Feminist Language Planning: Has it been worthwhile?
University of Wollongong
1 Feminism and language
There is no doubt that feminism has been and continues to be one of the main social movements of this century. Its impact is felt in many societies around the world and in many spheres of life. The women's or feminist movement strives, amongst other things, for the elimination of gender discrimination and for the greater recognition of women's contributions to society as well as aims to change many cultural and social practices which perpetuate patriarchal value systems. Language was and is seen by many feminists as a powerful instrument of patriarchy: for example, the feminist Dale Spender, spoke of the English language as being 'manmade' and as being an important contributor to women's oppression (Spender 1980). It is therefore not surprising that language and discourse practices were and are subjected to feminist scrutiny, often leading to elaborate and detailed descriptions of sexist practices affecting language use. 2. Feminism and linguistic reform
Feminists, at least in western societies, also expressed a desire to change the patriarchal and sexist 'nature' of language and therefore engaged in various types of linguistic reform or language planning. Although many feminists shared the belief that changing linguistic and discourse practices is an important element in women's liberation, this did not result in a uniform approach to linguistic reform (see e.g. Pauwels 1998). The social, cultural, political and philosophical diversity which characterizes members of the feminist movement is also reflected in the approaches to and aims for feminist language reform. For example, not all forms of feminism, interpret women's liberation as a question of achieving mere equality of the sexes. Similarly, not all linguistic reform proposals have as their main aim the achievement of linguistic equality of the sexes. Some reform initiatives primarily aim at exposing the sexist nature of 'patriarchal' language by causing linguistic disruptions. The strategies used to achieve linguistic disruption frequently involve experimentation and creativity with all parts of speech. The word 'herstory' to refer to history which is not only about men, is an example of linguistic disruption: a morphological boundary has been reconstituted to + on semantic grounds. Creating a women-centred language capable of expressing reality from a female perspective is another prominent objective of some forms of feminist language planning. Proposed changes range from the creation of new women-centred meanings for words like 'witch', 'hag' and neologisms such as 'malestream', 'femocrat', graphemic innovations including 'womyn' or 'wimmin' and 'LehrerIn' (German), to developing women-focussed discourses and even creating an entirely new language. An example of the latter is the Láadan language created by the science-fiction writer and linguist, Suzette Haden Elgin 'for the specific purpose of expressing the perceptions of women' (Elgin 1988:1). Despite this diversity in reform initiatives and objectives for feminist language planning, it is the 'linguistic equality of the sexes' approach which has become synonymous with feminist language planning in the eyes of the wider community. This is in part due to the prominence of liberal feminist approaches in the public arena which focus on achieving sex/gender equality. Linguistic discrimination is seen as a form of sex discrimination which can be addressed in ways similar to other forms of sex discrimination (e.g. in employment). In fact the question of gender bias in occupational nomenclature is directly linked to gender discrimination in the employment arena. The prominence of the linguistic equality approach is also due to the media's attention to non-sexist language guidelines, the main instrument of promoting this type of feminist language reform. Advocates of the linguistic...
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