Collins Language

Blogs from the Collins Language team in Glasgow, UK.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

19 August 2010

Writing under sexist rules

After spending days or even weeks in a foreign land, switching back into your mother tongue does not always happen easily and could leave you thinking differently. You might even find yourself hyper-sensitive to points of language you never noticed before like gender in language and grammar.

Consider the French language. In conversation, a female must remember to add an extra -e to certain adjectives. For example, when using the adjective content to mean happy or pleased, the -e must be added so as to produce the female form of the word.

Similarly, for nouns, the correct article le or la must be used to denote the grammatical gender of the word. In French, grammatical gender usually corresponds to natural gender, so nouns that have female referents use the feminine articles une and la; nouns that have male referents use the masculine articles un and le. Nouns that have referents without gender distinctions have to be learned on a case-by-case basis, e.g. la table, le bureau.

For non-native speakers who are trying to speak as fluently as possible, concentration levels are already high so the extra onus of remembering to distinguish yourself as female can be difficult and cumbersome.

Gender specification through language does not pose problems to learners alone. The French authorities are struggling to find accepted, non-sexist forms of nouns to denote certain professions. Following a plan laid down by the French government to combat sexism in the late 1980s, disagreements have arisen with the body governing the use of the French language, l'Académie française.

For professions such as writers and company bosses, the accepted form is a masculine noun, écrivain and chef respectively. The new initiative proposes that the female forms of these nouns should be écrivaine and chefesse. Here enters rhyming embarrassment. Feminizing the word chef with the suffix -esse has created a word which rhymes with the French word for buttocks, fesses. The added -e on to écrivain has created a word which means vain or empty, vaine.

Feminists are protesting at these proposed changes because they actually reinforce sexism. They say these new words promote connotations of weak, vain women or focus attention on physical attributes of the female body altogether making a joke out of a proposal which is supposed to make everyone happy and equal.

So, what about the English equivalents? Slowly and subtly we have been doing the opposite of the French, and replacing our gender-specific nouns. For example, television and newspapers seem to have phased out the word actress to replace it with actor regardless of the sex of the person in question.

Indeed, Collins English Dictionary includes the following note:

'Use of the word actress to refer to a female who acts is old-fashioned. The gender-neutral form is actor.'

Whereas France wishes to separate men and women in language as in other areas arguably keeping the sexism debate alive English opts to ignore this and puts everyone in the same category.

With the centenary of International Women's Day approaching in March next year, the organization is asking women writers to come forward to contribute towards a special global arts initiative for 2011. The question is, however, will they be able to write in their own languages without sexist language flowing through their pens onto paper?

Rachel Hanretty


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home