Language. We use it every single day. It is a medium through which we conduct our relationships and subsequently it gives rise to cultural attitudes.
I study Linguistics, the study of language, so it’s safe to say I’m pretty in tune with people’s language use – and probably a lot more than the general population would care to think about. Whilst some elements of the English language perhaps don’t really matter and could go amiss (although it pains me to even type this!), for example, the use of the possessive apostrophe; there are other elements of language which can have an effect on the entire architecture of our social perspective.
Our language use says a lot about us, whether we like to admit it or not. I guess you could even say that the history of language is a fossilized record of how society’s attitudes have evolved over time; or how certain terms have remained fossilized and haven’t changed.
Madam, for example, is the female equivalent of Sir, meaning a woman of high rank. This is still used in formal contexts; however, during the late 18th century it acquired a meaning of “a conceited or precocious girl or young woman; a hussy, a minx” and in the late 19th century, referred to the manager of a brothel. The meaning has therefore semantically degraded over time, so that the male and female terms are no longer, always, equivalents. A prime example of language change for you to mull over.
It’s the case that a lot of the time we have no idea that the language we choose holds very different connotations to those which we are intending; and often it’s the words and expressions which we accept as normal that are the ones to watch…
For example, our language is littered with terms which refer to men as the dominant group: “hey guys”, “mankind”, “I’m just manning the stand” and even “oh man”. These terms and phrases just pour out of our mouths, without a second thought.
But why does this matter? Why can’t I just stick with hey guys? Who am I offending?
It does matter because our language defines pretty much everything we say and do.
Think about it. Language is like a mirror. The reflection we see when someone talks about “mankind” or says “hey guys” is that women aren’t as visible. Basically, we’re continuously perpetuating that men are standard, and women, well, aren’t.
It’s not as if there aren’t alternatives which can be used… Instead, we can diverge from men as the powerful collective and instead use inclusive terms: “hey everyone”, “humankind”, “staffing the stand” and “oh no”. Simple.
Would you ever talk about David Beckham as a male soccer player? No? But I bet you would talk about the male nurse that you saw last week at the surgery. I get you. I’d probably do the same, as we can’t deny that these roles have stereotyped gender expectations. To show we’re deviating from the norm we often feel the need to modify the term to show this difference. But hey, we’re living (or should I say, trying our best to live) in an equal society, so why do we need to overtly state these differences? We don’t!
Defining women by their marital status is another common one. Mr. John Smith is always Mr. John Smith, regardless of whether he is a newborn baby or has just entered retirement. But for women there exists a variety of titles: Miss, Ms., Mrs., which are indicative of the woman’s marital status.
OxfordDictionaries.com has added a gender-neutral title “Mx”, with the following definition: a title used before a person’s surname or full name by those who wish to avoid specifying their gender or by those who prefer not to identify themselves as male or female. So, perhaps next time you’re signing your name on a form you could use Mx as your title – you might feel like a linguistic rebel – but in the future this could be the norm.
So I know, it can all sound a bit extreme when these terms and expressions have been engraved into our mental lexicon since the word go – I mean, how were we meant to know when we were in the womb which language would hold potentially unequal or negative connotations, or not?!
But now we’re surely all clever enough to know that our words have consequences, and this is why we need to make a conscious effort to call time on gendered language. (Who knows, future generations of linguistics students could even be writing essays on the gendered language revolution!)
If we make a conscious effort to choose our words more carefully, we could make a difference to gender representation in society.
So, come on everyone, I dare you. Eat your gendered words.