Thursday, 30 January 2014

English Language AS - Language and Gender (Part 2: Sexism in Language)

The second section of Language and Gender is to question whether the English Language is inherently sexist? While the majority of us are constantly striving for equality, are we inadvertently using sexist terms which are so ingrained into our every-day speech that they seem natural?

Marked Expressions

One feature of the English Language which could be considered sexist is the use of marked expressions to describe female roles as deviant to unmarked male expressions. 
A marked form is one which stands out as different or deviant from the norm, for example “priestess”. An unmarked form is the norm which marked lexical items are measured against, for example “priest”. 

There are two ways of showing markedness:
Covert marking is demonstrated through antonyms (opposites). An example of covert marking is young (unmarked) and old (marked). 
Overt marking is a more obvious form, which shows markedness through the modification of marked expression using affixation (pre-fixes and suffixes). The most common example of overt marking is the addition of the suffix “-ess”, for example “actor/actr-ess” to show deviation from the male norm

It is important to remember that sometimes marking is necessary to show biological difference, for example “lion/lioness”.

Another example of overt marking is modified nouns. Some roles, for example nursing, have stereotyped gender expectation and so to show deviation from the norm, the nouns are modified to show this difference.
e.g. FEMALE doctor, career WOMAN, MALE nurse, MALE prostitute. 

Notice that not all marking is aimed at “deviant" women, and that some examples of marking is aimed at “deviant" men. 

Male Nurse and Female Doctor are examples of modified nouns.

Generic Terms 

The use of masculine pronouns (“him/his/he”) as generic pronouns when the gender is non-specific is no longer considered acceptable as they suggest a male-centric world. Most people now seek to exclude these exclusive language choices with inclusive language such as “their”. 

Another example of generic terms being exclusive are phrases such as “mankind” and “manmade” which suggest an androcentric world (focused or centred on men). 


Stereotyping involves assigning a basic set of characteristics to represent a group as a whole. These may be positive or negative.
Stereotyping can lead people to believe that certain groups must conform to certain roles and behavioural expectations. 
There are many stereotypes about males and females, for example “Mother and Baby” classes, which suggest that women are sole carers for children, excluding fathers, grandparents and other carers. 

Stereotypes have evolved since this incredibly sexist advert was published. 

Semantic Derogation and Deterioration 

Semantic derogation is when lexical items have negative connotations and meanings associated with them. 
Semantic deterioration is when lexical items gradually develop negative connotations. 

Theorist, Sara Mills suggests that many female terms are marked and indicate sexual promiscuity (mistress, madam, hostess) whereas unmarked male terms such as “bachelor”  shows freedom and independence. Although they have identical meaning, when contrasted with “bachelor”, “spinster” has more negative connotations. 

A word which has experienced semantic deterioration is the lexical item “lady”, which now is used in terms such as “dinner-lady” and “cleaning lady”. You’d never hear someone describing a male-cleaner as a “cleaning-lord”, would you?

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