English from Feminist’s Eyes

Shankar Dewan

Perhaps no one exactly knows if the early human being was ‘man’ or ‘woman’. But in the Biblical tradition, it is said that God created the two sexes; ‘Adam’ first and ‘Eve’ later by taking of a rib from Adam. God gave Adam the right and power to name and domesticate the animals. This might be the reason why the terms such as ‘mankind’ instead of ‘womankind’;  ‘manhood’ instead of ‘womanhood’; ‘boyhood’ instead of ‘girlhood’; ‘brotherhood’ instead of ‘sisterhood’; ‘forefathers’ instead of ‘foremothers’ were coined and have been very common. English has a lot of words which are formed by adding the terms referring to maleness such as headmaster, manpower, man-made, man-to-man, prehistoric man, man-eating tiger, manhole, fireman, postman, chairman, and so on. Similarly, terms referring to men are put first in the pairs as if the women are the second sex such as father and mother, uncle and aunt, man and woman, king and queen, husband and wife, sir and madam, lord and lady, master and mistress.

English ideology “All men are created equal” is itself gender -biased.  Why can’t we say “All women are created equal”? We can find ‘male’ as a base or root for ‘female’, ‘man’ for ‘woman’, ‘he’ for ‘she’, and ‘Mr’ for ‘Mrs’. These terms show that women are semi-human beings, or subordinate or marginal creatures. Female terms are also formed from the male terms by adding the suffixes such as –ess, -ette, e.g. poet/poetess, author/ authoress, actor/actress, major/majorette, usher/usherette. These examples show that men are core and women are derivative of men.  The famous linguist Janet Holmes views that the use of an additional suffix to signal ‘femaleness’ is seen as conveying the message that women are deviant or abnormal.  It has also been suggested that the suffixes like –ess and –ette trivialize and diminish women, and when they refer to occupations such as ‘authoress’ and ‘poetess’, carry connotations of lack of seriousness. Because the word ‘woman’ does not share equal status with man, terms referring to women have undergone pejoration. If we examine pairs of gender-marked terms such as lord/lady, baronet/dame, Sir/Madam, master/mistress, king/queen, wizard/witch, we can see how female terms may start out on an equal footing, but they become devalued over time.

The English language discriminates against women. When we give our speech, we begin our speech with ‘Ladies and gentlemen’. Does it mean that ladies are not gentle but only men? Why are the men just men but the women are ladies too?  Women are given a title, either ‘Miss’ for unmarried ones and ‘Mrs’ for married ones, but men, whether they are married or not, are given a title ‘Mr.’ Why should we distinguish women as married and unmarried by giving the corresponding title but not for men? Janet Holmes also views that women may also be described or referred to in terms of food imagery such as ‘sugar’, ‘sweetie’, ‘honey’, which is equally insulting. We greet the male teacher using more formal term ‘Bhattarai Sir’ but informal term is used to address the female teacher ‘Meera Madam’. We only use the term ‘doctor’ for male but ‘lady/woman/female doctor’ for female one which conveys the idea that she is not the ‘real’ thing. The word ‘professional’ used with the men has positive sense but with the women has the negative sense i.e. they are prostitutes. Similarly, the term ‘businessman’ has positive connotation but the term ‘business girl’ is used as a slang term for a prostitute. We can say ‘She’s John’s widow,’ but we cannot say ‘He’s Sally’s widower.’ Linda can be described as Fred’s mistress but Fred cannot be described as Linda’s master. Men play golf and cricket, while women play women’s golf and women’s cricket. Why so?

The famous sociolinguist Suzanne Romaine views that language has helped to gender the way we think about space; men’s space is public, in the workplace, while women’s place is private and in the home. This difference is encoded discursively in expressions such as working mother, cleaning lady, businessman, policeman, housewife, making it easier to accept as ‘natural’ the exclusion of women from public life. We have the English phrase ‘career woman/girl’ but not the ‘career man’ as if men by definition have careers, but women who do so must be marked as deviant. Similarly, a man can also be ‘a family man’, but it would be odd to call a woman ‘a family woman’ as if women by definition are family women.

Many grammatical forms are also found gender-biased. We can see or read  the texts where the use of masculine pronouns ‘he’, ‘him’ and ‘his’ is very common, e.g. ‘Everyone should get his hat.’, ‘Somebody has forgotten his umbrella.’, ‘The average student is worried about his grades.’, ‘Each student will do better if he has a voice in the decision.’ etc.  These sexist practices have promoted to the ‘he/man approach’ to language as the scholar Wendy Martyna says, that is, the use of male terms to refer both to males in particular and to human beings in general designates men as the ‘unmarked’ and women as the ‘marked’ human category.  Experiments have shown that women feel excluded when they read texts with generic ‘he’, ‘him’ and ‘his.’

Feminists have claimed that English is a sexist language which has marginalized women. Sexist language has been drawing the fire of feminists for several decades now, and a number of linguists and sociolinguists have turned their due attention to the issue. To reduce sexist usages and make the language more inclusionary, new gender-neutral terms have been suggested by feminists such as ‘tey’ to replace ‘she’ and ‘he’, or combining them as ‘s/he’; ‘Ms’ to replace ‘Mrs’ and ‘Miss’; ‘chairperson’ or ‘chair’ for ‘chairman’; ‘fire-fighter’ for ‘fireman’; ‘letter carrier’ for ‘postman’; ‘police officer’ for ‘policeman’; ‘prehistoric people’ for ‘prehistoric man’ and so on. Besides these,  the scholars Rebecca Freeman and Bonnie McElhinny mention the five guidelines or strategies suggested by the Linguistic Society of America (LSA) for avoiding the use of the generic masculine pronoun: First, drop the masculine pronoun (e.g. The average student is worried about grades.);  second, rewrite the sentence in the plural rather than the singular (e.g. Students can select their own topics.); third, substitute the pronouns ‘one’ or ‘one’s’ for ‘he’ or ‘his’ (e.g. One should do one’s best.); fourth, use ‘he’ or ‘she’, ‘his’ or ‘her’(in speech and writing) or s/he (in writing); and  fifth, use ‘their’ when the subject is an indefinite pronoun (e.g. Everybody should get their hat.). Feminists now think that as long as women must use a language which is not of their own making, change is impossible. As an output, some women refer to themselves as  ‘actors’ rather than  ‘actresses’, ‘poets’ rather than ‘poetesses’ and so on. The sociolinguist Suzanne Romaine writes that many women authors, now-a-days, deliberately use ‘she’ as the generic pronoun to shock their readers. She presents the idea of one feminist as ‘if there are men who feel uncomfortable about being excluded, they should think of how women feel within minutes of opening most books.’ If women feel being excluded, they will not be motivated to read the texts that impede their comprehension. Therefore, let’s create anxiety-free texts by using gender-neutral terms and expressions in order to create linguistic harmony in the linguistic world.

The author teaches at Sukuna and Pathari Multiple Campus, Morang and is a treasurer of Nepal English Language Teachers’ Association (NELTA), Morang branch.

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