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Linguistics and the Imbalance of Power Among Genders

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Language’s influence is not limited to a mere communication of ideas from a sender to a receiver. Language reaches beyond this exchange and profoundly influences our perceptions, thought processes, cultural biases, and social norms. Our communications are intrinsically entwined with who we are as a society, how we see the world, and how we view one another. Given language’s power to influence how human beings think and perceive their world, the different way in which men and women experience language serves to influence the distribution of power. It is imperative that imbalances of linguistic harmony do not go unevaluated, as these imbalances serve to mirror our very real cultural biases, negligences, and weaknesses. These inequalities are perpetuated both in the linguistic and behavioral expectations placed upon women and in how both genders speak and think about women and girls.

The oppression faced by women today has been convoluted with skewed verbal and nonverbal communication throughout history. For example, we can trace this offense back to Aristotle when he wrote, “The female is a female by virtue of a certain lack of qualities. We should regard the female nature as afflicted with a natural defectiveness” (Beauvoir, 2011, p. 15-16). Essentially, Aristotle thought women were non-men and so lacking in the right to a first-class standing in society. Otto Jespersen (1923) claimed women were “a hindrance to the progression of language due to their own deficit form of speaking” ( p. 92). Jespersen failed to see that women were not just prohibited from men’s language, but also from men’s educational opportunities. Already women were being judged for the natural consequences resulting from their victimhood. It is an inescapable reality that the acknowledgment of the existence, and especially the causality, of the asymmetrical power paradigm spanning the ages, is detrimental to future generations of girls and women, limiting the potentiality of female contribution to society. Both with regard to its causation, as well as societal consequences, this subjugation is not merely a female problem. It is a human problem. Still, this battle has yet to be won and many women today do not even recognize the existence of their own struggle for freedom and dignity, while both genders remain unaware that only with the empowerment of women can our culture reach its full potentiality.

In recent history, women began to demand the same fundamental rights men have always enjoyed. Prior to the uprising of the Women’s Movement, the American Revolution sought to gain equal liberties for “mankind,” but failed to recognize women as members. Given women’s growing discomfort with this chasm, they not only began to fight for political rights, but they also began broaching conversations which challenged societal beliefs concerning female intellectual capabilities and competencies. They proclaimed their right to pursue career and education, while simultaneously challenging the dynamics of exclusionary language and thought. These female reformists spoke of, “the ambiguity of terms such as person, man, and he, which routinely excluded women from rights and opportunities, while including them in responsibilities and penalties” (Longmire & Merrill, 1998, p.5). These protests fell on deaf ears. Over 150 years later, both men and women in our culture, and in many cultures worldwide, are still relying on this lopsided discourse in our daily communication, with very little thought as to its far-reaching consequences. Sadly, generic pronouns are only the tip of the iceberg and likely very difficult to sanitize from our language. Women's power in society is thwarted by the constant need for and use of euphemisms, and our generationally passed on word choices, intonations, and tags. The female existence is recognized only in light of her relationship with men, beginning with the early indoctrination of little girls, as polite caretakers above all else, even above self-respect and autonomy.

Robin Lakoff (1973) writes in her article entitled, “Language and Woman’s Place” that we should be careful when deciding which of the many linguistic, sexual inequities to fight, prioritizing them based upon the degree to which they damage the ego. She takes issue with the inordinate focus placed on the campaign against the prenominal neutralization of generic masculine terms. The generic masculine exists in language when a group of individuals are not of one gender or when the gender of the person of whom one is speaking, is unknown. In this case, the norm is to speak in the masculine using “he,” “him,” “ man,” or “mankind” as a gender-neutral term. This is also known as the “He/Man approach.” Lakoff (1973) sees this as a lesser offense than the use of euphemisms, tags, and social norms, which we will explore later. Lakoff (1973) urges us to focus instead on chauvinistic linguistic styles that “indicate to little girls how they are expected to behave” (p.75). Additionally, she believes any venture to eradicate pronominal usage would ultimately be unsuccessful, given how ingrained it is in our language, and hence would detract from areas where we can auspiciously affect change.

In contrast, Wendy Martyna (1980) argues that the he/man approach to language must be taken seriously. She illustrates her point by evidencing Virginia Valian and Jerrod Katz’s hypothetical analogy concerning generic masculine pronouns. Valian and Katz (1999) suggest that we attempt to imagine a culture where “pronouns are different according to the color of people involved, rather than their sex . . . the unmarked pronoun just happens to be used for white people” (p. 483). Valian and Katz illuminate our hidden gender biases and encourage us to ask ourselves if the two situations are parallel with one another, how can we accept one and not the other. Additionally Martyna argues, the he/man approach should not be traversed academically as a trivial linguistic norm, but instead should be taken in light of how the oppressed are made to feel. If language excludes women or treats them as a subset of men, women are accordingly left feeling invisible or at best inadequate and inferior.

Wendy Martyn (1980) goes on to highlight the tendency for the media and political arena to ridicule any social movement aimed at enacting linguistic change. She suggests public ridicule, aimed to minimize a lack of egalitarianism, is a crass attempt to circumvent cultural strides toward gender equality and to keep women subservient. Martyna argues against these less than innocent attacks on sexual equality by quoting Naomi Weisstein’s stance,“ If pronouns are as amusingly insignificant as some consider them to be, we should expect no outcry were the situation reversed, and the female pronoun



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