Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Gendered Language Shapes Our Minds

I write often about the English language's role in perpetuating notions of male superiority. Those who feel similarly might be interested in this article, written by linguist Guy Deutscher. Once you get past the creepy, disembodied images of lips gracing the top of the article, you will find that Deutscher renders a thought-provoking article about language's role in shaping how we think.

Mostly, I see that English language promotes male superiority in at least two ways. One, is the oxymoronic concept of the "gender neutral masculine," which refers to both male and female humans as "he" and "him." Indeed, Deutscher discusses how some languages force its speakers to refer to each and every object by a gender, effectively forcing speakers to think about gender- now matter how subconsciously- every time they refer to a noun.

Further, the genders of words vary, by language. For instance, the simple word bridge in German is feminine, but in Spanish it is masculine, giving us further evidence of the cultured and linguistic construction of gender. Masculinity and femininity are not concepts with universal characteristics that transcend language and culture, indicating that we should reject conflating sex (meaning biology) with gender (meaning presentation) as well as the simplistic ideas that masculinity derives from some "essential" characteristics inherent within all men and femininity from "essential" characteristics derived from women. If feminity, for instance, truly and essentially derived from womanhood, we would not see cross-cultural variation in traits (and objects) considered feminine.

The second large way I see the English language, via Christianity in the US, contributing to ideas of male superiority is the gendering of god and Jesus (who was no mere mortal but god on Earth) as male. No matter how many laws we have making sex and gender discrimination illegal, no matter how much people say they believe men and women are equal, the impact of living within a society where the majority of citizens gender the most supreme being in all the universe male, and who also gender all of humanity male, cannot be overestimated.

Deutscher ends, aptly noting:

"The habits of mind that our culture has instilled in us from infancy shape our orientation to the world and our emotional responses to the objects we encounter, and their consequences probably go far beyond what has been experimentally demonstrated so far; they may also have a marked impact on our beliefs, values and ideologies. We may not know as yet how to measure these consequences directly or how to assess their contribution to cultural or political misunderstandings. But as a first step toward understanding one another, we can do better than pretending we all think the same."

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