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A Look into Language

michelle.lee's picture

When someone mentioned in class that language was a feminist issue, I was so curious as to how.  Beyond perhaps certain words ending in "man," I couldn't think of a way that language could be sexist.  "'The english language is sexist in so far as it relegates women to a secondary and inferior lace in society'" (Spender 15).  Language is the way that you communicate with others and express yourself, if that is inherently male, then how are women expected to express themselves?   As we saw in The Book of Salt, it was difficult for Bìhn to progress further in his community because of the language barrier.   He doesn't have the tools to gain social capital. He lacks the ability to speak in a certain way that will gain him a higher position in life.  


Before I delved into how language is a feminist issue, I wanted to know if the english language is a male creation, what does a "female language" look, or perhaps, sound like? Ursula Le Guin came to Bryn Mawr to give the commencement address for the class of 1986 and spoke how the "language of power" (SPEECH) is "the language of the fathers, of Man."  She said there is a "Mother Tongue" which is "..primitive, inaccurate, unclear, coarse, limited, trivial, banal…a conversation…not [a] mere communication but [a]…relationship."  The word banal makes me think of Gertrude Stein's poem, Lifting Belly.  It was described as a number of the adjectives Le Guin used in her speech to describe the Mother Tongue.  I can see Lifting Belly as prime example of using the Mother Tongue.  Her repetitive "Lifting Belly is…" (Stein) phrases for over 60 pages strips the meaning away and just leaves behinds the words and the lilting sounds of the words.   Anne told us before we read Lifting Belly that it was a "sexy poem," but many of us didn't/couldn't see it.  Her language is open to interpretation and subjective.  So with that in mind, I went on to research how the English language could be a feminist concern.  


Dale Spender, in her book Man Made Language, wrote "One of the basic principles of feminism is that society has been constructed with a bias which favors males; one of the basic principles of feminists who are concerned with language is that this bias can be located in the language…'english is biased in favor of the male in both syntax and semantics'" (Spender 14)  Language is told from the experience of men.  The experience of women are not as significant as those of men and for quite some time were simply just ignored.   "Women are not only ignored by not being the writers and subjects of stories, but are also marginalized by being denied the role of active agents.  (Weatherall 14)   If language is only told from one perspective, that blocks out all other perspectives.  Words such as businessman, freshman, and other gendered words are just some obvious examples of how women are not represented in language.  There is not a commonly used "female" counterpart to these words.  In that sense, the English language  "…makes women seem invisible" (Weatherall 13).  

Syntax of the English language is also very much constructed to follow male sex patterns.  Sentences are generally more appreciated, like in speeches and academic papers, to "impl[y] a goal or climax" just like "the sex act for a man"  (Spender 182).  Women, on the other hand, "are involved in sexual relationships" (ibid).  Lifting Belly, intentionally on Gertrude Stein's part, did not seem to have a point and did not have any sort of "penetrative" language.  The poem is slow and slowly builds up and dies down on multiple occasions mirroring that of a female orgasm.  Perhaps this form of writing was not taken as well since we are so trained, so accustomed, to appreciate language that is more representative of male orgasms since "only male sexual characters have been named as 'real' within the patriarchal framework…" (Spender 172).  

Even the way sentences are delivered are determined by men's standards. "Men may engage in interruption of women with impunity but it seems that there are many penalties for women who interrupt men" (Spender 45).   Women are the submissive position in language and are expected to accepted being interrupted since what a woman has to say is implicitly less important to what a man may have to say.


Looking into the problems stirred me into looking for solutions.  There doesn't seem to be a silver bullet for the sexism in the English language but there do seem to be some options.

One option is to not only cut out gendered words.  It's not just enough to cut out gendered words, though.  There should also be an addition of words that empower women.  Then there are those who disagree with this method and think women should not have to squeeze room for themselves but a radical change must be made, that it would just be better to make a whole new language.  "It is perfectly feasible to suggest that women have been obliged to use a language which is not of their own making" (Spender 8).   Women were not given the opportunity to add their own experiences and input to the construction of language so it is only logical that language was set to men's standards.There was no one but men at the time. It is an unfortunate setback but it is not something people can ignore it's just fact.  Le Guin pointed out there was a "Mother Tongue," perhaps it would be appropriate for this to become a more common form of writing and speaking.  Perhaps men and women should use it just as much as the "Father Tongue" is used.

