S is for Sexist language

18 03 2012

You know the one about the judge who, on being shown the name of the culprit to be tried, said, ‘I can’t try him – he’s my son!’  Another judge was summoned, who – no sooner given the name of the culprit – said, ‘I can’t try him – he’s my son!’

How can this be?  Well, of course, one judge was the culprit’s father, the other his mother. (I’ve adapted this from an original which was about two surgeons, but you could create a similar puzzle involving two nurses, or two plumbers, or two manicurists, and so on).  The puzzle plays on the fact that, while in English most professions are not marked for gender, we are disposed to assume (foolishly, of course) that the representatives of certain professions are either male or female, by default.

The puzzle wouldn’t work in Spanish, where – apart from anything else – the determiner clearly flags the gender of el juez and la juez. (Not to mention the feminine ending, in the case of the relatively recent form: la jueza).

On the other hand, because the masculine form is the unmarked (i.e. the default) form, when you have a group of judges or architects or surgeons, they are automatically ‘masculinized’, whether or not the group includes any women members. So the puzzle becomes: Dos jueces caminaban por la calle, y los dos dijieron… (Two judges were walking down the street, and both said ‘That’s my son!’  etc).

That the masculine is the default form in Spanish accounts for all sorts of oddities, such as the fact that a parents’ association in Spain is una asociación de padres, even though the only people who attend are las madres. Or that, when you walk up to a crowded stall in the market, you ask ¿Quién es el último? (Who’s the [masculine] last?), even if the bulk of those in line are women.

The invisibility of women that is instantiated in such usages is, of course, way out of step both with reality and with feminist aspirations.  Consequently, this linguistic bias has prompted the publication, in Spanish as in English, of a number of ‘style guides’ that promote the use of non-sexist and inclusive language. The Spanish style guides, however, have irritated the self-appointed guardians of ‘la lengua’, i.e. the Real Academia Española (RAE), to the point that, a couple of weeks ago, a leading Spanish grammarian and lexicographer, Ignacio Bosque, was moved to write a long piece in the national press, signed by 24 of his fellow ‘academicians’, taking these style guides to task. Unsurprisingly, this put el gato (or la gata?) among las palomas (or los palomos?) and, as they say here, the debate was served.

The principle arguments levelled by the (mainly) male academicians at the (mainly) female style guide writers are that their recommendations are

  • inelegant
  • wrong
  • impractical
  • ineffectual
  • misconceived
  • ideological

Inelegance, it is true, often results from the doubling up of gender-marked nouns in the interests of inclusiveness (los hermanos y las hermanas de mi padre y mi madre son mis tíos y mis tías), and an extract from the Constitution of Venezuela that takes this trope to an extreme is quoted with derision.

But worse than inelegant, many of the recommendations are (according to Bosque) simply wrong, and ‘contravene the norms laid down by the RAE’.  In 2008 the then Minister for Equality was roundly mocked for addressing her parliamentary colleagues as ‘miembros y miembras’ (members). The RAE declared this attempt at greater visibility ‘incorrect’.  That coinages like miembra or jueza are wrong simply because they are coinages overlooks the fact that new words are being coined at an astonishing rate (8,500 English words a year, according to a recent study). Language changes, resist it as we may.

Of course, it is not always that easy to unpick the deeply embedded cognitive structures of a language, especially those encoded in its grammar. Attempts to invent gender-neutral pronouns in English have failed miserably. But change does occur, relentlessly, even at the level of grammar. Apart from a few residual suffixes, English lost its gender distinctions long ago, as did Persian, while some languages (e.g. French and, hey!, Spanish) collapsed a three-way distinction into two. Will there still be grammatical gender in Spanish in 500 years? Place your bets.

More serious is the charge that militating for non-sexist language is both ineffectual and misconceived. It’s ineffectual, according to the RAE, because you can’t legislate for language change, which is ironic, since this is exactly what the RAE (through its grammars and dictionaries) has always done. As Deborah Cameron (1990: 162) has argued, ‘defenders of “the language” regard language as their property’, and the tone of the Bosque article is very much ‘back off!’

