Linguistic Sexism And Gender Culture In Standard Average European Languages

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The examination of gender in relation to language is an interdisciplinary endeavor that has been the subject of interest of linguists, sociologists, anthropologists, communicators, psychologists, and scholars in other disciplines, especially after the 1960s, having as its starting point the feminist movements by the end of that decade. Since then, there has been an ongoing debate on whether language endorses sexism, or sexism contributes on the formation of a language. Both discourse and language reflect social realities governed by hierarchy and dominance and consequently reproduce or perpetuate the network of dominant gender biases and stereotypes.

This paper will focus on the way language functions in favor of dominant groups and on the means that it uses to convey those asymmetric social structures in terms of grammar, syntax and semantics within the Standard Average European linguistic area. The secondary objective of the paper is to demonstrate the existence of the aforementioned elements in all of the languages in question, despite not being amongst their grouping criteria.


The term linguistic sexism refers to the existence of certain elements in a language that help expressing any sort of bias, inclination or prejudice for or against one sex on the other. Mostly, the bias is in favor of men. According to Graddol and Swann (1989), this discrimination is made on irrelevant grounds, while Atkinson (1993) defines linguistic sexism as not only the range of verbal practices of labelling and referring to women, but also as the language strategies in mixed sex interaction that denigrate or suppress women as interactants. Moreover, the fact that sexism in general refers to attitudes or behaviors that depreciate one sex, according to Ivy and Backlund (1994), entails that linguistic sexism is the verbal communication that conveys those attitudes and behaviors. Consequently, declaring a word, sentence or structure as sexist means that it “creates, promotes, constitutes and exploits any irrelevant or impertinent marking of the distinction between the sexes”, (Vetterling-Braggin, 1981), or that it “unnecessarily differentiates between women and men or excludes, trivializes, or diminish either gender” (Parks & Roberton, 1998).

Theoretical Framework

Τhe subject of the present work concerns the broader field of linguistics, borrowing much from contemporary sciences of gender studies. As a specific subject, the study of linguistic sexism has been a point of interest not only for linguists, but also for sociologists, and it often has political or even legal implications. So, in order to understand the content of the study, I thought it appropriate to refer to the broader field surrounding it.

Defining sociolinguistics

Over the years, many scholars have attempted to define exactly what sociolinguistics deal with, but one could argue that these definitions change, as does the notion of society over time. Hudson (1980) first attempts to define sociolinguistics as “the study of language in relation to society”. Thus, the main field of interest is how language interacts with, or to what percentage it is affected by social factors as age, ethnicity, social class or gender for instance. Coulmas (2013) goes further by attributing the way we use specific functions of language in different social contexts to convey social meaning or aspects to our identity, while Trudgill (1974) correlates sociolinguistics with “language as a social and cultural phenomenon”. Despite being approximate and not exact, they all focus on understanding “who speak what language to whom and when” (Fishman, 1965).

Gender research, as a sub-discipline of sociolinguistics that governs the present paper, concerns the documentation of empirical differences between women’s and men’s speech, the description of women’s speech in particular as well as the identification of the role of language in creating and maintaining social inequality between women and men (Kendall & Tannen, 2001).

Tagliamonte (2006) makes a clear distinction between ‘sociolinguistics’ and ‘sociology of language’, that needs to be mentioned in the context of this paper, explaining that “sociolinguistics tends to put emphasis on language in social context, whereas the sociology of language emphasizes the social interpretation of language”.

Field of application

The linguistic field that this paper will focus on and from which I will draw examples is the Standard Average European (abbreviated SAE) linguistic area, hence 'a geographical region containing a group of three or more languages that share some structural features as a result of contact rather than a result of accident or inheritance from a common ancestor' (Thomason, 2001), as first proposed by Whorf (1941). According to this theory, SAE languages comprise several linguistic branches that all present the same grammatical or syntactical features, including the Romance, Germanic and Slavo-Baltic branches (Haspelmath, 2001). Despite those secondary branches being universally accepted by linguists world-wide, it was only toward the end of the 20th century that SAE area was picked up on by scholars, as they gained insight in the grammatical properties of the languages of the rest of the world and realized the peculiarity of the European linguistic core in the global context, which justifies Dahl’s definition of SAE as an “exotic language” (Dahl, 1990).

