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Sexism in English Words and Expressions: Features, Reasons, Modifications and Suggestions

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Sexism in English Words and Expressions: Features, Reasons, Modifications and Suggestions

Beijing Foreign Studies University
School of English International Studies
Class 03
HAN Jiao

Sexism in English Words and Expressions: Features, Reasons, Modifications and Suggestions
I. Introduction
Language, as people agree, is a mirror of the particular culture. It reflects the society through subtle words and expressions people use every day.
Most English speaking countries claim themselves as a free society in which men and women are born equal. However, phenomena of inequality between the two genders, many of which can be observed through people’s usage of language, actually do exist in these countries. So here comes the concept of sexism, which means “the unfair treatment of people, especially women, because of their sex” (Sidney 1827). Actually, sexism in language might be a universal phenomenon all around the world. Some languages, including German and French, even have different grammatical rules for masculine, neutral and feminine words respectively. Nevertheless, this thesis will only focus on the particular case of English. As Danish linguist Jesperson puts it, English is the most masculine language he familiars, and English is a kind of language which has gender (Jesperson 121).
This thesis will firstly disclose the features of sexism in English. Then it will analyze the rooted reasons for such sexism in English and their development over time, and finally give some suggestion to this problem. Therefore, the research questions presented here are:
1. What are the features of sexism in English?
2. What are the rooted reasons for such sexism in English?
3. How does sexism in English change over time?
4. What can we do about sexism in English?
II. Literature Review
Scholars have been aware of such phenomena of sexism in English for a long time. Much work thus has been done on this subject, both abroad and home. Many of the them are quite informative and convincing, which give me great deal of inspiration.
Yang Chun, an associate professor of China Women’s University, devotes herself to the study of gender language. She did a lot of research, analyzing language from the perspective of gender. She gives readers not only the general overview of the pattern of gender language, but also sufficient detailed evidence. What impresses me most is her historical perspective. For example, she traces her study back to the ancient Chinese dictionary Shuowen Jiezi, which was compiled in the second century, and she makes a comparison between ancient Chinese and the modern one used by us nowadays. Such kind of work is most valuable, giving us a better and more comprehensive understanding of the language we use. However, Yang’s study mainly focuses on the very case of Chinese. Therefore, even when she means to analyze sexism in English, she tends to conduct a comparative study, instead of analyzing English independently.
There’s a very research thesis on the subject of sexism in English by Jiang Xinyi that inspired me. Jiang’s structure in this thesis is quite clear and logical. Firstly she introduces some phenomena of sexism in English. Then she gives the reasons such as culture, history, psychology, and politics etc. What’s more, some solutions to this problem are also offered. Although admitting that such phenomena will exist for a long time, Jiang also suggests the tendencies of this phenomenon in the future. However, apart from these achievements mentioned above, in my opinion, there could still be room for improvement. On the one hand, to get a better understanding of the relationship between language and society, we could observe how this phenomenon developed during the past decades, and how these developments reflected social changes. On the other hand, I will contribute to the study by giving several more reasons for this phenomenon, and also providing more practical solutions to it.
Many other scholars also made great contribution to this subject. For example, Huang Chunying points out that it should be us, who use the language, to be responsible for such problems as sexism, instead of the language itself. By making this point clear, Huang reminds us of the relationship between language and culture, and that people matter a lot when it comes to this phenomenon. Therefore we should raise our awareness and know this pattern better.
To sum up, based on the existing efforts, this thesis will contribute to the study from three aspects. First, it will give a more comprehensive and logical overview of sexism in English. Second, it will provide several more reasons and solutions to this phenomenon. Third, it will consider its changes overtime to examine the relationship between language and society.
III. Methodology
This thesis adopts a mixture of quantitative analysis and qualitative analysis. Six people were interviewed. Three of the interviewees are Chinese students of BFSU, all junior girls majoring in English. The other three are exchange students learning Chinese at BFSU, all of whom are 20 years old, including two girls from US and one boy from Ireland.
The six interviewees were asked about the questions of “Do you think English is a sexist language?” Do you find some sexist phenomena in English? Like what?” What do you think causes such phenomena?” How do you feel about such sexism in English?”
The interviews were conducted casually, and the interviewees gave their own opinion on the questions above and offered other relative information and ideas as well. All of them agreed that English is not actually a sexist language, but there are sexism phenomena for complicated reasons. There are also differences between Chinese and foreign students. For example, Chinese students seem to be more sensitive to some expressions like “All men are created equal”, while foreign interviewees tend to attribute this to people’s custom and emphasize on historical reasons. Similar analysis will be further elaborated in the next part, which is based on the interviewees’ answers and existing research results of other scholars.
IV. Analysis
4.1 Features of sexism in English
4.1.1 Formation of words
In English, words for males are regarded as standard and norm. Based on these formed words, the counterparts for females then come into being. Words for females are in an inferior position of subordination to words for males, or as variations of the standard form. The most common practice is to add suffixes. There are lots of nouns in English that can prove this point, yet I’ll only focus on one pair. Take the pair of words host and hostess for example. If people say –er/or stands for males, while –ess/ress stands for females, like in waiter and waitress, then host, the word for males, doesn’t even have a suffix itself, while hostess is a variation of the norm, meaning the woman of the house. Other examples like hero and heroine can also show this pattern well.
4.1.2 Meaning of words
