LINGUIST List 6.1091

Sun Aug 13 1995

Disc: Sex/Lang, Re: 1083

Editor for this issue: T. Daniel Seely <>


  1. Lydie Meunier, Re: 6.1083, Disc: Sex/Lang, Re: 1079, 1080

Message 1: Re: 6.1083, Disc: Sex/Lang, Re: 1079, 1080

Date: Sat, 12 Aug 1995 12:45:17 Re: 6.1083, Disc: Sex/Lang, Re: 1079, 1080
From: Lydie Meunier <>
Subject: Re: 6.1083, Disc: Sex/Lang, Re: 1079, 1080

Alexis MR writes:

>Lydie Meunier seems to be asking which comes first, sexist language
>or sexist behavior. But there is surely a third alternative, that
>language and behavior evolve together, reinforcing each other.
>It is also important to distinguish the question of how some form
>of language or behavior arose in the first place from that of how
>it is transmitted to successive generations. I would have little
>doubt that sexist language plays a major role in transmitting
>ideas which lead to sexist behavior, but it is difficult for me
>to believe that HISTORICALLY sexist language came before sexist

You're probably right! Historically, sexist behavior probably came before
sexist language. Yet, today we are born in a society already in place, and
sexist language is likely to influence a child's mind and lead to a sexist
behavior. Are we born with a sexist attitude? I do believe that many
traditions (sexism being one of them) and perspectives are partially
conveyed through language. However, like you, I tend to believe that
language and behavior evolve together.

I do believe that historically today's sexist interactive patterns are
influenced --among other factors-- by sociolinguistic practices during
biblical times when a wife had to address her husband as slaves had to
address their master, or subjects their king. This implied that a man
could also address his wife as a master his slave and a king his subject,
i.e., using a clear rhetoric of authority. Today, conversational dominance
by males in our judeo-christian society is not as extreme as during the
biblical times, but interestingly it is still inherent to male-specific
discourse and has become the focus of some interesting sociolinguistic
research. As a matter of fact, I moved to the Bible belt one year ago (I
spent 10 years on the East and West coasts in the US prior to my arrival in
the Bible belt last year; originally I come from Europe), and after
observations of interractive patterns among couples around me, I came to
the hypothesis that the stronger a religious (or traditional) impact on
people's life, the more sex discrimination is reflected in language use. I
have also noticed much more instances of sex discrimination in language use
in offices I had to go to in the Bible belt (e.g. doctor and lawyer
offices, insurance agencies, etc.) than in other professional offices I
visited elsewhere in the U.S. I found this extremely interesting.

>(a) I do believe that people in all kinds of cultures themselves
>believe that men and male behavior are superior in some sense to
>women and female behavior, and I hold that this perception (even if
>it were not accurate) is what must matter to us as we discuss
>sexist language. Whether the perception is accurate is of no importance
>in this context.

Why should it be of no importance? Shall we just accept the discriminatory
status quo as it is? What is the point of studying linguistics if it is
for no other purpose than the pleasure of intellectual analysis? Shall we
just remain at the analytical level and ignore the implications revealed by
research, or could we also use research findings to help improve
communication or even change subsconsciously (socially) acquired schemata?
Studies in psychology have shown that females reading texts written in a
generic "he" retain less information than when they read texts using a
generic plural. Obviously, the impact of using a sexist language goes
beyond the simple interest of linguistic studies within a certain context.
Personally, I like to believe that my research will somewhat help society
at large. What is the point of considering discriminatory perspectives as
unchangeable or questionable facts whereas we all know that both languages
and human psychology have the potential to change?

>(b) I do not make any necessary connection between oppression of
>womn and oppression of black people at all. I simply used the
>example of black slavery as an example of the general principle that
>to admit the existence of a form of oppression practiced by some
>group (by white people) does not mean that one must necessarily
>hate them. My point was that I am not a mysandrist just because
>I accept that men have historically not been very nice to women.

You are absolutely right! Hate does not help any purpose nor does it
improve communication. Yet, black people needed the cooperation of
open-minded white people to help them reach a status based on the principle
of equality. The same applies to females who keep trying to communicate
with males, and who meet open and understanding men whereas others still
believe that sexism is a nonsense political issue brought up by angry
feminists. Before being a political issue, it is a serious social issue
that needs to be addressed through mutual understanding and respect. If
males refuse their cooperation, some females may end up hating men as a
natural psychological reaction. Simone de Beauvoir wrote in her book THE
SECOND SEX that there is no Black problem yet a White problem (referring
the civil right movement in the US in the 50's 60's), because so called
Black issues essentially stem from the Whites' disciminatory attitudes.
Black problems can be addressed by first revealing the problem of racism,
and then by educating people to open their mind to differences as an
enriching asset to the society, not a sign of deficiency. Likewise, women
issues are primarily men issues, because we are still living in a world
which has been historically organized by men who believed in female
inferiority, whether politically, socially or linguistically.
Communication between men and women is therefore the key to social
improvement, hence the social mission of our research in linguistics,
considering that language use is a social phenomenon.

Je pense donc je baragouine....
 Lydie E. Meunier / Department of Languages
 University of Tulsa / Tel: 918 631 2813 (O) / Fax: 918 744 1902
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