Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

At a Loss for Words: How Language Marginalizes the Disenfranchised

juliah's picture

The old rhyme was wrong, words hurt. Names matter, labels stick. The stigma isn’t always patent; inherent in our lexicon are modifiers and morphemes that convey status with just the addition of a mere suffix. Too often those bearing the brunt of the verbal assault inherent in the institution that is language are the disenfranchised, the marginalized, the minorities. As they struggle to find equal footing, these intersectionals confront the challenge of overcoming discrimination woven throughout everyday vernacular, starting with, but by no means limited to, the very words used to define their persons. Applications, medical forms, census data, and beyond are a daunting undertaking when deciding what box to check off; those of us who do not fit into that square binary of “male or female”, wondering why checking off our “race” is relevant see these societal structures as oppressive, limiting, forceful. The English language is subject to the binary; the default “he” when a gender isn’t made apparent, the need to make feminine words evident with an “-ess”, all limit our language to thinking in two parts, not as a whole. These restrictions don’t even account for labels the language has created for us. When it comes to language, people search for qualifiers, a way to define one another, fit them in. This is where a great irony lies—language lives to be limitless, so why must people create parameters? Escaping the gendered, racial, sectionalized, and sensationalized language by forgoing any attempt to make oneself readable could lead to a more open, expressive, inclusive form of communication.

In order to discuss how the English language limits us, context should be given as to how such a marginalizing institution evolved. Old English, in CliffsNotes terms, was an amalgamation of Germanic and Latin languages had a system of grammatical gender. This system, which still broods over many other languages, specifically those of Latin descent, calls for all nouns to be marked by gender. While this mostly fell away in the transition to Middle English, and now in Modern English, it isn’t as though gender doesn’t exist, quite the contrary in fact. Qualifying pronouns riddle our speech, sex-typing even when it is completely unnecessary. Though not as gender-obsessed as some of the Latin languages, English’s insistence on grammatical gender results in alienation and confusion. In the paper “The Gendering of Language: A Comparison of Gender Equality in Countries With Gendered, Natural Gender, and Genderless Languages,” the point is made that:

references to grammatical conventions of gender in language have prompted contemporary concerns over the power of language to shape social stereotypes about gender, and perhaps ultimately shape status distinctions between men and women. The feminist language critique, in particular, deems language to be overwhelming androcentric, putting girls and women at a disadvantage in personal and professional relationships.

Recently, there has been increased momentum in the movement to incorporate gender-neutral/inclusive terminology into everyday institutions. As cited in a relatively recent Yahoo News article, Washington state’s governor, Jay Inslee, signed a bill that would help eradicate the use of gendered terms such as “freshman”, and change “his” to “his and her”. The reaction was less-than positive. State senator Jeanne Kohl-Wells wrote in a Seattle-Times opinion piece “…the hysterical and misogynistic reactions to my bill suggests the need for intelligent, reasoned discussion that advances mutual respect for gender and common courtesy….sometimes it’s difficult to understand how others feel unless you take a walk in their shoes.” While the Washington law can be seen as a step in the right direction, problematic factors remain. The language may be more inclusive, stepping away from the assumptive “he”, it still ascribes to the binary; there is little or no room for those individuals who fall somewhere outside or in-between. At Bryn Mawr, there have been attempts to modify language inside documents such as the Honor Code to include all genders; though these have yet to take effect, such steps align with a campus-wide majority consensus to create a gender-friendly space.

While there are many ways institutions can shift their use of language to be more inclusive, one certainly cannot assert that simply changing the terminology is enough. In a talk she gave, speaker and activist Ash Beckham makes the distinction between tolerance and acceptance. She points out that “tolerance” is merely putting up with something, while “acceptance” is recognizing something as true. There is a clear difference between society enduring a group, almost reluctantly, and when it begins to embrace and appreciate differences. While gender-neutral language is a first step, Beckham makes a call to action for society to move toward total inclusion, stating that “you can legislate tolerance, (but) you can’t legislate acceptance”. Becoming aware of our use of language and how it includes and excludes others is a key part in creating welcoming space for individuals of all backgrounds.

Naturally following the premise that a single word can influence perception and alienate a reader is the idea that literature as a whole can produce the same result. In his writing, Junot Diaz has been criticized by some for his ethnocentric approach to story telling; he makes many white readers uncomfortable, what with his frequent inclusion of (mainly) Dominican cultural references and generous use of Spanish slang. When reading his novel, The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, I was often overwhelmed, confused; the foreign (to me) terms and resultant cultural gaps were often so daunting that I felt almost attacked, and the impossibly long footnotes could easily make the reading exhausting. This, however, was precisely his goal. Diaz does not compromise his breath of knowledge, which encompasses multiple cultures and backgrounds, in order to make himself accessible to a large audience. Diaz often writes about immigrants in America, and ironically shifts their experience onto a predominantly well-assimilated American audience. In an interview, Diaz was quoted as saying that “what most of us consider normative comprehension an immigrant fears that they’re not getting it because of their lack of mastery in the language.” Diaz uses his literature to both give the reader the experience of culture shock, and try to bridge cultural divides. He asks his reader to take initiative, saying that his writing “is an attempt…to encourage the reader to build community, to go out and ask somebody else…words that you can’t understand in a book aren’t there to torture or remind people that they don’t know…(they’re) to remind people that part of the experience of reading has always been collective.” This idea that literature can be a force for uniting and reaching across perceived divides could help toward the move to a greater, reconcilable dialogue between people of varying backgrounds.

