The Power of the Tongue: Combating Linguistic Sexism in the Modern World

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Being the only daughter between two boys, and coming from a matriarchal-machista household, like most Latino homes, my experience with language sexism is particular.

“Boys don’t wash the dishes,” “girls don’t play baseball,” were just some expressions repeated continuously in my family, to the point of making a dent in my unconscious, and perpetuating the collective of which I am a part.

If my brothers were brave and tough, they were that, brave and tough. If I dared to climb higher in the tree, something had to be done to “prevent the girl from being called a tomboy.”

“She’s hysterical; he’s got character.”

“She’s crazy; he’s frustrated.”

“She’s whiny; he’s sensitive.”

Realizing the extent of suppressive machismo in language is an awakening for which many women (and men) in the world simply don’t have time.

It is millions of years of development as a species, and several centuries of manipulating the social base, always tipping the scales in one direction.

For centuries, human beings have tried to separate themselves from the rest of nature by flaunting their cognitive development, their completely opposable thumb, and mainly their language.

It is not that the rest of living beings don’t possess some kind of code, but from the pre-Socratics to Churchill, pride in the mastery of the word has been a fundamental characteristic of our species.

The American anthropologist Roy Rappaport used to say that all human societies are structured around language, whether reliable or not.

The double complexity of being able to communicate is knowing the scope and power of the announced (or written) word, the concepts of honesty that may exist, and the alternatives to the message, sometimes called “lies.”

But perhaps the most powerful thing about language is that what you don’t enounce loses value, or simply disappears.

And that includes the genres.

“If language and literature reflect and express social attitudes, they also can have the power to influence, to shape, those attitudes and values,” wrote Nigerian scholar Nneka Umera-Okeke in her paper Linguistic Sexism: An Overview of the English Language in Everyday Discourse.

Without going back to the sacred scriptures of the early religious cults, no one in the modern world can dare deny the female gender’s suppression in language. Although it is more present in languages such as French and Spanish, the English language has also given place to unbearable androcentrism.

The meaning and recognition that words give to the individual have become a tool for the suppression of individualities, identities, and access to power in general.

At a critical moment for the vindication of gender and identity diversity, this suppression is even more visible.

And it is a daily work, of filigree, dedication, and awareness, which implies including us all in the everyday discourse.

The challenge is to identify its non-discriminatory use.

Gender, roles, and professions

Sexism in language is a complex web rooted in centuries of machismo perpetuated in the “political correctness” that so many want to get rid of today.

It marks a series of expectations in individuals’ appearances determined by their gender, which migrate to their actions, skills, emotions, and role in society.

“Sexist language is especially common in situations that describe jobs-common assumptions include that all doctors are men, all nurses are women, all coaches are men, or all teachers are women,” Umera-Okeke continues. “Most people would agree that these assumptions are largely untrue today, though the language used often perpetuates the stereotypes.”

But it also includes derogatory references that determine other qualities in the genres.

“Whore,” “bitch,” “son of a bitch” are just a few examples of the expressions that determine a pejorative attribute based on gender, as is the case with prostitution, traditionally female in language but profoundly diverse in execution.

It seems that the viewpoint of the professions and attributes of individuals has been and continues to be exclusively male and heterosexual.

Similarly, in semantics, the English language’s connotations have perpetuated a subjugation of the feminine to the masculine.

In a 2016 article, The Guardian listed the most common examples of sexism in the English language and included: mistress v. master, governor v. governess, spinster v. bachelor, and courtier v. courtesan.

Other more common expressions include: “to man up,” “to grow a pair (of balls),” “to be a sissy,” “(to do something) like a girl,” “man and wife,” “to wear the trousers in the relationship,” and the despicable “boys will be boys.”

How to combat the centuries-old infestation of male chauvinism in language?

This is perhaps as difficult as dismantling racist language in our new generations; it is as complicated as convincing the world that women are not objects of consumption and that language belongs to all.

The struggle also goes back to the second wave of feminism in the late sixties, where academic activism proposed some linguistic tools to fight machismo from the unconscious language, which Anne Pauwels calls linguistic disruption.

This includes the inversion of pronouns in the discourse, the breaking of morphological and grammatical rules, and even the creation of new words, as happened in the Spanish campaign to incorporate a neutral gender in language, and adding an “e” as an option to the “o” and “a.”  For example, ministro, ministra, ministre.

In the United States, the most obvious example is the neologism Latinx, a gender-neutral strategy to refer to people who share the Latin American identity in the country, without distinction of gender.

Although this new linguistic phenomenon has been the subject of debate between conservative Latinos who insist on gender separation and the new generation that advocates for non-binary revolution it is the latest symptom of a society ready to break with old patterns.

And from the personal trenches, the struggle is a daily exercise.

Stopping sexist comments in its tracks, taking two seconds to really listen to what we are saying, and reclaiming our safety in public and private spaces is the most powerful germ of a battle that seems to have no end.