And the movement for greater inclusiveness is misconceived, so the argument goes, because linguistic change does not effect social change: it merely reflects it. Again, Cameron (1990: 90) is eloquent on this subject:

Anti-feminists are fond of observing that eliminating generic masculine pronouns does not secure equal pay.  Indeed it does not – whoever said it would?  Eliminating generic masculine pronouns precisely eliminates generic masculine pronouns. And in so doing it changes the repertoire of social meanings and choices available to social actors.

Moreover, as she writes elsewhere (Cameron 1995: 143), ‘changing what counts as acceptable public behaviour is one of the ways you go about changing prevailing attitudes – ask anyone who still smokes cigarettes’.

Finally, a great deal of the debate about the RAE communique hinges on the claim that language is ideologically neutral. ‘La gramática no tiene ideología’[i] ran a headline in El País (March 13, 2012). But this is debatable. Languages reflect the cultures out of which they have emerged and bear the traces – the scars, even – of their origins. A language which divides all of creation into two genders, and then selects one of those genders as the preferred form, is ideological to the core.


Cameron, D. (1990) ‘Demythologizing sociolinguistics: Why language does not reflect society’, in Joseph, J.E., and Taylor, T.J. (eds.) Ideologies of Language, London: Routledge.

Cameron, D. (1995) Verbal Hygiene, London: Routledge.

[i] ‘Grammar has no ideology’



23 responses

18 03 2012

Oh what a brilliant article…and what a thorny subject. Bravo for taking it on!

We have a similar problem here in France, although the linguistic establishment tends to be a bit more careful about coming over as sexist. Non linguists (my ex-husband, for example) tend to make sweeping statements such as ‘en Français, le masculin l’emporte sur le féminin’. This is a very recent development. Until the mid-nineteenth century, if 51 ladies and 50 gentlemen had gone for a stroll, ELLEs would have been for a walk…. whereas nowadays, if 99 ladies and 1 gentleman do so, ILs are taking the air….

A few years ago a parliamentary commitee here made a damning report on the inherent, deliberate as they saw it, sexism of dictionaries and textbooks in french schools. They pointed out that, for example, if one praises a man saying ‘Il est bien’ this is a reference to the chap’s moral character. If one says of a woman ‘elle est bien’ this is a reference to her vital statistics. If one wishes to praise her upstanding values, one must make a detour – ‘elle est qu’elqu’un de bien’. The commitee was made up of elderly gentlemen, them all being MPs, so sexism clearly isn’t sexist… if you see what I mean.

19 03 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for the comment, Catherine: it’s very interesting to hear the perspective from another gender-marked language group. It’s clear that these issues are not peculiar to Spanish only, and I wonder if the French equivalent of the Real Academia ‘rules’ on these issues in a similar way?

19 03 2012

Oh yes, they do! As another commentator on this thread has said, we are extermely lucky in English to have avoided any such institution … there was the BBC, I suppose, but they seem to make the same mistakes as the rest of us these days..

18 03 2012
Ndrew Allmark

Excuse me for being a pedant, but in the twelfth paragraph you use ‘effect’ instead of ‘affect’.

18 03 2012
Scott Thornbury

Actually, I did mean ‘effect’:
vb (tr) to cause to occur; bring about; accomplish


18 03 2012

Trick words, those. With Scott’s permission, I’d addressed it here: http://aclil2climb.blogspot.com.es/2011/10/tricky-words-affect-or-effect-what-are.html

Great reading, as usual, Scott. Not being a sexist, I sometimes struggle with myself in deciding what to use and occasionally, if I can’t use the plural form, I use the feminine form, but I do wonder if people find it strange, or worse, think I’m committing a grave error…

18 03 2012
Ndrew Allmark

Oh I see, I bow.
That’s changed the meaning of the sentence quite considerably.

19 03 2012
Scott Thornbury

No problem – thanks for helping me clarify for what I meant!

18 03 2012

So does that make Turkish (the only other language I speak to any useful level and I’m probably unwisely about to demonstrate that I speak it mostly in functional chunks with little analysis) less sexist as him and her are in effect just one word, not items that show if the person is male or female. So if you don’t use the name or a word that actually denotes sex such as son or daughter, you don’t know …
Or does it make it more sexist. Does that mean ‘masculine is default’ in language, in thought … ?

