Can a language be sexist? This is a question we should encourage our MFL students to explore

After one of her pupils exclaimed 'Why are all the best Spanish words masculine?", this MFL teacher began to ponder the connection between language and sexism

Elizabeth Wright

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As a languages teacher, I have become accustomed to pupil reactions to the gender of words. Only last week did I hear an outraged student exclaim “Why are all the best Spanish words masculine?” Personally, I can think of a plethora of superb Spanish words that are feminine, but one cannot deny that the possible sexism of a language is certainly a topic of controversy.

AA Milne, the author of Winnie-the-Pooh, wrote: “If the English language had been properly organised, there would be a word which meant both 'he' and 'she'…which would save a lot of trouble.”

What exactly did he mean? Is he referring to the possible sexism of language? As I pondered this, I found myself on the Cambridge Dictionary website (because I know how to have a good time). Sexist language was defined as "language which excludes one sex or the other, or which suggests that one sex is superior to the other. For example, traditionally, he, him and his were used to refer to both sexes, male and female, but nowadays many people feel that this makes she, her and hers seem less important or inferior."

Is this really true? Some people think that sexism of language is an ongoing struggle against discrimination, whereas others claim it is an artificial issue. Do the words that we use really affect how we think? Benjamin Lee Whorf came up with the theory of linguistic relativity, which claims that language influences thought. His research appeared to show that speakers of different kinds of language were cognitively different from one another as a result of those linguistic differences.

For example, Whorf claimed that the Hopi, a Native American tribe, had no concept of time because their language had no nouns or grammatical structures to express it. Their reality was fundamentally different to ours. Can we relate this to the possible sexism of language? Is it fair to say that the more the masculine gender dominates a language, the more sexist its society is?

A "languages feminist" might claim that the romance languages are full of sexist constructions in which the masculine gender always dominates. That is to say that grammatically masculine terms are used to refer to groups of men and women, even if there are more women than men in said group. Hungarian and Persian, however, are apparently entirely genderless. Does this make French and Spanish more sexist languages? Is it even possible to make such a judgement call unless you speak these languages fluently and have lived in societies in which they are used?

Taking Spanish as an example, advocates of "equal language" believe that the domination of the masculine gender makes the language itself more sexist, which in turn influences how society behaves. Furthermore, many professions in Spanish did not have an equivalent feminine version until recently, for example, the word jefe (boss) has evolved to jefa when referring to women. Historically, it would have been men employed in this role, so is it fair to say that the language itself is sexist? Is it not society that is at fault?

In Mandarin, the character for a man, 男人 (nánrén), includes the character for power (力), whereas the character for a married woman, 妇人 (fùrén), includes the symbol for a broom (扫)! Will these characters evolve, as gender roles become more equal – just like new words have evolved in Spanish, as women have embraced professions previously only available to men?

Surely the important thing is that society changes so that we all have equal opportunities. Does language need to change first or does this happen once the societal change has occurred? I would argue that the sexism of any language depends on the individual and how they personally employ words. Take Spanish, for example: is it a sexist language? On paper, yes. Does that mean all Spanish people are sexist? Certainly not.

Some people are sexist like others are racist or ageist, but is it language that is at fault? Does language create reality or is language the product of reality? That is for you to decide. Or is it?

The real question is, what do our students think? These are the puzzles that we should be throwing at learners in the classroom, and encouraging them to ponder and explore. As a languages teacher, I cannot change the structures of the languages I teach, but I can instigate dialogue and debate around this topic.

Our students should be encouraged to ask questions and push boundaries, so that they can decide whether languages need to evolve to reflect changes in society. If this means more equal opportunities for future generations, then fantastic. The power is in their hands.

Elizabeth Wright is a Spanish and French teacher at Portsmouth High School GDST

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Elizabeth Wright

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