Sense And Sensibility…And Syntax

When you speak or write do you ever stop to think about the language you use and the impact it can have on people and society; even whether it actually reinforces any ingrained prejudices?

You may recall your school lessons in French, Italian or German where each word was specifically male or female. Whilst the English language isn’t as gender specific as some others, it does still retain a certain amount of words or phrases that can bolster sexism.






Historically language has always had a bias towards the ‘male’. Job roles were initially set out to reflect the men who carried them out – businessman, postman, milkman – however as women started to establish themselves in the workforce, the language we have continued using hasn’t changed or coincided at an equal pace.

This is almost like stating that how a man does a job is ‘the norm’ and how a woman does a job is something ‘other’ and therefore aberrant. However, what we should be trying to encourage that every individual has their own methods and strengths irrespective of sex.

It is not only English that has retained this certain level of gender specific vocabulary and sexism. Some indigenous tribes even have their own separate languages and dialects for both genders, thus even preventing women from communicating with the men which is only indicative of their lack of worth and the male disinterest in listening to the women.

It could be said that the English language does still retain a predisposition towards men. That the root words used are seen as ‘the norm’ and anything that refers to women is ‘the other’.

This has even led to the question: “Are Women Human?” This problem has been addressed in a fascinating essay book by Catharine MacKinnon, highlighting the belief that women are in fact inferior to a point where their treatment is inhumane. That  women are regarded more like ‘things’ than individuals with worth.

You will likely be familiar with the biblical story of Adam and Eve. Adam was the original being and Eve was created from his rib. The same could be said for our language, that women would be nothing without men. Our seemingly innocuous use of certain words could actually be reinforcing the archaic concept that women are non-standard, should be excluded and rendered invisible and effectively they should remain second rate citizens.

Consider that our words don’t just shape our language, but our language can actually shape our thoughts and actions.

Take for example vocabulary such as ‘dude’ or ‘usher’. They are amended, albeit colloquially, to represent the female, ‘dudette’ and ‘usherette’. Typically, by adding ‘ette’ or substituting ‘man’ for ‘woman’ is our answer to this linguistic puzzle, therefore reinforcing the idea that male is the ‘norm’ and women are the ‘other’. Not to mention that ‘ette’ is actually the French for ‘small’ – and that’s quite symbolic in itself!

Is it enough? Is maintaining the masculine form of words as the standard, and creating an adaptation for females fair? Are we simply serving to strengthen women’s inferior position in society and reinforcing their lesser and more subordinate role in culture?

We could argue that finding alternatives for words such as ‘mankind’ is an example of political correctness gone mad, however by actively thinking about the words we use we can create awareness, which can only be a positive thing. Through the reduction or elimination of words that belittle or discriminate, we can be one step closer to a more equal society.


“The arena of logic was made by men for men; it was expressly founded on the exclusion of what is not male.” Catharine MacKinnon