The words we choose express our thoughts and feelings, explicitly and implicitly—they are a reflection of our attitudes and the wrong words can disaffect others, particularly those on the margins. Pronoun usage is woven within the English language, and while there are efforts to combat ostracizing uses, the lack of truly gender-neutral options still creates limitations. Beyond that, interpretations are even more difficult to regulate. Ambiguous definitions for terms can lead to confusion and misrepresentation. Societal qualms also generate exclusivity, and working toward educating the public with a goal of acceptance is key. Moving away from simply “accommodating” to true, passionate, fiery ownership will not only make a leap towards a language of inclusivity, but opens doors for a fluid, culturally immersive, intersectional society.

“Gender in English.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 31 October 2013. Web. 7 November 2013.


Caswell, T. Andrew, Laakso, Emmi K., Prewitt-Freilino, Jeniffer L. “The Gendering of Language: A Comparison of Gender  Equality in Countries with Gendered, Natural Gender, and Genderless Languages.” 18 October 2011. Online. Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2011. 7 November 2013.


Zap, Claudine. “Washington state gets rid of sexist language.” Yahoo! News. 3 July 2013. Web. 7 November 2013. <>

Kohl-Welles, Jeanne. “Guest: The backlash over making state laws gender neutral.” The Seattle Times. 14 May 2013. <>


Beckham, Ash. “Eliminating the Word “Gay” as a Pejorative from Our Lexicon.” Ignite Boulder. Date given unknown. 7 November 2013. <>


Diaz, Junot. The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. New York: Riverhead Books, 2007. Print.

Diaz, Junot. Sydney Writers Festival. 2008. 7 November 2013.


shainarobin's picture

Language Use

You talk about verbal assault at the beginning of your paper and the power that words have on us as human beings. You then go one to explain how language can cause entrapment and conformity. I have similar musings in my paper when I talk about how the deaf community was forced to used oralism for many years, entraping many of them in a language that was supposed to be freeing. Instead, this attempt to better intergrate the deaf community with the hearing community mainly benefited the hearing and mostly caused pain and unhappiness for the deaf community. The attempt to conform deaf people to hearing society's standards almost killed sign language in the process. The power of language continues to be a prevailing theme in your paper as you talk about the limitations that English imposes on us and how language shapes social stereotypes about gender. One of your solutions to this dilemma is to break the gender binary that is currently prevailing in our language use and incorportate gender neutral language/terminology. This is similar to what iskierka proposes. Also, you stress that there is a difference between tolerance and acceptance and that we need to practice acceptance in order to truly create change. This is somewhat of an underlying theme in my paper as I talk about audism and the disabling affects that our society puts on those who do not fit our definition of "abled". Finally, you reiterate that a lack of gender neutral options creates limitations and that in order to change we have to make gender more accessible.

iskierka's picture

Language in abstract and concrete forms

Our papers coincided pretty closely, but I think while mine stayed to conrete structures of various languages and how they played off the English usage, yours stayed strictly on how English in itself formulates a gendered structure. I like that you included Diaz in your piece - I found The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao a really fascinating book, and his style and unabashed use of language made it a really enjoyable read. At the same time, you could compare it to how Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell would play to an English-as-a-second-language audience in much the same way - absurdly long footnotes, playing on language. And Diaz is right - if we want any chance to expand our boundaries, we have to go out and be willing to accept that someone else might know better with language and we have to be willing to adjust.

Anne Dalke's picture

From Accommodation to Ownership

juliah—Last month, you were re-casting feminism as an environmental project—thereby enlarging enormously the scope of the questions we’ve been considering here. This month, you enlarged the scope even further!

Be sure to look @ iskierka’s work on gendered pronouns across cultures, which has many resonances w/ your own project. You actually move pretty quickly from her interest--the English “system of grammatical gender”-- to much grander questions of how “forgoing “any attempt to make ourselves readable” could lead to “a more open, expressive, inclusive form of communication.” I need you to slow down and re-read/interpret that claim for me: what would it mean to “forgo any attempt to make ourselves readable”?

Is this like the work of Elizabeth Ellsworth (whom I quoted exhaustively and repetitively in my responses to your all’s papers last month). Ellsworth is a film theorist and educator who wrote a book called Teaching Positions: Difference, Pedagogy, and the Power of Address. Applying the idea of mode of address from film theory to education, Ellsworth posits that, just as films are positioned to appeal to particular audiences, teachers address their students in order to appeal to who the teachers think the students are. But, Ellsworth goes on to explain, positioning by filmmakers and teachers is always imperfect: “The point is that all modes of address misfire one way or another. I never ‘am’ the ‘who’ that a pedagogical address thinks I am. But then again, I never am the who that I think I am either.”

Ellsworth attributes the failure of mode of address to match the requirements of an intended audience to two propositions: that what we think we know of other people is limited to what they have told us; and that what we think we know of ourselves is limited only to what we are conscious of.   So, rather than suggesting ways to bridge this gap, trying to make ourselves more completely known to and readable by others, Ellsworth argues that it is to be preserved as the space of agency and of learning. She claims that it’s actually in that space that teaching takes place; without it, we’d have nothing to learn.

That sounds to me very much akin to your report of Juan Diaz’s intentions:  “Diaz does not compromise his breath of knowledge, which encompasses multiple cultures and backgrounds, in order to make himself accessible to a large audience….’what most of us consider normative comprehension an immigrant fears that they’re not getting it because of their lack of mastery in the language’….’go out and ask somebody else…words that you can’t understand in a book are there to remind people that part of the experience of reading has always been collective.’”

What you don’t know, in other words, is ground for learning. And if we had less specific pronouns (for example) it might help us recognize that what-we-think-we-know about others may well not be the case….?

I’ve put you in a reading-and-writing group with iskierka, who also did a project on gendered pronouns, and with shaina, who is thinking about sign language….please read their papers and come to class ready to discuss…