Friday, March 8, 2013

International Women's Day: Women In Languages

As it's International Women's Day, we felt it only appropriate to pay homage to women in languages. Women make up the majority of language students and they're clearly smarter in that respect, as studies seem to show that their brains are just plain better at languages. We could go on and on about the whole hunting versus chatting in caves argument but we'll not bother.

Despite their apparent dominance when it comes to languages, the lexicon and grammar of many languages do not reflect this. In English for example, there are many gender-specific words, especially when referring to jobs and vocations that utilise the male equivalent for mixed plural. When male you can use actor, when female one would use actress (though this is starting to change), and when plural of mixed gender it is still actors. Only when there are only females would the term actresses be used.

The yellow mimosa is often given to women as
a gift throughout Eastern Europe on March 8.
The same goes for languages with grammatical genders. We were often told in French classes that you use the masculine third-person plural ils to refer to groups of males and mixed groups, regardless of the gender ratio. Even when referring to a group of 99 women and 1 man you should still use ils, apparently. The feminine third-person plural elles is only used when a group consists entirely of women.

Though, at least in Britain, the inherent sexism in the language is being addressed by changing words such as chairman and chairwoman to gender-neutral chairperson. Despite these measures, the lexical prescriptivism exhibited can feel odd and unnatural.

We're not particularly fond of linguistic prescriptivism and feel that languages can be left to their own devices. They have managed to survive for ages without governing bodies and the proverbial grammar nazis. Referring to the human race as man and mankind doesn't bother us too much solely because person and personkind sound stupid.

So, for today, don't man up, woman up.