Identical words can have different meanings, depending on whether you use the feminine or masculine form. Could certain languages be holding women back?
I like to think of myself as a happy woman – I also like to think of myself as a lover of walking, fairly worldly and easy-going. But to describe myself as any of the above in Italian would be to call myself a whore.
Let me explain. The masculine forms of all those words do what they say on the tin. Un uomo allegro is a happy man. Un passeggiatore is a lover of walking, un mondano is a worldly individual and un uomo facile is a happy-go-lucky guy. But make those adjectives feminine and the meaning transforms. Suddenly they all carry sexual connotations – explicitly that a woman who goes out walking, or who looks happy, or knows the world must also be highly sexually active, and that this is a bad thing. I am not just a neutral man, going about his life. I am a slut to be shamed.
Across the world, some experts argue that languages can sustain covert sexism, often cultural hangovers from a time when patriarchy was more powerful, or at least less challenged, than it is now. When we think about striving for gender equality, are our mother tongues holding us back? And what can be done to change this?
The dilemma at hand is fairly baffling. Is language merely a mirror of our society, or does language help shape our worldview, subtly influencing our behaviour? Linguists have long debated the linguistic relativity hypothesis – whether a language's grammar or vocabulary imposes a particular worldview on its speakers.
Sometimes people ask this question when considering languages that use genders in grammar. But it's other parts of language too. Take Korean for example. There is a pejorative word for a woman who scrimps on essentials to spend lots on foreign luxuries – 된장녀 or doenjang nyeo – which appeared after the country's economic upswing in the 2000s.
The word translates as "soybean paste girl" – the idea being that no matter how many Chanel bags she buys, she'll never be able to disguise her "Korean-ness", and that this kind of spending was something to be mocked. There is no derogatory "soybean paste boy" equivalent.
In English, there is no true male equivalent of the word "spinster", an unmarried older woman. There is the word "bachelor", but it again does not carry the negative connotations that spinster traditionally has. Could Korean make people think women are more avaricious than men – or could English make people think that it's acceptable for older men to be unmarried, but not older women?
We do know that language can affect things like visual perception – in one experiment in 2007, Russians could identify different shades of blue more quickly than English speakers because they have two words for the colour blue, unlike one in English.
It can also affect how we perceive time. In one study, Chinese-English bilinguals were asked to arrange pictures of a young, mature and old Brad Pitt and Jet Li. With Brad Pitt, they arranged them in the way English speakers perceive time as a direction of forwards and backwards or left to right. Young Brad Pitt was put on the left, old Brad Pitt on the right.
In Mandarin however, to say "next week", you literally say "down week" – the word for "up" is used to talk about the past. Unsurprisingly, this meant that young Jet Li's photograph was placed above, and old Jet Li was placed below. That they positioned Brad Pitt and Jet Li based on the languages they associated each actor with shows how language affected how the speakers perceived them, according to the researchers.
But does language affect how we perceive different genders – or merely reflect that perception back at us?
"It's a hard question," says Debbie Cameron, the Rupert Murdoch professor of language and communication at Oxford University. "It's very difficult to disentangle them. There is good evidence that changing language in certain areas does change people's perceptions – there's a lot of work that shows if you present children with bits of text that are about occupations, and you use an inclusive form to name the occupation, they're more likely to say women can be successful or that the job is suitable for them. If you give them the generic masculine word, they'll see that women can't be successful."
If you go on saying chairman when everyone else is saying chair, you are making a statement. And people are going to hear that statement – Debbie Cameron
This occurs in both non-gendered languages like English – saying salesman instead of salesperson, for example – and in gendered ones. But Cameron cautions that this doesn't suddenly eradicate society's gender biases. "You don't get male bias down to zero because there are cultural stereotypes that need to be taken into account," she says. "They will always think a lorry driver is probably male. But with a word like administrator, that's culturally neutral, the use of terms does change the way that they are perceived."
It isn't only us humans that are perpetuating these stereotypes in our language either – it's machines, too. One study found that Google Translate sometimes assumes that the job holders for roles in science, technology engineering and medicine are male when translating from other languages to English. Another study in 2015 found that Google Images would deliver image results based on terms like "CEO" or "author" that heavily skewed towards men, even though the US at the time had more female than male authors, and 27% of its CEOs were female. But you wouldn't think that, if you looked at the search results.
Making a language more equal isn't only about addressing the gender stereotypes that exist when we describe occupations. In the 1990s, Cameron came up with a phrase for this kind of linguistic cleansing – verbal hygiene. It is "the motley collection of discourses and practices through which people attempt to 'clean up' language and make its structure or its use conform more closely to their ideals of beauty, truth, efficiency, logic, correctness and civility".
Some verbal hygiene focuses today are very public and well-known, like the use of gender-neutral pronouns, for example, or inclusivity when we talk about sex to include terminology that accounts for homosexual or transexual experiences as well as heterosexual ones. But some words and phrases that need cleaning up aren't so obvious.