19 03 2012
Scott Thornbury

I’m not sure that the presence or absence of gender marking on nouns makes a language more or less ‘sexist’ – it’s more about the use you put it to, I guess. At the same time, it seems to be much harder to avoid the complications that I describe in Spanish where avoiding a gender distinction is virtually impossible. (Sometimes, though, this can work in your favour: the word for partner is una pareja (fem) in Spanish, so, if you want to refer to your boyfriend or girlfriend without specifiying their gender, you can talk about ‘mi pareja’. Of course the ruse works only so far – you will soon run into pronoun problems unless you a very adroit!)

18 03 2012

I don’t know about the rest of Spain but down here in Andalucia the parent/teacher associations have been called ‘AMPA’ (asociacion de madres y padres de alumnos) for quite a few years so as to (supposedly) avoid sexist connotations

19 03 2012

It’s the same here in the Canaries – AMPA.

19 03 2012
Scott Thornbury

Yes, I think in fact that this is now universal in Spain, a nod towards more inclusive language – I wonder when it came in?

24 03 2012

In the last ten or twelve years, I think, if my memory serves me well. I don’t think it’s just a nod at a non-sexist policy; I think it’s also related to the increasing number of one-parent families, a large percentage of whom are female-parent families.

18 03 2012

Excellent, Scott! Here on the politically correct Left Coast of the United States, a few terms seem more resistant to change (eg, mankind, Man, He (God), craftsman, etc. than do others (firefighter, police officer, letter carrier, etc.). My guess is that the latter terms, which identify public employees, are held up to greater scrutiny than a) craftsman, typically a private trade, and b) He (God), backed by a strong, generally conservative, tradition. But ‘mankind’ and ‘Man’ for humanity or humankind just hasn’t caught on somehow.

On a personal note, I always found das Mädchen (neuter, maiden or girl) hard to take while living in Germany, especially when ‘es’ (it) was used as a ‘personal (?) pronoun.

My Spanish-speaking students tell me that, depending on the teacher, a classroom full of boys and girls will be addressed as ninhos y ninas (What happened to ladies first?🙂 rather than simply ninhos.

A couple of nights ago, friends, who’ve recently returned from four weeks in Thailand, reminded me of the different ways men and women use vocabulary, for example, depending on their interlocutor(s). This goes beyond definite and indefinite articles, of course. And isn’t it interesting to consider how indigenous language deal with gender?

Could there be a second installment to this post on Sexist Language?

Finally, I wonder if terms like ‘sexist’ and ‘sexism’ often fail to appeal, even to sympathetic minds, because -ist and -ism connote authority and singularity, which automatically creates in- and out-groups. Those who would not object to stewardship or conservation, for example, might be put off by environmentalists and their ‘ism’. In the case of environmentalism, its negative connotation certainly has much to do with how political discourse has been framed (ie, politically-oriented framing).

I’m sure I’ve missed something for which you’ll have a snappy comeback and some data. No pressure though. 🙂


19 03 2012
Kevin Stein

Oh, that was an energizing read. Thanks Scott. The fact that we never managed to get an official “body” to protect English is clearly a blessing. Even without a stamp of linguistic authority, I had far too many professors who refused to allow students to use the new fangled, “gender neutral” language in papers back in the early 80s. When I write a paper now, I really enjoy choosing between neutrality with a third person plural pronoun, or simply going for a balanced number of gender specific pronouns. Actually, I should fess up that sometimes I specifically try to use the female form in sentences which have a positive connotation whenever possible. But it’s that act of choosing, of having to think about what kind of underlying message might be present in each sentence, which I think has served to enrich the level of discourse. If some times the richness leads to a convoluted sentence or two (although less frequently than my professors feared), I think it is well worth it.

19 03 2012
Daniel O'Donnell

Thanks for this enlightening and thought provoking editorial. I live in France and agree with Catherine’s observations. However, I find a general term to be better than feminising other terms : Maire/(mayor) and mairesse (female mayor). Fortunately, this tendancy hasn’t caught on.
However, there is an American useage of a pronoun when you don’t know or don’t want to identify the gender. It’s “they”. (I spoke to a candidate yesterday, and they said that they had never worked in teaching). This is pretty handy in English, and non-existent in French! They do have “on” but this pronoun is quickly replacing “nous” and usually includes the speaker as a part of a group.