However, there are those that believe making an entire new language set just for women would not be plausible.  Sara Mills, in her essay "Third Wave Feminist Linguits and the Analysis of Sexism," says "…women cannot feasibly come up with a new language, they must expose the flaws that currently exist. Only through the awareness of such flaws can women overcome the obstacles that are constructed by what she labels a phallocentric discourse."   So, perhaps, just the act of knowing that language is inherently sexist can be enough to change it.  "Sexism in language may…inspire resistance and demonstrate women's agency (Weatherall 13).  If more women, and men as well, knew it could open an opportunity for change.  Perhaps pieces like Lifting Belly could be used as outlets of change to show what women's language is in order to highlight its difference from men's language.  


Throughout my research process and finding the difference between the "Mother Tongue" and the "Father Tongue,"  there was much emphasis on women standing on their own ground and making way of their own form of speech and writing.  Especially in the commencement speech given by Le Guin, she urged the Bryn Mawr graduates to not use the "language of power…the language in which 'success' is a meaningful word."   This made me personally feel uncomfortable.   Weatherall perfectly embodies this in the question "If a woman speaks like a man, has she lost touch with her femininity?"  Has she "sold out" and conformed to the standards of men?  What about women like Hilary Clinton and Margaret Thatcher?  Isn't it also important for women to go far in fields that are often dominated by men?  And to do so, doesn't she have to "play by the rules?"  Perhaps I am thinking of too narrow a time frame.  Perhaps we as women should not concern ourselves with becoming recognized in a men's world.  But, ultimately, if we are to permeate the realms that are structured for men, will we do so by conforming to the standards of men and then seeking change when we are at a position of influence or by making way in our own way?



Le Guin, Ursula K., (1986).  Commencment Address at Bryn Mawr College, Bryn Mawr, PA.

Stein, Gertrude. Lifting Belly. Tallahassee, FL: Naiad, 1989. Print.

Spender, Dale. Man Made Language. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1985. Print.

Truong, Monique T. D. The Book of Salt. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2003. Print.

Weatherall, Ann. Gender, Language and Discourse. Hove [England: Routledge, 2002. Print.


Anne Dalke's picture

A third language?

michelle --
your first webevent attended to Virginia Woolf's use of language (with a particular focus on questions about feminist humor); this one expands the scope to think more generally about the gendering of language: the ways in which "English is biased in favor of the male in both syntax and semantics," making "women seem invisible," both in the use of gendered words and in the use of linguistic patterns that re-enact male sex patterns (=goals, climaxes; though let's admit that this claim is somewhat essentialist in its presumptions? that women also have goals, and climaxes....?).

I'm very much interested in this project. In designing a new fall course in the fall on Ecological Imaginings, I discovered the work of the "eco-linguistists," who are thinking alot about "green grammar," trying to find an alternative to the "fragmentation of the universe" repeatedly enacted by the sentences of standard European languages, which divide processes into Agents, Participants, and Circumstances--and so are not concordant w/ recent scientific and ecological imaginings of a more holistic world, one that doesn't so clearly separate the intra-actions of organisms and environments.

The survey of gendered langauge practices you survey here seem to fall into the same critique; I'm surprised, though, when you get to the point of thinking about "solutions," that you don't loop back to LeGuin's invitation to us all to use the language of art,

the third language, my native tongue, the marriage of the public discourse and the private experience, making a power, a beautiful thing, the true discourse of reason. This is a wedding and welding back together of the alienated consciousness that I've been calling the father tongue and the undifferentiated engagement that I've been calling the mother tongue. This is their baby, this baby talk, the language you can spend your life trying to learn.

LeGuin offers lots of examples of this language in her Bryn Mawr Commencement Address; I wonder if you might think of others? Not the father tongue of political speech, not the mother tongue of Lifting Belly (though you're certainly right on in identifying that one!), but the language of art that combines public and private, rational consciousness and engaged unconscious...what are some examples already available to us, that we might put into more frequent use? (Hey--that we might read together before the semester ends?!)

See, too, both epeck's web event, In the defense of language, and aybala50's Game of Unspeakable Language for some more interventionist ideas....