In English, counterpart words for males and females have different meanings. On the one hand, she/woman refers to a female, while he/man can refer to not only a male, but also the mankind. In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson claimed that “All men are created equal.” After stepping on the moon, Neil Armstrong made a monumental remark, “That’s a small step for the man, a giant leap for mankind.” Mankind, based on the word man, stands for the human being. Under many circumstances, human being would be represented by man in language, leaving women neglected.
On the other hand, counterparts of the same word could have positive meanings for males, while negative meanings for females. While call boy means a person who notifies actors when it is time to go on stage, call girl is a prostitute who makes appointments by telephone. Another pair of words is more able to show social prejudice in terms of marriage against women. The word bachelor means a man who does not have a partner. In literature, it might also indicate attractiveness. However, an unmarried woman is called spinster, which brings much negative and sarcastic indication with it.
4.1.3 Order of words
Male’s superiority can be also observed through the order of words. Some of the collocations have been so integrated into our custom that we always tend to put male words in front of those of females. To be more specific, we are used to saying boys and girls, husband and wife, Mr. and Mrs., king and queen, prince and princess, brother and sister… The list can go on and on. It would be strange if we change the order of words in such already fixed collocations.
4.1.4 Proverbs
Proverbs are the crystallization of local value. People can get some knowledge of the society and the culture by its proverbs. This is also a way in which linguists conduct their research. In English, there are many proverbs that show social stereotype against women, like “Foxes are all tail and women are all tongue.””When an ass climbs a ladder, we may find wisdom in women.” These proverbs arrogantly deny women’s ability all together.
4.1.5 Names
It is a universal practice that when a couple gets married, the wife changes her family name to adopt that of her husband’s. Although this has been gradually given up in some countries and regions, like mainland China, yet another practice concerned with names is still common in most parts of the world. That is, after marriage, when a baby is born, it’s nearly no doubt that the baby should follow the father’s family name. Maybe we are too used to this kind of circumstances that it’s worth no consideration. However, this custom reveals the fact that we are in a patriarchal society and family in which men are in command. Later, when it’s time to choose a given name for the baby, things again become different for boys and girls. Given name suggests the expectation from the parents. Boys are more likely to be called Richard, Alex etc., meaning strength and masculinity, while girls are always with names like Ann and Daisy, indicating innocence and weakness.
4.2 Reasons for sexism in English
4.2.1 Cultural and religious factors
Western culture is deeply influenced by Christianity. In the Holy Bible, God took one of Adam’s ribs and made a woman named Eva with it. Then God brought her to Adam. The man said, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be woman.” Not only the sequence of coming into being but also the indication that woman is only a part of man’s body instead of an independent individual suggest woman’s inferiority to man. The Holy Bible also tells us that it was Eva who committed the first sin of seduction. All of those in the Bible make people believe women are weak, worthless and tend to be troublemakers.
4.2.2 Social and economic factors
Language is the mirror of the society. It reflects the social life faithfully. For European upper class, women are not considered to be working outside or making money. Instead, they just stay at home, do the housework and take care of their family. This traditional value is still widely accepted and practiced in Europe and America even after industrialization. Women show their own value by their marriage to man. Up to now, men dominate the higher positions with better salaries and women remain in subordinate jobs. The economic base determines superstructure. Therefore, sexism in English speaking society, which is one of the basis of sexism in English, has long been in existence.
4.2.3 Political and historical factors
Sexism in English can also be attributed to political and historical reasons. In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson claimed, “All men are created equal.” Before blaming his generalization of representing the citizens simply with the word men, we ought to be aware of the historical background. Back then, universal suffrage was still an alien concept, and women didn’t have the right to vote. This factor of politics and history will soon be further elaborated in the next section.
4.3 Changes of sexism in English over time
As history goes on and on, we can see that there are changes in the English language, modifying such development. Later on, feminist movement thrived during the latter half of the twentieth century. People became more conscious of sexism in English, and began to make relative modifications to support their fight. For example, spokesman was replaced by spokesperson, indicating that both of the genders were competent for this position; when giving opening remarks, people tend to say “Ladies and gentlemen”, putting female ahead to show respect. Both the former sexism and the latter modifications in English are due to the historical and political background and development at that time respectively.
After these two stages mentioned above, we are now in a more modern society in which the two genders respect each other. Therefore, in my opinion, English, as a mirror of social development, has the tendency to abandon its sexism gradually, although this process could take longer time than we imagine.
4.4 Suggestions to solve this problem Before we come up with the solutions, first of all we should know that what matters most is not the following detailed tips. Rather, the key to the problem is ourselves. We keep saying that language is the mirror of the society. Therefore, to eliminate or to at least alleviate sexism in English, we should first defeat the stereotype and discrimination in our mind. People’s mind determines where language and the society go. With the spirit of freedom and equality, we can be sure progress will make its way gradually, and we don’t have to struggle with trivial things or to be too sensitive. But without this spirit, the society which claims itself as free and equal is just hypocritical.
Then here are some suggestions. First, replace he/him/his with plural forms like they/them/their(s). Second, use alternative neutral words like people/human beings. Third, take the trouble to use even he or she/him or her/his or her(s) so as to avoid representing all human being with only one gender. Also, use nouns that apply to both men and women, like the example of spokesperson mentioned above.
V. Conclusion Sexism in English has long been in existence. The combination of many social factors contributes to this phenomenon. The feminist movement and the development of modern world have made the problem less severe. The tendency of this phenomenon is to getting better and better. As long as we keep the spirit of equality and freedom in mind, and with some tips, we will help speed up the process of getting rid of sexism in English in a long run.

