Sunday, April 20, 2008

Sexist grammar?

A piece of psychological research covered on the BPS Research Digest takes a look at gender in grammar. In some languages (French and German for example) nouns possess gender: not gender in the sense of socially constructed sexual identities, but gender as a grammatical concept, in which certain nouns are classed as masculine (le chapeau = the hat) or feminine (la plage = the beach). But gender in a more conventional sense also applies to French nouns, so you get le chien for a male dog and la chienne for a female dog, spectateur for a male spectator and spectatrice for a female spectator. OK so far?

But when you get a mixed group and need to use a plural pronoun, the tradition in both French and German has been to use the male pronoun ils to refer to the group, regardless of the gender of the participants. But as ils is a masculine pronoun, does it actually convey a gender neutral meaning?

The equivalent in English is the false generic pronoun he, which many people have historically used to refer to both men and women, as in the rather odd statement "Like other mammals, mankind breastfeeds his young". But as we have looked at in ENA1 Language & Representation, there's a problem with these generic pronouns (and nouns like mankind) because they don't really bring to mind gender neutral identities and often exclude women.

So anyway, back to the research. The result appears to have been that when French or German listeners hear a male plural pronoun they tend to assume that it refers to males and take longer to process the words if they're followed by clearly feminine nouns. More detail here. But how is this relevant to ENA1? Well, it's a bit of a long shot, but it could be argued that this sort of research helps support the linguistic relativist or linguistic determinist perspectives, that language can control or shape our perceptions. It could also support the Dale Spender Man Made Language position that sexist attitudes have become encoded in the language we speak, reflecting the dominant positions of males in the history of society and language control.

Useful for:
ENA1 - Language & Representation

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