In Amanda Montell's Wordslut: A Feminist Guide to Taking Back the English Language, she talks about how penetrative sex is described from the male perspective, not female. She suggests envelopment or enclosure, positing sex as something a woman does to a man, rather than the other way round. "If women were linguistically framed as the protagonists of any given sexual scenario, could that potentially mean that a woman's orgasm, as opposed to a dude's, would be seen as the proverbial climax – the ultimate goal?" she asks.
Similarly, women are defined by their marital status around the globe. Now in my mid-to-late 20s, I am in an awkward stage where Western Europeans bounce between calling me signorina or signora, mademoiselle or madame. Men remain monsieur, señor and signore irrelevant of marriage and age. The non-married equally experience gendered labelling – in Hindi, a bride is kanya, which also means virgin. A groom instead is doolha, a label that has nothing to do with his previous sexual experience. Urdu lacks a word to describe a divorced man, but a woman is a talaq yafta, a derogatory phrase.
The social theorist and activist Jackson Katz has a quote from his Ted Talk that goes viral whenever stories of women's sexual assault and trauma make the news headlines. "We talk about how many women were raped last year, not about how many men raped women. We talk about how many girls in a school district were harassed last year, not about how many boys harassed girls…so you can see how the use of the passive voice has a political effect. It shifts the focus off of men and boys and onto girls and women. Even the term 'violence against women' is problematic. It's a passive construction; there's no active agent in the sentence."
When I went on Wikipedia to look at the articles on Violence Against Women and Girls, I was surprised to see that there were no references to men in the first paragraph of any of the explanations for the three different languages that I speak. Perhaps part of this is due to data collection and the worthy emphasis on representing the victims. But does this let men off the hook?
In Japanese, the kanji for molester is made of two characters, one meaning foolish and the other meaning man, which some commentators have suggested implies that molesters are mere idiots rather than criminals. Research has not yet revealed whether those specific kanji do indeed lead to a greater acceptance of male violence in Japan, or whether Katz's observation on passive construction leads to more of us not taking male violence against women seriously.
However, there are groups actively involved in verbal hygiene initiatives, often also known as feminist language planning – grassroots or political movements to change how language represents gender.
A lot of these efforts are often small projects or publicity stunts. One was a book of new words by a Malaysian design collective called TypoKaki, who created them to try and challenge what they see as inherent sexism in Mandarin. They took the female radical "nu" character and added or removed it to certain words to alter their meaning. By adding the radical to the word for hair, they were able to create a word that indicates that women can be hairy too. By adding it to the Mandarin word for pain, they were able to create a word that conveyed menstrual pain.
In 2021, a communications company in Spain invented the word matrocinio, the female equivalent of patrocinio, patronage – it would be like saying "matronage" in English to refer to the support given by someone to the arts. On International Women's Day, a performance at the Teatro Real in Madrid that they helped devise was named a product of matrocinio, "the support or financing of activities created by or in favour of gender equality".
But for any of these to stick requires significant effort.
"These things come and go," says Cameron. "The crucial thing for whether it has legs or lasts is whether it gets taken up by ordinary people. Imposing a house style is easy enough but getting it into language is not so easy. Think about the debate on pronouns to use for people who don't identify as he or she. For me, it was always obvious we'd settle on 'they' – the sex of someone you don't know. But if you go on [the social networking site] Tumblr, you find hundreds of suggestions. They just never caught on… If you come up with a word that fills a lexical gap, or you choose a change that is linguistically natural, it works far better than an exotic, invented word," she explains.
There have been success stories. In Sweden, where it was once long claimed that there was no neutral word for girls' genitals, there now exists a word – snippa. It's entered the cultural psyche through children's books, campaigns, its inclusion in the Swedish Academy's Dictionary in 2006 and its use in sex education, where it was included in a project aimed at discussing children's sexuality in pre-schools.
Karin Milles, a senior lecturer at the department of culture and learning at Södertörn University in Sweden, calls this a subversive act "powerful enough to change the way we understand female gender and question the restraints society still puts on female sexuality".
Not everyone is up for being verbally hygienic. In opening up a conversation about Jackson Katz' quote on my TikTok, I got a number of male users commenting "not all men" – as if my raising the fact that men are often the perpetrators of violence against women meant that I was suddenly accusing all men of being inherently violent.
"There is always going to be pushback against anything you are trying to innovate," Cameron says. "You can't force it. I'm not a believer in guidelines. People should use the words they want. What they can't claim any more is that they use certain words 'because it's conventional'. If there are options, there is a choice. That choice is interpreted as meaningful. If you go on saying chairman when everyone else is saying chair, you are making a statement. And people are going to hear that statement."
The past year of the pandemic has taught us that physical hygiene and wellbeing can come at a cost to the way of life we find easiest and most comfortable. Now we walk two metres apart from others, with masks hiding our faces, locked in a cycle of sidestepping and hand sanitising. But we do it because it keeps us healthy, and safe.
Perhaps good verbal hygiene requires as much effort – like remembering to bring your mask to the shop, it would mean remembering to imbue our sentences with a similar mindfulness – an acknowledgement that women deserve equal treatment to men not only in our world, but in our many languages.