Women and the English Language [Archives:2000/14/Focus]

April 3 2000

Dr. Murari Parasad
Associate Professor & Head Dept of English,
Faculty of Education, Sa’adah

The blossoming of feminism in the 1960s and ’70s made many assaults on the English language. The radical fringe of American feminists considered it part of the road map to greater female empowerment. Chafing at the exclusionary semantics of the mainstream, which the feminists described as ‘male-stream’, English, they sought to free the language from gendered socio-cultural realities. While the works by women writers increasingly became part of the literary canon, challenging most accounts of the literary history of the United States, new word-formation with their gender- specific meanings were attempted for ” Creative reconceptualization” of women’s identity. These words are delightfully indecorous, but largely unread. However, we owe some sassy phrases and words to the strident phase of sexual-recovery movement.
The feminists consider gender to be socially produced and language a crucial means of controlling the sexual discrimination, for example, the generic use of the terms “man” and “he” to encompass all mankind, as in ‘Man in Mortal’. They object to such terms in that the message is ‘misogynistic and overly sexist’. They affirm that the connections among language, politics and sex have been minimized in a patriarchal dispensation: the English language grew under a masculine value system, margnalising women immeasurably. “The criticisms,” says David Crystal, “have been mainly directed at the biases built into English vocabulary and grammar which reflect a traditionally male-oriented view of the world, and which have been interpreted as reinforcing the low status of women in society.”Even as literary feminism was pushing its sprouts into public consciousness as an alternative culture, godmothers of the movement coined a term “Manglish” to describe the English language as it is used by men “in perpetuation of male supremacy” and popularized it through a column on language in the feminist publication Everywoman. Varda One, the columnist, designated words such as ‘reality-violators’ and ‘consciousness-raisers’. During the last two decades a large number of such conscious-raising coinages have been compiled in feminist dictionaries like the one by Cheris Kramarae and another by Paula A Terichler. One of their publishing houses is Virago and Shrew is an articulate outfit to reclaim female power. India’s Kali for Women is making splashes in the same vein.
Although mainstream English dictionaries are yet to face these feminist factoids, the 10th edition of the Merraim-Webster Collegiate Dictionary has included the word ‘Herstory’ (the feminine substitute for history) coined by feminists to stress on women’s history. These formations are not based on structural relations and are the best provisional paradigms. For instance, ‘womanifesto’ has been coined to suggest “strong political statement by women for women,” Etymologically, ‘manifesto’ and ‘history’ are not combinations of ‘man’ plus ‘festo’ and ‘his’ plus ‘story’. Manifesto is derived from the Latin manifestus which consists of manus meaning ‘hand’ and festus meaning ‘struck’. Similarly, history is derived from the Greek through Latin historia meaning ‘inquiry’. In Australian English, ‘femocrat’ is another such term minted by the members of the Australian women’s movement to signify a feminist bureaucrat. Isn’t the angle of perception far too sexually polarised, or rather, bizarre?
It is interesting to see the semantic skirmishes launched by them. A bachelor is no longer “an unmarried man” (as Longman dictionary tell us) but “an unmarried man often relies on women (mother, waitress, cleaning woman etc) for help with his food preparation, houses cleaning and laundry”. Wedding, as a feminist dictionary defines it, is “common ceremony at which the civil death of the woman is celebrated” and wife is not the woman to whom man is married but “muse, agent, promoter, domestic peacemaker and brow-mopper”. And what is a husband? He is not the man to whom a woman is married but “a married man who has, by self-appointment, served as the ultimate determinant of feminine worth.” Beauty contest is “an event in which exploited women compete against one another as women as men’s beauty objects”. Furthermore, a housewife is not “a mistress or a manager of a house” as mainstream dictionaries define the word, or a woman who works at home or family, or one who does not work outside home, but a ” household worker who never reaches retirement age,” or one with the man whom she has joined.” Marriage is not only “material appropriation of women by men” but also ” a cage entered with the eyes open for legal …tion”. No prizes for guessing the word.
These examples from feminist dictionaries illustrate new lines of critique on larger institutions and social arrangements. And the movement has won some battles, too, by taking up cudgels against language-promoted inequality. ‘Male’ words with a generic meaning are now being replaced by neutral items and the use of sexually neutral language in job description is a legal requirement. The gaining currency of words like ‘chairperson’, ‘salesperson’, ‘postperson’ etc instead of ‘chairman’, ‘salesman’, ‘postman’, show how women are breaking the glass ceiling.
Has the language been unjust or women towarrant feminist intervention for emancipatory theorization? Of course, the number of old proverbs and quotations derogatory to women is far more than the encomiums heaped on them, but these biases against women written into the language do not deliberately attempt to degrade them or deny them their due. Since language has a great deal to do with operative social transactions, it gathers layers of meaning and implications in line with prevailing norms and their accompaniments. Today when women are no longer on the margins of society, words are shedding unipolar sexiest associations and the language is responding to new social realities.
Nevertheless, the attempt of feminist to forge a new idiom has its own validity in that it was a product of a vital polemical moment in the resurgence of women. They may seem to be wobbly perpetrations and ineptitudes, but they do comment a resistant perspective. As a noted proponent of the movement notes, it was part of these linguistic formulations identifying the systemic character of gender inequalities that gave motivate their feminist organizational activity. It was also this discourse that would later become braided into the very language of the law itself. To be sure, no one can dispute feminist demand for linguistic fairplay, but their intellectual agenda to mangle the language, for example, their search for bizarre of episcene (having but one form to indicate either sex) pronouns is downright separatist and disconcerting too. The sheer logic smashing the patriarchal matrix by railroading new coinages is apt to make the language more risqu than richer.
Far from adding charm and variety to English, the feminist formations seem to have made its vocabulary forgettable and reductive with perceived notions of sexuality in the language. Since language is basically a spoken medium, such changes noticeable only in certain kinds of writing are unlikely to be accepted by a wider speech community unless instrumentalities between articulation and reception are forged.