The Importance of Gender in Languages

By Sarah-Claire Jordan

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Language is a huge part of being human, and for years linguists, philosophers, and others interested in how language works have studied how it affects us as human beings. The big question that still remains unanswered is whether language affects the way we think, or the other way around. It’s hard to tell which one came first, but there seems to be more evidence for the former. The theory that language does in fact affect how we experience the world and our cognitive functions is called linguistic relativity.

The first people to discuss this issue were philosophers and thinkers from the early 1900s. They talked about how language could be used as a way to understand a whole culture, essentially saying that you can determine a great deal about a culture simply based on how a language is structured. This soon turned into what is now known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which, simplified, argues that language affects the way we see the world.Many linguists later turned away from that hypothesis and way of thinking about language, thanks to a study in 1969 that supposedly disproved it. However, in the 1980s, a new wave of linguists who defended the hypothesis, or at least parts of it, emerged.

There are countless ways in which it is believed that the particular language we speak affects how we think, but one in particular is the way we view, and experience, gender. Not all languages use gender the same way. English, for example, has no gendered nouns (except some pronouns) and no gendered adjectives, while Spanish and all other Romance languages do. Russian, in turn, hinges on gender so much so that it is imbedded in practically every aspect of a sentence. A handful of other languages work the same way, with gendered nouns, adjectives, articles, and even verb tenses. What many linguists, psychologists, and thinkers in general want to know is how this affects the way the speaker experiences gender.

If you’ve ever taken a linguistics course, you probably know something about Lera Boroditsky and her linguistic research. She studied how German and Spanish speakers talked about objects in English, a language with no gendered nouns. Boroditsky found that objects with masculine nouns in Spanish or German were described using stereotypically “masculine” adjectives, such as strong, big, and dangerous. Objects with feminine nouns were discussed using words like delicate, beautiful, and fragile, adjectives with a feminine connotation. This can be seen also in how artists portray concepts such as death and freedom. In languages where death is masculine, it is portrayed as a man, and vice versa. The argument here is that, though they weren’t speaking in their native tongue, the participants still thought about certain objects as masculine or feminine.

Moving back to the actual study Boroditsky did, you can clearly see that the gendered nouns were given attributes associated with their gender. This may seem perfectly acceptable and even innocuous, but if you think about what that means for a bit more, you start to see the problem. That problem is that the participants in the study had such a deeply ingrained idea of what it means to be male and what it means to be female, that they transferred these same human qualities to objects, merely because in their native tongue they shared a gender. If native German speakers typically think of bridges, a feminine noun in German, as elegant, fragile, and beautiful, they must think the same for actual women. The same goes for native Spanish speakers who used adjectives such as strong, dangerous, and sturdy to describe bridges, which are masculine in Spanish. In fact, the concept of “machismo”, where men are supposed to be strong, brave, and promiscuous, comes from the Spanish and Portuguese languages. Countries that speak these languages tend to have high levels of gender inequality and gender violence.

Though some criticize Boroditsky’s studies as not being thorough enough since there could be many different words for the same object in a language, the general reception of this research is that it makes sense. If your language is structured in a way where certain nouns are feminine and others are masculine, you are bound to categorize things in your mind that way too. Just look at the cultures who speak languages with gendered nouns, such as Spanish for example, and you can see that in a lot of communities still adhere to strict gender norms and roles. However, some people have revolted against this in Spanish-speaking countries by changing gendered articles, nouns, and adjectives. Instead of “los amigos,” one could write “l@s amig@s” and avoid the annoying rule that even if just one person in a group of friends is male, the whole group must be referred to as male. Similarly, “los amigos” can be written as “lxs amigxs.” Either way, this trick is a bit limited in its scope as it only applies to written language.

One county that is taking steps to create gender neutrality within society via language is Sweden. Sweden made waves back in 2014 when the gender neutral pronoun “hen” was added to the official Swedish Academy glossary. Originally conceived back in the 1966 and becoming popular in 2010, it was mainly used in preschools at first, but has since grown in popularity and can be found in many publications. Sweden has always been a bit more forward-thinking than other countries, but this particular word carries a lot of weight. What could be the consequences of using “hen” instead of gendered pronouns? The idea behind it was to create more of an equal playing ground for men and women by not distinguishing them by gender. Some are skeptical of whether or not the introduction and use of a gender neutral pronoun will change anything, but many have seen an improvement in gender equality. Hen is also perfect for people who don’t identify as male or female, much like the changing of a’s and o’s in Spanish to @’s and x’s.

The English language isn’t going to get off the hook so easy, however. Just because it doesn’t have as many gendered nouns as Spanish or German doesn’t mean that they don’t exist in English. Think about what you see and hear on the news. There is someone presenting the news, known as an “anchorman” on your TV. There is a female equivalent for this, “anchorwoman,” but the fact is, “anchorman” was the first version of the word and is typically used as the default version when unsure about gender. This is much better than it used to be, with words such as “doctress” being very prevalent in society. We still use “actress” today to describe a female actor, but many are starting to use the word “actor” exclusively, regardless of gender.

One of the issues with gendered language like this is that it emphasizes the gender of the person too much. This is much more evident when the person is female, however. For instance, with the word “actress,” you can tell immediately that this person is female, and will subconsciously start trying to fit them into your idea of what women are like. If you didn’t have this clue within the word, you would either assume it was a man, or simply judge them as a person rather than try to fit them into your idea of how men and women are. This is the beauty of “hen” because it isn’t just not using “actress” anymore and using “actor” instead, it is creating a whole new category where gender doesn’t exist or matter, like “police officer.”

Beyond those issues, there is another one that drives the others. That is the issue of male as the default. English has words like “mankind,” “freshman,” and “policeman,” and they are still being used today. Again, they might seem harmless, but the idea that if you don’t know the gender of someone or something, it becomes male, is actually harmful. It makes it seem like to be male is to be normal and to be female is to be the exception, when demographically we know this to not be true at all. In terms of jobs, positions that still use gendered language like “policeman” are inadvertently creating a situation where female applicants don’t feel welcome. The employer themselves may not realize it, but, since language affects our thoughts, seeing the word “man” makes them imagine the perfect candidate as male, or at least to have typically masculine qualities.

Gender is a huge part of being human, and always will be, which is why gender equality is that much more important. Language is an amazing tool as it truly can shape the way you think, so it makes sense to utilize it in order to make more progress on that front. Hopefully people like those who created “hen” in Sweden and those who created a revolutionary new ways to avoid expressing gender in Spanish will continue to do the amazing work that they are doing.

References:

  1. Braw, Elizabeth. (2014, September 9). The Three Letter Word Driving a Gender Revolution. Retrieved from http://europe.newsweek.com/three-letter-word-driving-gender-revolution-272654
  1. Villines, Zawn. (2013, February 9). How Gendered Language Affects Perceptions. Retrieved from http://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/how-gendered-language-affects-perceptions-0209137

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Category: Foreign Language

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