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Language, literacy and hierarchies.

(124 Posts)
Damsili Wed 05-Nov-14 20:22:57

I've been thinking about how languages have evolved within systems of hierarchies and how that must have influenced the form and flavour of the words and phrases that are used. Before we even have the ability to really question the words and phrases we use, we are fluent in our native tongue, habitual in its structures and even have our thought processes informed by the structure of our language.

Continuing with that, I recall someone recently quoting Sandi Toksvig as saying that the alphabet helped men maintain power over women. (Slightly throwaway remark on R4, but still!) Certainly the ability to read and write is used as a tool to minimise female power in many countries and throughout history - but does literacy itself actually aid patriarchy? In thinking about how language develops, I can certainly see that it maintains the habitual reinforcement of sexist themes.

With that in mind, I'm also wondering if social media has simply exposed existing misogyny or whether the rise of the written word in communication can be correlated with a rise of sexist vitriol directed at women.

MrsTerrorPratchett Wed 05-Nov-14 22:35:21

Another thread where I don't feel intelligent enough to answer. But answer I will. grin

Literacy has had a history with societal structures. One nugget I've always thought was interesting is the much higher literacy rate in Scotland than England and everywhere else. It was so Scots could read the Bible, well-known instrument of the patriarchy. So, yes, literacy can reinforce the status quo.

When I trawl the library for books with DD, I am shocked by how many mice, dinosaurs, penguins and aliens are male. He does this and he says that. I actually asked her about a character the other day... is she a girl superhero? DD immediately said that she wasn't. I asked what she was. DD thought for ages and said that yes, she was a girl superhero. Her immediate thought was that it wasn't possible, I think because 'girls aren't superheros'. Bloody sad at three.

Damsili Wed 05-Nov-14 23:56:40

I think that's exactly it! We are used to readily giving a sex to things in that way and the default is always male.

There's also what is meant when we use words like manly or girly. Womanly isn't used nearly so much - and usually relates to curves and charms (sexual) or 'ways', which I often take to mean devious. 'Boyish' just means young I think.

YonicScrewdriver Thu 06-Nov-14 00:33:08

MrsTP, if no gender is given or even if it is he but I can rejig it without ruining eg rhyme, i try and say "she" for animals.

ZingOfSeven Thu 06-Nov-14 00:56:28

which language do you mean? I presume English, Latin roots and all.

interesting question Damsili

in English "men" are everywhere - 'women', 'Carmen', 'men'struate, 'men'opause etc.
not a mo'men't of peace!grin

YonicScrewdriver Thu 06-Nov-14 00:57:46

grin at zing.

ZingOfSeven Thu 06-Nov-14 00:59:20

in Hungarian we don't use "he" or "she" btw.
we use a type of word like "it" ,but one that means a person not an object.

ZingOfSeven Thu 06-Nov-14 01:00:04

we should 'boy'cott some words.wink

BOFster Thu 06-Nov-14 01:07:03

I heard that argument from Sandi Toksvig, and although I haven't read the book she referenced, I must admit that it struck me as a case of correlation rather than causation. There may well be something in the hypothesis that if men control access to education, then women will be disadvantaged when 'book learning' becomes prioritised over other forms, but I very much take issue with the other stuff she was describing about gendered brain structure as an explanation. Cordelia Fine's work lays this out very well, if you google her.

BOFster Thu 06-Nov-14 01:14:39

I agree with you, of course, that the language we use tends to reflect existing power structures (bachelor vs. spinster, for example: those implications say a lot!), but I am strongly inclined to see those power differentials as predetermining the forms our language takes, rather than locating the problem in the idea of language itself.

Damsili Thu 06-Nov-14 09:03:11

grin zing

Interesting about Hungarian. I wish I knew more about those languages where nouns are all split into male and female. Also mixed groups are always referred to in the male aren't they, excluded the women? Ils in French for example?

TaraKnowles Thu 06-Nov-14 09:18:33

English used to have gendered articles.

Yackity Thu 06-Nov-14 09:46:59

A lot of language have 3 genders, male, female and neuter.

