Linguistic Gender Norms

Gendered language impacts the way we describe and think about one another even if it is unintentional at times.

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A tech start-up company known as npm blogged on Tumblr about the recent challenge that some of their coworkers had created in 2015. Every time an employee said the phrase “you guys” to address a group of mixed individuals—an act the company dubbed as “creepy sexism”—they would have to deposit a dollar into a jar. Once the jar reached a certain amount, it would be donated to a different non-profit group.

As a freshman debater, I learned that using the phrase “you guys” to a mixed group of individuals or to a solely female team within the debate space was considered linguistic violence. When I was called out for it, I realized that I had said the phrase instinctively without understanding the connotation. After this incident, I began to grow more sensitive to gendered language used by the people around me.

Unlike languages like French where there is a masculine and feminine form for most nouns, English does not designate genders grammatically. However, a large portion of English is gender-specific or gendered language. Terms such as “policeman” or “policewoman” and male pronouns in sentences like “When a hiker encounters a bear, he should…” show that terms associated with males are the norm. When nouns such as careers are defined by using male pronouns, it is more common for one to envision a man in a laboratory experimenting with chemicals, even with growing gender equality in STEM fields.

In contrast, over the last three decades, French, a traditionally gendered language, has been undergoing a major shift, with feminists and linguists questioning its gender norms. Many have made the argument that because French is such a structurally gendered language, it may lead to greater sexism against women in France. Though this is not soundly supported by evidence, the logic of this reasoning resembles another scientific theory developed in the 20th century known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which argues that language and discourse direct and select one’s thoughts, and linguistic categories determine our thoughts and decisions.

This became known as a theory called “linguistic relativity,” which was built on the belief that the world was subconsciously divided by various cultures through language. Whorf and other supporters of this principle cited examples such as the Hopi, an indigenous tribe that Whorf said had no tenses for words or time-related words such as “before” or “after.” This led Whorf to conclude that time was not a universal concept, but rather was specific to those who spoke European languages. Another supporter of this theory, Lera Boroditsky, gave the example of an Aborigine community called the Aymara, who believe that the future is behind you and the past is in front of you. Even though this theory was eventually rejected by the majority of linguists in the 1960s due to a lack of concrete evidence, there is still a considerable number of psychologists who agree that language does influence and direct our thoughts to a certain extent.

In fact, until the Second-Wave Feminist Movement occurred in the 1960s, any person, regardless of gender, was referred to as “he” or “his” or “him.” Though this has been reformed, gendered language has been replaced with phrases like “you guys,” which is meant to be “gender-neutral,” but is still gendered. The singular word “guy” is defined as a man, yet saying “you guys” has become so naturally used that it is considered unisex despite its singular form being directed toward one gender. Gendered language is extremely dangerous when you see a girl referring to herself and other girls as guys. American novelist Alice Walker says that in doing so, women show a fear of being feminine, which can lead to the erasure of their identities by unintentionally exchanging their identities for another. Rather, gender-neutral alternatives like “everyone” should be used more commonly in place of gendered phrases.

It must be noted, however, that we shouldn’t immediately reject all words that we believe are semiotically only associated with men like “mankind,” as they are not commonly used to address a general population, unlike the phrase “you guys.” There is much controversy over what words in the English language are gendered.

However, we should be aware of the implications that our discourse has. Even when brought to our attention, discursive norms that we have been practicing and using are extremely hard to change. It is the willingness to remain aware and correct oneself that matters.