21 03 2012
Nick Jaworski

I first came across a large concern for gender in pronoun use during studies at uni, particulary coming from feminist approaches to the Bible. Some argue that ‘He’ should not be used, rather ‘God’ should always be used. Others went so far as to claim God was feminine in nature as a creator of life and so insisted on the use of ‘She’. I always found the debate a bit too political for my tastes, but I understand the concerns.

While language certainly has an effect on the way we see the world, I question to what extent it determines gender relations. As mentioned above, Turkish lacks pronouns that distinguish between male and female. Besides some Arabic lone words, there is no grammatical gender in Turkish at all. The same goes for Mandarin. Yet, both these cultures would be considered unquestionably patriarchal.

Rather than arguing over pronoun use, I think it’d be more fruitful to look at root causes and cultural assumptions.

21 03 2012

Nick, you have gone beyond the classroom debate altogether… of course, in Hebrew, God is a ‘he’ but he has a womb, since the etymology of compassion in ancient hebrew means ‘from the womb of YHWH’ – whereas, Paul, writing in greek in the first century had to refer to ‘the bowels of Jesus Christ’ when trying to say he missed people.. when it comes to sexism or the deeply engrained assumtions of a culture I daresay vocabulary is only the beginning….

26 03 2012
Mike Harrison

I’ve noticed in Spanish (well, informal, noticeboard Spanish, anyway), the use of the at-mark @ in what seems to me to be a way of being inclusive. For example (translation below):

Se busca
Companer@ de piso
Zona central
Alquiler 200 al mes

Centre of town
Rent 200 a month

Foxed me a few times when I was looking for somewhere to live in 2004!

28 03 2012
Sue Pownall

I found this very interesting. Thank you.

24 06 2012

The American Psychological Association (the APA) publishes an English style guide that is relied on by most academics, and they have now advised that gendered pronouns be avoided whenever possible. Their point was that “he or she” and “s/he” or bouncing back & forth between “she” and “he” is awkward (when the actual gender of a person isn’t known or relevant). It takes a little more thinking, but sentences like “If a pilot wants to fly higher, he or she must radio air traffic controllers,” with, “Pilots who want to fly higher must radio air traffic controllers.” I know this wouldn’t solve the problem in Spanish, since nouns are gendered, but I think it would help decrease egregious assumptions about gender roles. I wrote a piece about some expressions in English which reflect deep cultural gender bias: http://daisybrain.wordpress.com/2011/04/25/what-words-reveal/

21 11 2016

I find it rather ironic that this post about sexist language and the comments focus only on language that may negatively affect females. There’s no mention of misandry (sexism against men and boys) in language. (“Misandry” is just beginning to be recognized as an actual word!)

News stories generally refer to women as “women” when the stories are positive about women or sympathetic towards them. Stories that are about negative things women have done refer to the women as “people” or some other neutral term.

The opposite is done for men. When men have done something bad, they are referred to as “men.” When it’s something positive or worthy of sympathy, there is little to no mention of the fact that they are men. They are simple called “miners”, “workers”, “these people”, etc.

In reports of deaths, such as innocent people dying in war, we typically hear things such as “30 people died, including 7 women.” Just imagine how people would react if a reporter said, “30 people died, including 7 white people”, or “30 people died, including 7 straight people”. (The point is that those who are granted special mention or more important human beings.)

When there has been a crime and an unknown suspect is being pursued by the police, reporters refer to that person as “he”, “him”, and “his.” It’s called a “manhunt.” People use negative terms such as “gunman” and “hitman” instead of “shooter” and “assassin” but then whine about terms such as “policeman” and “mailman”.

And how often do people say things such as “He’s a male nurse”. Really? “He” is a “male” nurse? Go figure! Is “she” a “female” doctor?

Focusing solely on women’s rights, needs and feelings does indeed go along with the true spirit of feminism, but it makes me wonder how serious people are about equal respect for the sexes.

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