Gender, Language and Discourse

By Ann Weatherall | Go to book overview

1

SEXIST LANGUAGE

Introduction

A feminist concern with words for woman in the English language has a long history that continues today. Issues concerning sexism in language and feminist endorsement of non-sexist language policies attract public comment as well as academic attention. In fact, the ongoing ridicule in the media of concerns about sexism in language is one form of evidence that rules about words are not neutral but deeply ideological. For example, the headline 'Try a little togethern' used by The Economist (Johnson, 1994) was written to undermine a feminist lobby to ban job titles marked with feminine suffixes (e.g. waitress, actress). The reason for dropping '-ess' endings is that they seem to imply that the role is less important than when the ending is not used, which is typically the case when the terms are used to refer to men in the same roles (e.g. waiter, actor). Another example was the Sunday Times (UK, 23/03/97) article headlined 'Women may give Ms a Miss', which argued that 'Ms' was being shunned by a new generation of women because of its association with aggressive feminism.

Butler (1990a) suggested that a sense of trouble tends to arise when there is some kind of threat to a prevailing law. The trouble provoked whenever feminist issues are raised about words and women is, I would argue, an indication that issues of sexist language are inextricably tied to the prevailing social and moral order. To say that rules about words are closely intertwined with dominant social belief systems is not to say that a non-sexist language would naturally and inevitably lead to a non-sexist society. The important point is that language about women is not a neutral or a trivial issue but deeply political. Cameron (1995) made a similar point in her work on verbal hygiene: rules about language and standards of 'correct' speech reveal information about patterns of power and privilege in society.

Challenging sexism in language and making trouble with words can be an important feminist strategy to engender social change. However, it seems to me that the solutions offered to the problem of sexist language are

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Gender, Language and Discourse
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Acknowledgements ix
  • Introduction 1
  • 1 - Sexist Language 10
  • 2 - Questions of Difference: Verbal Ability and Voice 32
  • 3 - Women's Language? 54
  • 4 - The Discursive Turn 75
  • 5 - Gender and Language in Ethnomethodology and Conversation Analysis 97
  • 6 - Language, Discourse and Gender Identity 122
  • 7 - Following the Discursive Turn 146
  • References 157
  • Index 175
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