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Language: a Mirror of Society and its Thoughts

Illustration by Roman Muradov
Written by Smriti Chawla

Language is not natural, but rather a man-made creation. It is representative of the culture and society that it embodies. It is impossible to think of language existing in a vacuum. Conventional canonical literature has, for the longest time, successfully represented the patriarchal power structures of society. 

It was with second-wave feminism in the late 1960s to the late 1980s that critics and females alike recognised the need for a decent representation of the female and the feminine. Female motifs, symbols, and language were intentionally kept away from literature for years. Language was recognised as a tool to propagate patriarchy and the values of society. Gendered language has allowed the space to push women into certain specific structures, and subjected them to certain roles. 

The theoretical roots of feminist linguistics lie in the difference-based theories that emerged during feminism’s second wave, which placed women’s concerns at the center of scholarly analysis for the first time in history. The field has gone on to expand its remit from its original focus on white straight middle-class women to a more inclusive perspective, thanks to the influence of critical feminisms concerned with materiality, race and colonialism, and masculinity, writes Mary Bucholtz, a contemporary feminist scholar.  

Binary of language, and a deep-rooted stereotypical approach towards token representation of women has certainly helped retain the power dynamics and hierarchical social and cultural sectors. This gave rise to the need to subvert, alter or change language structures in order to include the female and the feminine to the same degree as it represented the male and the masculine. 

Language recapitulates gender hierarchies in our daily discourse in the form of sexist language. Such use of language contributes to an oppressive model of femaleness, with which women are assumed to identify, thereby perpetuating inequality,” says Hemanga Dutta, Sociolinguist and Assistant Professor, Centre for Linguistics and Contemporary English, EFLU.

Almost 75% of the world’s languages employ a sex-based system, which also indicates the sheer usage of male pronouns. These pronouns display gender binarism, which classifies gender into two distinct forms, thereby ignoring other genders. Patriarchal notions of career structures also seep into common language with the use of the suffix ‘men’ in words like chairman, fireman, policeman. The change in this vocabulary is currently being brought about, and while it is a slow process, the need for this change is slowly being recognised. Chairperson as a designation does not indicate the gender of the person in the position of authority and is, therefore, the preferred term. 

When a man refers to a woman as sugar, honey, sweetie, he consciously or unconsciously objectifies the woman, by referring to her using words used in relation to food. Terms like ‘pussy’ also propagate the patriarchal notions that deem women weak. I would here take a sentence to remind the world that they have been pushed out of that pussy in order to exist. And they would do well to remember that. The use of the female genitalia in the abusive language in most languages also reinstates the notion of control over the woman’s reproductive system and capacity. 

Language is a mirror of society and its thoughts. Gendered language obviously influences the way we see the world, right from our childhoods. In the progression of society, every element, social, political, cultural, has to move forward at the same time. Language is merely one such element. An era of inclusivity and reform is upon us, and it is upon us to reform the idea of gender from binary to a spectrum. 

Gender linguists have suggested these three things to bring out inclusivity in our everyday discourse - rebuilding language, using words differently, and creating new words. The common use of the word womxn, instead of women is used to remove the word ‘men’ from the women and create a unique identity for the female. Words like mansplaining have entered into the 21st-century vocabulary, and are used primarily to highlight the power dynamics in a man-woman relationship. 

Gender-neutral terms like ‘person’, ‘they’, ‘their’ can help build an inclusive society, with equal respect being given to all genders on the spectrum. 

Specifically in literature and visual media, instead of token, stereotypical representation of women, one must move beyond and make such spaces inclusive. Gender representation should not be checkboxes for producers and creators to tick, but natural additions in common, shared spaces. 

“Criticising sexism in language is just one of the many battles one needs to fight on a daily basis in order to try — not necessarily to make the world a better place, but to make people in power become aware of their own status. We all need to think much more than we currently do,” says Madhavi Menon, Director of Centre for Studies in Gender and Sexuality, Ashoka University.

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