Posted by: Mark Nielsen | October 8, 2010

Our Sexist, Racist English Language

Early this week I got a good, legitimate comment/question on a post about masculine and feminine linguistics, from a couple months ago. After responding in the comments for more than three paragraphs, I figured out Zack had hit a nerve, so I might as well do it as a separate blog entry. Ergo, below are my re-posted comments, based on his contention that certain French feminists are using circular reasoning when they so eloquently use a historically male-dominated language to accuse that same language of being sexist.


I suppose you are at least partly being accurate. But it’s the spirit of the thing that perhaps matters more, not the literal or logical point about what language one uses to express a point-of-view. In most cases, regardless of the culture or language, communicators have no alternative *but* to use the language they were born into. It’s seldom possible to use a female-dominated social system or process (language is just one), because historically these barely exist anywhere.

Same goes for race-neutral language. I probably cannot talk about “calling a spade a spade” without somebody, somewhere, accusing me of being racist. Because the word was once co-opted by racists, never again will it strictly mean “shovel”, or a suit in a deck of cards. And modern deconstructionist thinkers on race matters might actually be right, that I can’t *help* but be a little racist, even unintentionally, by remaining un-conscious about the negative bias in how I put things.

So language does not stay static. But logic and math are supposed to, and those are the basis of philosophical constructions (and “circular” accusations) like you propose above. Feminism is a natural partner to linguistics, not an inserted overlay, because both fields are about social and historical systems, and who has power, and how they keep it… either subtly or brutally.

I’m not trying to be a Word Nazi here (“No nouns for you!”… little Seinfeld joke there… d’ya like that?) Just saying, language is always in need of reform. Plus it remakes itself anyway, without our even wanting it to. It’s a living thing that changes in step w/ the culture or counter-cultures that exert their influence.

For instance: “dont u h8 when som1 uses txt-spk 2 make a complex pt?” (Can you tell I’m not a Twitter fan?)

Is standard grammar oppressive, or are people getting lazier, or are we too much in a hurry to take time and use our brain while writing? Maybe all the above. But very little of it is under our direct control. It’s more a game of influence, of steadily beating certain drums.

As for the French, they care enough about language and “correctness” (and here’s where feminism starts creeping in) that I think they even have a big department in their government dedicated to the proper education and preservation of *their version* of French in its purest form… as opposed to how, say, Haitians would use the same words.

And we know how much power Haitians have in today’s world.  See the point?

Neutrality is a thing of the past, if it even ever existed.



  1. Mark,

    A human language is a social human construct, and, like all such, reflects and determines human social behavior. It is more a feedback loop than it is a cause or effect. As a social human construct, it only partially reflects and partially determines social behavior. And, of course, language is a very complex thing. Fortunately, this means there are often ways to route around social behaviors we want to avoid and towards behaviors we want to promote.

    This is true for both ‘prescriptive’ grammars (what you call standard grammar) as well as ‘descriptive’ grammars (scientific descriptions of what we actually do when we use language). It is also true for _language use_ itself. In all these, though, I think language is probably more reflective than causal of the social facts.

    In general, one probably needs to look at things at a case by case basis, not make general statements about ‘grammar’ as a whole. For example, I stopped using “shyster” (see, tend to use periphrasis instead of prepositions when referring to God, etc.

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