Gender Shifts in the History of English

By Anne Curzan | Go to book overview

6 Implications for nonsexist
language reform

The aim throughout this book has been not only to provide linguistic details that may help answer lingering questions about the development of gender in the English language, both in the grammar and in the lexicon, but also to show the ways in which this historical context can inform current debates about sexism in the language and language reform. A significant amount of time and attention has been paid to language in the feminist movement, in large part because, as both feminists and linguists argue, “language matters.” (See Pauwels 1998 for an excellent cross-language survey of women's language reform efforts.) We do not know or understand the precise relationship of language to thought, but we do know that language can reflect social structures and attitudes, if not perpetuate them. And we know that in some ways, we can change language more easily than we can change attitudes. Whether or not changing language eventually changes attitudes remains an open question; clearly, however, the simple fact that language reform requires speakers to think about a linguistic construction and its possible social implications – be they sexist, racist, or otherwise discriminatory – brings a level of awareness of these issues to a speech community that might not otherwise be achieved. In other words, language reform movements contest the notion that language is a neutral medium for communicating ideas and force speakers to consider how their audience may perceive certain linguistic choices. And when speakers do use less, for example, sexist language, then the language is arguably not perpetuating sexist attitudes.

Such an outcome might seem a minor one to some, but the resistance to language reform evidenced in the history of English and other languages suggests that few if any reforms to language feel particularly “minor” to speakers. Language is integral to identity and to culture, no matter how we define these terms, and speakers tend to be very protective of their language, not wanting it to be unnecessarily “tinkered with.” Yet, as Cameron argues persuasively in Verbal Hygiene (1995), the desire to regulate – if not “tinker with” – the language of others is natural to speech communities. Efforts to preserve older linguistic forms and attempts to introduce new politically correct forms all constitute acts of “verbal hygiene,” as speakers work to control the language and tell others what

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