Language in use  
English Language & Linguistics

English Language



Sexism and Genderlect

Sexism refers to the way in which language users refer to differences between the sexes to criticise abuse and condemn. Referring disparagingly to "the little woman" or "only a woman" is criticising someone because of their gender. this is closely related to racism, in which someone is criticised or described primarily in terms of their race or colour instead of being treated as an individual.

Genderlect refers to the variety of language which is characteristic of one or other gender - a male or female language variety. Women for example, tend to refer to colours such as mauve and lilac while men would tend to refer to purple. Women are more subtle than men in their language approaches to others, using conditionals and circumlocutions - "I wonder if we might..." or "Would it be possible to ..."

A further issue revolves around the notion of gender being on a continuum rather than the traditional binary choice of male or female. The continuum is encapsulated in the acronym "LGBT" or lesbian, gay, bisexual and transexual. If there are six main points on the continuum (male, female, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transexual) then it is hard for a language with just two pronouns to adequately over the differences. Sometimes the plural pronoun "they" can be used to be gender-neutral but otherwise the language is in a confusion over how to succinctly describe the gender continuum.

Here is an example of a book reviewer's difficulty when trying to comment fairly on a book by an author about her father's decision to become a woman:

"He (she refers to him as she, but for the sake of clarity I'm sticking here with he)"

And this is a binary choice between he (her father) and she (a man now wishing to live as a woman), which is the traditional choice for English speakers in a British culture. With six main points on the continuum there is enormous scope for confusion.

Sexist terminology - and alternatives

Women's Language - language and gender

A critique of the work of Zimmerman and West.

See research such as:

Robin Lakoff~ Language and Woman's place (1975)
Zimmerman and West ~ Sex roles, interruptions and silences (1975)
Pamela Fishman ~ Conversational Insecurity (1980)
Helena Leet-Pellegrini ~ Conversational dominance (1980)
O'Barr & Atkins ~ Women's language or powerless language (1980)
Victoria DeFrancisco ~ How men silence women (1991)

A popular book "Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus" by John Gray has recently seen a counterblast in "The Myth of Mars and Venus" by Deborah Cameron. See a discussion here.

See also a brief item on the meaning of the word 'gay'