Publishing Partner: Cambridge University Press CUP Extra Publisher Login
amazon logo
More Info

Ask-A-Linguist Message Details

Subject: To what extent can grammar be sexist?
Question: Marie Darrieussecq, the French novelist, said recently on BBC
Radio that the freedom of women in France is very much a matter
of words and iit is related to the language: you have to add an e for
the feminine form as if being a woman was an accident as opposed
tp the universal masculine normality. Grammatically, one man
rules over any number of women and if, for example, you want to
say five million women and a dog, you have to use the masculine
because dog is masculine. She added that when a young girl at
school, she learnt that the masculine rules over the feminine and
that the language says something about the society.

To what extent is this argument valid? I have always understood
noun gender as a way of dividing nouns into classes rather than a
reflection of human gender differences (famously, the German for
girl is neuter) and the Bantu languages, less confusingly, use
instead the term noun classes, of which there are many. Is this
really a case of projecting society's historic characteristics onto
grammar rather than grammar refledting society or is it a two-way

Reply: As my colleagues have indicated, many non-linguists tend to over-estimate the
impact of pure grammar on the culture. If you want more examples, modern Persian
(aka Farsi) as spoken in modern Iran has actually LOST its grammatical gender, but
the culture still has not equalized the legal status of men and women.

On the other hand, some research suggests that there can be more subtle impacts
such as the "rule" that one male dog overrides 50 million women in grammatical
agreement. However, grammars and expressions can change to fit new social

In American English, it was once considered ridiculous to use terms like
"Congresswoman", but now its perfectly legitimate as is the gender-neutral term

It should be noted that social language engineering has its limits. Too much, too
soon can lead to derision from speakers if it does not match their social realities. For
example, the proposed "Congressperson" never did become common, partly for
reasons of prosody I think.

Pinker has a good discussion on the changing terms for Americans of African
heritage over the decades. His comment is that the goal of changing the term is to
remove the derogatory nature of the previous term. However, he notes that the
terms won't stop changing until true social equality between the races is achieved
and the CONCEPT of coming from an African heritage is considered as positive as
having a European heritage in the U.S.

In other words, thoughts drive language in most cases. It's good to be aware of the
bias in your language, but it's harder to flip that switch across all speakers.

Reply From: Elizabeth J Pyatt      click here to access email
Date: 03-Dec-2012
Other Replies:
  1. Re: To what extent can grammar be sexist?    Susan D Fischer     (29-Nov-2012)
  2. Re: To what extent can grammar be sexist?    Geoffrey Richard Sampson     (30-Nov-2012)
  3. Re: To what extent can grammar be sexist?    Marilyn N Silva     (29-Nov-2012)
  4. Re: To what extent can grammar be sexist?    Steven Schaufele     (30-Nov-2012)

Back to Most Recent Questions