And if people want to refer the profession to the another gender, some words like “woman” or “male” have to be added. For example, the default gender of nurse is woman and “male’’ has to be added before to refer nurse who is man. These gender stereotypes in language can create a misunderstanding of what women and men should be and how they should behave. Such images can hamper the development of gender equality and perpetuate sexist in the reality.

Since language can be created and shaped by the culture, some might argue that sexist languages are only generated by the people who have intention to use it in a sexism manner, but not the nature of language itself. While there is some truth in this claim, it fails to consider the fact that language have the ability to reinforce the idea of sexism. Sexism can be perpetrated and reproduced through the mean of verbal communication (Menegatti & Rubini, 2017). According to a study conducted by Prewitt-Freilino, Caswell & Laasko (2012), countries with gender language have less social and economic gender equality. It reveals that language is not only a medium of communication, but also affects recipients’ cognition and behavior. Such sexist in language is transmitting the belief of gender inequality and people would enact sexist action in reality. Another argument against language can be sexist is language is originated from history. Since the language we used have a long history, some may argue that there is no sexist in language, otherwise, the language will not be commonly accepted and used by people. However, being a tradition do not imply there is no problem. People did not perceive sexist language as a problem in the past is due to the severe gender inequality in the society. Women had low social status and low education level. These sex bias in the real life may cause people comprehend sexist language as normative and continue using the language. These arguments therefore demonstrate the exist of sexist language and the consequences of using them.

In conclusion, language can be sexist as well as people and culture as it reflects sexism in the society. Language could build an ideology that men are the standard and women are adjuncts of men. It can furthermore create gender stereotype and affect people thoughts about the behaviors of different genders. With the sex bias in the reality, sexist language can then reinforce the idea of sexism. Nowadays, a majority of countries are putting effort to promote gender equality. Yet, sexist language is hampering the development of an equal gender society. Therefore, sexist language should be avoided and more neutral words should be used to avert discrimination.”

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