Chapter 1: Can languages be sexist?
Can languages, these systems of conventional spoken, manual or written symbols by means of which people express themselves, be sexist? Or is it us, people, who use languages in a sexist way?
Millions of women – and not only – around the world hit the streets last Wednesday, on March 8, to mark International Women’s Day (8M) targeting gender inequality and sexism. It is true that in most cultures, since time immemorial, men have been conventionally treated as superior and women as inferior, an idea which is disseminated from generation to generation, and which is deeply rooted in our unconscious.
The question is, how are such ideas disseminated?
Through language! Languages can help produce and reproduce sexist ideas. Echoing the words of two very important linguists, Fairclough and Wodak, discourse, in other words, language, is both shaping society and it is also shaped by society. It is not only a means of communication, but also a shaper of ideas, as it influences people’s thoughts about reality and it affects their cognition and behaviour, which may have further social implications.
We may understand, therefore, that there is an interrelation among
language, our cognition and society.
This means that if language contains sexist comments, it can lead to the creation of gender stereotypes and gender inequality in societies; it could, thus, be built upon the ideology or mentality that males are the default and women the exception, an idea that has been proved to be exceedingly dangerous.
So, can languages be sexist?
According to the English Grammar Today on Cambridge Dictionary, “sexist language is language which excludes one sex or the other, or which suggests that one sex is superior to the other”. An example of sexist language is: “Women should be paid less than men, because they are less intelligent”.
But, let’s clarify two things first!
Languages are not sexist. People are.
We may often say that a language is sexist, but what we are talking about is the use of the language, not the language itself! Language as a system cannot be described as sexist or anything else. When we refer to ‘sexist’ language, we are actually referring to its users, its speakers, who, through using it, have the ability and the power to make certain sexist comments.
We should distinguish between
“sexist language” and “gender-discriminatory language”.
According to the European Institute for Gender Equality, “there is a subtle difference in how people use the terms: sexist language is commonly seen as language that the user intends to be derogatory; gender-discriminatory language, on the other hand, also includes language people use without any sexist intention”.
Gender-discriminatory – or gender-biased – language has been traditionally used and, for this reason, commonly accepted by people. An example of gender-biased language is: “Each citizen must ask himself how he can work for the common good”. It is true that most of us become constantly aware of such potential linguistic biases in everyday language when we use pronouns or nouns referring to one gender only (conventionally, the masculine one), even when we talk about both women and men. And this is not only evident in English. Take for example Spanish: the words ‘father’, ‘mother’ and ‘parents’ are traditionally translated into Spanish as ‘padre’, ‘madre’ and ‘padres’ respectively. And this is one sole example…
Of course, just because this has been the norm, the tradition up to now, this does not mean that it does not constitute a serious problem. Nowadays, in the era of the emergence of new social meanings, such as gender fluidity, it is considered even more critical for people to learn how to express themselves and how to address others correctly.
To sum up, can a language be sexist or biased on its own? No. Can the use and the users of languages be sexist or gender-biased? Yes! So, it is necessary for everyone to learn some tactics in order to avoid sounding sexist and biased. The best method might be to use gender-neutral words when we talk about people in general.
Should all people start addressing others in a genuinely and politically correct way by reducing gender bias (language), we will start noticing some positive changes in our way of perceiving reality and others (cognition) and, as a consequence, we will start making the world a better place for everyone (society).
To be continued…
[Coming up next on our English365 Blog: Chapter 2, on how to avoid gender-biased language in English]
by Maria G.
 Crystal, D., and Robins,. Robert Henry (2022, August 18). language. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/language
 Fairclough, N., & Wodak, R. (1997). Critical Discourse Analysis. In T. A. van Dijk (Ed.), Discourse as Social Interaction: Discourse Studies: A Multidisciplinary Introduction, vol. 2. (Vol. 2, pp. 258–284). SAGE Publications Ltd.
© 2023 European Institute for Gender Equality. If you want to learn more about these terms and their differences, you may visit https://eige.europa.eu/publications/gender-sensitive-communication/first-steps-towards-more-inclusive-language/terms-you-need-know