Doesn't seem to be any rhyme or reason which words are which gender, bar how they end.

ZingOfSeven Thu 06-Nov-14 10:13:12


oh dear... I hope you meant neutral!smile grin

Damsili Thu 06-Nov-14 10:14:59

Does anyone remember a story about a well-known and prolific author who used to write with a pencil, but then moved to a type-writer and, finally, to dictating (as his hands got too arthritic to write)? Analysis of his work showed not only completely different writing styles, but certain themes seemed harder or softer... Obviously, there's also age and a load of other factors. But they were pretty sure that they could find causation by the hard changes rather than gradual progression.

Anyway, the way in which we communicate might influence the way we think. The way we communicate centres around a language that has developed under societal influences and I wonder if those societal influences are reinforced by our use of language and communication? (In addition to all the other societal influences...!)

Damsili Thu 06-Nov-14 10:15:37

Zing You are cheering me up this morning! grin

Yackity Thu 06-Nov-14 10:21:28

Nope, it's Neuter!

I even had to double check because I started doubting myself. Does fire up the imagination, though, doesn't it?! grin

YonicScrewdriver Thu 06-Nov-14 10:53:23

Der, die and das are the German masculine, feminine and neuter word for the, Yack is right.

MyNameIsInigoMontoya Thu 06-Nov-14 11:14:43

I wrote a whole essay once at school about the different connotations between male and female words for the same thing.

Apart from the bachelor/spinster someone already mentioned, there were a whole load more - witch/wizard is a good example where the implications of calling someone one or the other are quite different, also animal names when applied to people (e.g. cow, bitch etc are used as insults but the male equivalents, not so much or sometimes even used as compliments)... I can't remember all the rest now!

ZingOfSeven Thu 06-Nov-14 11:16:58

Thanks Yonic!

I can't bear to say it yet though. give me time..

I'm not a linguist so I do not know the correct terminologies but I'm pretty sure that most languages that derive from Latin and Slavic roots have words and word groups that are male/female/neutral.
German, French, Russian, Spanish, Italian etc (as we all know)

I wonder if it's the same with say Mandarin or Thai or Hebrew - do any of you know?

ZingOfSeven Thu 06-Nov-14 11:19:18


the only word pairing I can think of that is not favourable for males is ginger v redhead.

MyNameIsInigoMontoya Thu 06-Nov-14 11:20:46

And yes it is neuter in German... not usually in a sexual sense though, as it's mainly applied to general nouns, e.g. house, bread, car are all neuter. "Das Kind" (child) is neuter (which makes sense as it could be boy or girl), but interestingly "Das Maedchen" (girl) is also neuter - not sure why (esp. as "Der Junge" - boy - is masculine!).

MyNameIsInigoMontoya Thu 06-Nov-14 11:21:42

French only has masculine/feminine... Spanish too I think?

LurcioAgain Thu 06-Nov-14 11:35:55

Zing - am I right in thinking your native language isn't English, so your early experiences of learning languages will have taken place in Hungarian? Because the technical term for a noun/definite article/whatever in a foreign language which is neither masculine nor feminine is "neuter" rather than "neutral".

And I'd never thought of that choice of technical terminology before and how weird it is. Because its everyday cognate... "neutering a cat" for instance ... carries also sorts of connotations of (aggressively) de-sexing something that "neutral" does not! Weird indeed. (I love it when someone from another linguistic community/culture comes along and says "why does English use word X for such-and-such?" and suddenly the scales fall from my eyes and I see how peculiar it is that we should have chosen that usage rather than an equally expressive but less baggage-laden one, if you see what i mean).

Any historians of linguistics/grammar out there who know when the terminology "masculine/feminine/neuter" came into the study of the grammar of foreign languages? I'm pretty sure (have seen some very antiquated school Latin text books) that it is in place at least as early as Victorian times.

ZingOfSeven Thu 06-Nov-14 11:45:49

oh I didn't mean that all those language have masculine, feminine and neuter versions - I just tried to express how these languages have gender words as opposed to others that don't.

sorry, as I said I don't know some terminolgy and also have forgotten a lot!

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