Sir Sophie & The Structuralists

Women are still the numerical majority in this world.  That those most numerous are not the default for human beings is worth thinking about.

I got the link from the F Word blog (which really could do with a makeover), but the original post is from Echidne of The Snakes. Another difficult blog to read (I can’t link directly to the post, for some reason, but it’s near the bottom of the first page as I type), but she writes well on sexism in language. Her basic point; that English grammar does not reflect equality; is well-founded, although I have never believed that the eradication of gender from grammar (even were it possible) would make us any more equal. Genderless language does not equal gender equality; if it did, Mandarin-speaking China should be one of the most equal societies in the world. Actually, China – and different dialects of Chinese – is extremely interesting as an illustration of just how complex the relationship between language, gender and socio-political reality can be. The logographic dialect of nushu was a direct response to the inequality experienced by speakers of Mandarin Chinese. Nushu is believed to have originated in southern rural communities of China during the third century AD, in areas where men learnt Mandarin Chinese, but women did not; in response, the women developped nushu, the world’s only single-sex writing system. The need for such a language also reflects the social isolation many such women experienced after their marriages; nushu allowed many women to correspond and journal with their ‘sworn sisters’ (members of a kind of rural sorority). The fact that this dialect only came to critical light in the 1980s West shows both the intense secrecy of the dialect and the general lack of interest shown in communication between women.


The relationship between gender and language is intensely contradictory. On a broad level, I would largely agree with the structuralist view that language determines reality – but then, specific examples such as Chinese leap up and hit me in the face. Also, it might be rationally assumed that, prior to the twentieth century, Englishmen and women would use language very differently due to their wildly variant experiences of education; but then again, George Eliot and the three Brontë sisters all wrote as men without any critical suspicion; in fact, the main suspicion directed at Acton, Currer and Ellis Bell was that they were one person – even by the time the third edition of Wuthering Heights was published in 1850, Charlotte’s protestations that they were three people had ‘failed to gain general credence’; only then did she, in a ‘Biographical Notice of Ellis and Acton Bell’ (who, poor things, were of course dead by this time), reveal their genders, in the passing phrase, ‘my two sisters and myself’. Nobody had suspected that the Bell brothers were sisters; Charlotte herself attributes this to the fact that their writings were ‘not what is called feminine’, a remark that acknowledges both the perception of a visible gender binary in literature, and the instability of that perception.

Perhaps the rarity of mixed-gender writing partnerships suggests that men and women use language differently. Whenever there’s a mixed-gender writing partnership, the assumption is always that the woman does less work, has less talent; twentieth-century pop culture examples would be John Cleese and Connie Booth, John and Michelle Phillips. More damagingly, people persist in thinking that Percy Shelley actually wrote Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; in fact, the Bodleian MSS show that he made heavy emendations & shared in the transcription of the final ‘fair copy’. Yes, the versions of the novel are different, but actually – Mary’s original is equally good, and (rather like the messy, chaotic 1st edition of Wuthering Heights) arguably more exciting to a twenty-first century reader. 

I doubt that, on its own, saying ‘humankind’ for ‘mankind’ would make us very much more equal. In its earliest recorded usage (current from 1290-1450), ‘girl’ could denote a young person of either sex, and I wouldn’t call the Middle Ages a time of thriving gender equality. But I do agree that there is a place for gender-neutral linguistic forms; not pronouns like ‘zie’ and ‘hir’ (which are never going to work in the mainstream), but substitutions like ‘chair’ for ‘chairman’, or ‘police officer’ for ‘policeman’ or ‘policewoman’ – ‘chairperson’ and the potential ‘policeperson’ sound ludicrous, and as linguists like Schulz have pointed out, ostentatious neologisms like ‘chairperson’ are far more likely to denote a woman than a man. Pre-existing terms like ‘worker’ and ‘chair’ are far more desirable; they don’t face the task of integration into the language. I wish, too, that the female equivalent of ‘Sir’ wasn’t ‘Dame’, a word which – ironically enough – always has connotations for me of a man in drag at Christmas time. I think ‘Sir Sophie’ has quite a ring to it (I said this aloud once and it really worried my mother); still, it’s unlikely to happen during my lifetime & Dames Smith and Dench do wear the title remarkably well (I also think that the diminutive ‘Baroness’ title is more tainted by its Thatcher-bearer than its derivative from ‘Baron’).

I’m not opposed to gender-neutral pronouns (one obvious solution to the problematic relationship between gender and language), but I think we need some new ones. Honestly, I think that ‘zie’ and ‘hir’ would stand a better chance of working in Britain if they didn’t sound so – well – German. I’m not condoning this, but; these particular words won’t work. In principle, given our language’s proud history of linguistic menace, looting and malice aforethought, I’m up for anything that makes our pen bigger, better and pointier than the sword. More words is always good. But, again, this comes with a caveat; an issue of linguistic inequality far more important than whether ‘actress’ is an insulting term (in my view, it isn’t – ‘poetess’, however, is a vile word that should earn the speaker a kick in the shins). Increasing the language can be enriching; removing words doesn’t have to be diminishing. I’m talking about hate-speech; and words like ‘mankind’ aren’t hate-speech. They aren’t neutral to the radical ear, the progressive ear, or – a lot of the time – to the simply female ear. But they are neutral words to a lot of decent speakers. They aren’t biologically neutral but they can and do operate as socially so.  And, frankly, if we women actually had economic and social equality with men, either the language would alter itself, or we’d stop caring. But no amount of economic advantage can compensate for hate speech. 

If we could remove words like “cunt” and “nigger” from common parlance (except in their reclaimed senses, if any), that wouldn’t be “political correctness gone mad” or “destroying the language”. Language should be a tool and not an idol; nor is language animate – you cannot hurt its feelings. Style will always survive and adapt as long as talented technicians and artists continue to write and speak. Ultimately, language should be democratic: we cannot hurt its feelings, but we can respond to the feelings of its users. Any change that enables more users to better use and feel included by their own language, in more contexts, is a change to be welcomed.

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