Work Cited
[1] Burlacu, Diana-Viorela. “Sexist and Non-sexist Language.” International Journal on Humanistic Ideology 4.1 (May 2011): 81-93. EBSCO. Web. 13 Jun. 2013.
[2] Huang Chunying. “Language and Sexism.” Journal of Yulin Teachers College (Philosophy & Social Science) 22.2 (Mar. 2001): 86-87. CNKI. Web. 13 Jun. 2013.
[3] Jespersen, Otto. A Modern English Grammar on Historical Principles. Ed. Niels Haislund. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd. , 1956. 121.
[4] Jiang Xinyi. “Research on the Sexism in English language.” Overseas English Nov. 2011: 341-342, 353. CNKI. Web. 14 Jun. 2013.
[5] Sidney, Albert. Oxford Advanced Learner 's English-Chinese Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. 1827.
[6] Splosky, Bernard. Sociolinguistics. Shanghai: Shanghai Foreign Language Education Press, 2000.
[7] Teso, Elena, and Liz Crolley. “Gender-based Linguistic Reform in International Organizations.” Language Policy 12.2 (May 2013): 139-158. EBSCO. Web. 15 Jun. 2013.
[8] Yang Chun (杨春). The Study of Gender Language (性别语言研究). Beijing: Guangming Daily Press, 2010.

Cited: [1] Burlacu, Diana-Viorela. “Sexist and Non-sexist Language.” International Journal on Humanistic Ideology 4.1 (May 2011): 81-93. EBSCO. Web. 13 Jun. 2013. [2] Huang Chunying. “Language and Sexism.” Journal of Yulin Teachers College (Philosophy & Social Science) 22.2 (Mar. 2001): 86-87. CNKI. Web. 13 Jun. 2013. [3] Jespersen, Otto. A Modern English Grammar on Historical Principles. Ed. Niels Haislund. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd. , 1956. 121. [4] Jiang Xinyi. “Research on the Sexism in English language.” Overseas English Nov. 2011: 341-342, 353. CNKI. Web. 14 Jun. 2013. [5] Sidney, Albert. Oxford Advanced Learner 's English-Chinese Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. 1827. [6] Splosky, Bernard. Sociolinguistics. Shanghai: Shanghai Foreign Language Education Press, 2000. [7] Teso, Elena, and Liz Crolley. “Gender-based Linguistic Reform in International Organizations.” Language Policy 12.2 (May 2013): 139-158. EBSCO. Web. 15 Jun. 2013. [8] Yang Chun (杨春). The Study of Gender Language (性别语言研究). Beijing: Guangming Daily Press, 2010.

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