Throughout our childhood, we have been given some rules to observe when addressing and conversing with people – different rules for different groups, based on age, sex, social strata, professional/personal capacity, etc. We have been taught to respect our elders, be kind to our subordinates, be loving with our friends and family, and so forth.
It’s thus clear that our manner of speaking is a defining aspect of not only our personality, but is also a reflection of our understanding of the subject as well as the receiver.
Good communication skills can save relationships, marriages and professional equations, and can prevent wars and nuclear strikes. Bad communication skills can potentially start another world war. We have all seen Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s impeccable oratory skills that came in handy not only to maintain the spirit of Ukrainian citizens in the face of continuous, ruthless attacks by Russia but also in controlling the worldwide narrative of the Russia-Ukraine war.
It’s almost perplexing to realise how little importance we place on an aspect of life which deeply impacts us, both collectively and individually.
I have been known to be blunt and direct in the past, but I consciously try to stay calm during most conversations. This change is recent and conscious because, for most of my adult life, I have seen multiple examples of people using negative adjectives to define the way a woman speaks. And I believed (in my naivety) that it had to do with the subject of the conversation rather than any bias towards me.
But there is a bias. And it has always existed. For example, female telephone operators of the 19th century were mandated to take lessons to tone down and speak in a “soft, melodious, deferential” voice.
In a 1926 survey, 99:1 people preferred male hosts because female hosts “sounded too shrill and conveyed too much personality”. If you, like me, believed that things must have improved now, then please refer to Hillary Clinton’s speeches during her electoral campaign in 2016 where her voice was labelled with the very same adjectives.
Even in the Oxford dictionary, words like ‘grating’ and ‘shrill’ were used to describe women’s voices, which came under fire in 2016. Fast forward to 2022, where most of the world has been through a life-altering pandemic and at least a year’s lockdown, making everyone crave social contact, women have still not been able to get rid of the risk of sounding too shrill and “too much”.
Now that I have pointed out these austere flaws in our social engagements, it’s also befitting to highlight certain issues with language itself, considering that is the mode of exchange of ideas, opinions, emotions, and culture. I have chosen the English language for this article because India is the world’s second-largest English-speaking nation. Incongruously, it’s our coloniser’s language that has kept us united in communication.
Historically, most societies have been patriarchal for the major part, and this parochial mindset regarding women originating from and for men has percolated into the language itself. Although society has come a long way from what used to be, language has not. The obvious fact that language mirrors historical, social divides has already been established by several linguists and researchers. So, it’s not surprising that in English, the male comes before the female – ‘he and she’, ‘men and women’, etc.
Some people might cite the example of ‘ladies and gentlemen’ here, but that’s an exception whose origins lie in gallantry, not equality. This established supremacy of genders in the language is still widely supported and used by men and even women. The problem of gender bias in language is so pervasive that even AI has been infested with it (which largely has to do with a male-dominated coding industry), prompting companies like Google and Amazon to shift away from using AI for hiring people, considering the algorithms produced “systematically prejudiced results”.
As Simone de Beauvoir remarked more than half a century ago,
“Humanity is male and man defines woman not in herself, but as relative to him; she is not regarded as an autonomous being. He is the Subject, he is the Absolute – She is the Other.”
Even the kind of word formations in the English lexicon, like an actress from actor, mistress from the master, a poetess from poets and so on, have contributed to women’s affiliation with men and hence their secondary status within the language. In addition to this, there is the fact that we have completely changed and downgraded the feminine equivalents of certain strong, assertive male words (like master – someone who commands certain authority to a mistress – someone with whom a man has illegitimate sexual relations with OR courtier – someone who attends a monarch’s court to courtesan – a prostitute).
Furthermore, even in cases of gender-neutral positions, like a doctor, lawyer, judge, professor etc – nine times out of ten, it’s presumed that the male is being referred to, because of how ubiquitous the male is in the English language. So, even in generic pronouns, because English uses males to specifically refer to males and generically to refer to all human beings, it just perpetuates existing social inequalities.
Another thing that has persistently bothered me since I was old enough to understand things is the fact that most profanities and expletives hurled around in conversations, on roads, in arguments, on TV, in movies and everywhere else are not only centred around women (ma*****, beh*****, chu****), they are also extremely derogatory, and reaffirm the power dynamics between men and women. Men throw around these expletives as a reminder of the power they hold over the other gender, even while mocking each other.
You can probably think of a minuscule number of monikers loaded with sexually derogatory undertones for men. But when was the last time you heard anything like father******? Because men are their own masters and no one dare reduce a man to a mere expletive.
But that is not the goal either. We do not make one wrong right by committing another wrong. The goal is to eliminate sexism from language, not shift it. This is why it’s crucial to modify the way we speak if we want to rid the society of gender violence, discrimination, collective subordination and humiliation of anyone who does not identify as male.
The purpose of language is to mirror the changing needs of society and since the world has been trying to be more inclusive and accountable, I sincerely believe that now is the time to take cognisance of what we are saying, how we are saying it and how it can potentially impact not just the receiver but the society we live in. Language must reflect the evolution of society and although it can feel a little challenging initially, recognising stereotypes within language and then challenging them can be a good beginning.
Making others invisible through language has continued for far too long. Dismantling these structures by ensuring respectful and inclusive acknowledgement of all and sundry and avoiding trivialisation of any gender, will, in my opinion, help us in liberating the language and ourselves.
Rashmi Bagri is a lawyer from Bangalore and a graduate of NALSAR, University of Law, Hyderabad.
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