the sexism of languages.

January 31, 2010

currently in the middle of some academic craziness, but this link was too interesting not to share (I am definitely not endorsing the website, but it did provide the only translation to English that I could find of the article, which was originally posted online in Chinese).

I found this particularly intriguing because it represents a cultural parallel to a certain claim in Western feminism that I previously thought was isolated to that society in particular. I’m referring in this case to the argument that discourse is etymologically biased against women.

for instance, in English we used to use the template “<profession/position>man” to describe somebody working in that profession or position (like “salesman”, “chairman”, or “businessman”). this androcentrism (the use of a masculine point of view as the default) also makes an appearance in the way that most of us were implicitly taught in our younger years by example to use “he” when writing about a general anonymous person. some people have even declared war on the word “woman”, railing against it because it purportedly means “of man” and by that virtue implies that women are derivative to men (to my knowledge there is no proof of this, but I welcome anybody who can shed some insight on this to share) and instead choosing to replace “woman” with “womin”, “womyn”, “womon”, etc. in written works.

there has been some progress in the English-speaking world in regards to this, given that now more and more people are more conscious of the gender disparity in our discourse and will use “person” instead of “man” to describe professionals, and “she/he”,”he/she”, or “their” (which is recognized as grammatically correct now, I believe) instead of simply “he”.

given my limited literary skills in Chinese, I never really learned enough to notice this etymological pattern of gender inequality, which (after reading the article) appears to be much more actively discriminatory in the Chinese language than the English language. what I mean by using the word ‘active’ is that in English, the issue with some of the words seems to be that women are excluded, whereas in Chinese the meanings of the 16 words featured in the article which use the “female” character in their structure have negative connotations (“greedy”, “evil”, “presumptuous”, etc).

hopefully there will be some recognition of this disparity in the Chinese language with the advent of this post, and subsequent efforts to raise awareness and address the problem. kudos to Ye ManTian, the lawyer purported to have written the article.


One Response to “the sexism of languages.”

  1. Matt Says:

    Re “their”:

    Generic use of “he”, meanwhile, gets a [citation needed] on Wiki:

    …and according to that article the 他/她 distinction is from as recently as 1919 o_O Dunno about you, but while I’m learning the written language I have every intention of ignoring that distinction.

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