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Haspelmath recites an extensive list of 35 morphosyntactic characteristics which he addresses as “Europeanisms” or “euroversals” , that include the “‘have’-perfect, definite and indefinite articles, relative clauses with relative pronouns, particles in comparative constructions etc.” (Haspelmath, 2001). However, none of the characteristics that will be analyzed in the second chapter of the paper as indicators of linguistic sexism are classified as unifying elements under this category.

Yet, even amongst those languages, there are factors that could affect or help interpret the results of this study. Thus, considering Stahlberg, Braun, Irmen and Szczesny’s (2007) proposal of distinction between three language types, -genderless , natural gender and grammatical gender languages- we could organize SAE as presented in Table 1. In natural gender languages (e.g. English) there is “no grammatical marking of sex, such that most nouns and their dependent linguistic forms as articles, adjectives and pronouns can be used to refer to both males and females, and personal pronouns are the major resource of expressing gender.” (Menegatti& Rubini, 2017). In grammatical gender languages (e.g. Greek, French, German etc.), all nouns are assigned feminine, masculine or neutral, and the dependent parts of speech carry grammatical agreement to the gender or the corresponding noun.

Due to time restrictions, lack of resources or insight to specific languages, the languages that will be analyzed for the sake of this paper are English, French, Spanish, Italian, German, Dutch, Russian, Lithuanian and Greek, so as to represent all secondary branches and gender division systems.

The origin of sexism in language

Although there has been a lot of research on linguistic structures, aiming to identify the causes of sexism in language, most of them tend to attribute its development to an androcentric world view, neglecting the “social and semiotic processes involved in the historical production and reproduction of this kind of linguistic sexism” (Coady, 2018). The semiotic processes of iconization, fractal recursivity and erasure, as proposed by Irvine & Gal (2000), appear to play a significant role in the standardization and the dissemination of the features that will be analyzed in the next chapter. More specifically, iconization is defined as “a transformation of the sign relationship between linguistic features (or varieties) and the social images with which they are linked”, fractal recursivity as “the projection of an opposition, salient at some level of relationship, onto some other level, as for instance, intra-group oppositions projecting outward onto intergroup relations, or vice versa”, while erasure is defined as “the process by which ideology, in simplifying the sociolinguistic field, renders some persons or activities (or sociolinguistic phenomena) invisible” (Irvine & Gal, 2000), which will be more apparent in Chapter 7.

Language & Cognition

Many feminists have examined the representation of women in language and have argued that language encodes a culture’s values, and in this way reflects sexist culture. Yet, as Cameron suggests, instead of simply portraying language as a reflection of society or as a determining factor in social change, it could rather be seen “as a carrier of ideas and assumptions which become, through their constant re-enactment in discourse, so familiar and conventional that we miss their significance” (1990). On the same wavelength, Whorf lays out the principle of his theory on the relation of the language and thought, often referred to as “linguistic relativity” or “Sapir-Whorf hypothesis”, on the following quotation:

“It was found that the background linguistic system (in other words, the grammar) is not merely a reproducing instrument for voicing ideas, but rather is itself the shaper of ideas, the program and guide for the individual’s mental activity, for his analysis of impressions, for his synthesis of his mental stock in trade. Formulation of ideas is not an independent process, strictly rational in the old sense, but is part of a particular grammar, and differs, from slightly to greatly, between different grammars. We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages. The categories and types that we isolate from the world of phenomena we do not find there because they stare every observer in the face; on the contrary, the world is presented in a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds- and this means largely by the linguistic systems in our minds” (Whorf, 1956).

In order to further understand Whorf’s association of the background linguistic system of each language as a shaper of ideas, it would be legitimate to first define the notion of relativity in general. According to Hudson (1996), the question of relativity revolves around “the extend that cultures (including languages) differ from one another” and on whether they are all “cut to the same mold, reflecting a common underlying humanity” or “differ arbitrarily and unrestrictedly from one another, reflecting the fact that different people live in very different intellectual and physical worlds”.

Lastly, an interesting remark is being made by Ehrlich and King (1992), whose definition of language entails the element of dominance, stating it is “not a neutral, unbiased and transparent means to represent social reality, but rather a codification of the perspective of the dominant classes”, and thus, in contemporary societies, the encoding of an androcentric worldview. Mauss (1923), also, defines language as “the means of expression of collective thought and not the adequate expression of that thought itself”.

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Linguistic Sexism And Gender Culture In Standard Average European Languages. (2022, February 17). Edubirdie. Retrieved May 25, 2024, from
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