Language and Gender: Semantic Derogation

Introduction to semantic derogation

As an introduction, we were a list of words to see if they were used mainly to refer to females or males. The point of this exercise was to be introduced to the sexist aspect of the English Language.

Word – (F) or (M) or (F+M)

Bitch – (F)

Chick – (F)

Cow – (F)

Crumpet – (F)

Honey – (F)

Kitten – (F)

Old biddy – (F)

Stud – (M)

Sugar – (F)

Sweetie – (F)

Tart – (F)

Wolf – (M)

What this exercised showed is that there are more gender specific words for women and as we will see later much of this are in the negative sense and put women down, making our beloved language sexist. 

Janet Holmes 1992

In class we were given an extract from ‘An introduction to sociolinguistics’ by Janet Holmes (1992). 

Summary of her points

  • English metaphors available to describe women in derogatory images are more than those available to describe men.
  • Animal imagery is a key area in which women are belittled compare bitch and cow to stud and wolf. For men at least they show some positive imagery such as wiliness or sexual prowess. However, for women even so called positive terms such as kitten and chick are sweet but helpless pets.
  • Food imagery is another key aspect where women are put down. Saccharine terms are now mainly used in reference to women whereas there is hardly any food imagery relating to men except the odd ‘honey’. Words which clearly has a negative sexual connotations such as ‘tart’ and ‘crumpet’ are solely used against women.

My response to these points

I think this points are valid because they are all backed up by evidence. It makes sense as well because the 21st century society has come a long way in creating equality between male and female social standing. Yet the history has reflected in our language making inequality between the two sexes clearly by the quantitive measure of derogative terms used for both sexes.

Any other evidence need to validate the information?

Personally I don’t think any other evidence is needed and I actually believe because historically all over the globe women have been put down due to various reasons such as religious texts that any language in the world can reflect this. I have some handle on my own language Punjabi and know that women and men use different forms of saying the same thing because gender affects your language use and for me this has always been distressing because I am a feminist and believe that language should be reformed with further equality. But this is a big dream…

Further history of language and gender

1553 – Wilson, grammarian, stated that male nouns should precede female nouns e.g. ‘husband/wife’ ‘brother/sister’ ‘son/daughter’

1646 – Joshua Poole agreed with this because he said ti was more ‘natural’ and ‘proper’ as males were the more ‘worthier’.

19th C – grammarians reinforced this idea by condemning the use of plural pronouns such as ‘they’ and ‘their’. They reasoned by saying words like anyone are singular and thus cannot be followed by plurals e.g. ‘Anybody can do it if they try!’

1976 – Empirical research by linguist Julia Stanley shows that there are numerically more words to describe men than women. Most of this words depict men in a favourable light. She found that 26 words were used to describe sexual promiscuity of men and many of these were complimentary e.g. stud, stallion. Conversely, for women there were 220 words describing female sexual promiscuity which were mostly derogatory e.g. ‘tart’ ‘slag’

Language and Gender: Summary of key linguists

Key Linguists 

Linguist

Their research/view…

Deborah Fishman

Women do the ‘conversational shitwork’. Even though she found that males speak for double the time females do in mixed-sex conversations

Robin Lakeoff

10 features of women’s language

Deborah Cameron

The myth between Mars and Venus – no difference between the sexes

Janet Holmes

Empirical research that there are more derogatory words and images towards females then males,

Julia Stanley

More words to describe men than women. She also found there were 26 words to describe male promiscuity (many of which were favorable e.g. ‘stud’) and 220 words to describe female promiscuity 

Zimmerman and west

Men interrupted 96% of the time and female 4%. They also found that fathers interrupted daughters more than sons

Jennifer Coates

Women are cooperative and negotiating towards other women but are competitive in mixed sex conversations

Jane Pilkington

Women use more positive politeness features and men are more rude.

Koenraad Kuiper

Examined a rugby team and saw that even with united interests men were not interested in saving face

Deborah Tannen

Cross-cultural communication’ men and women are so different.