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Feminism and the meaning of language

(22 Posts)
CocoaIsGone Thu 05-Oct-17 14:48:06

Hello,

I have a question. I understand that it is important to consider the language we use for the meanings it constructs and conveys.

And that by changing language, we also change meanings.

So, for example, it makes a difference in abortion politics, if we talk about a fetus or an unborn child. Or in domestic abuse, if we talk about a high conflict relationship instead of an abusive one.

What feminist writers have written on this? Can anyone point me in the right direction? I mean generally about the ways in which language shapes experience from a feminist perspective.

I am wondering how much the fact that legal and medical professions, say, are traditionally male, shapes the ways in which professional language has developed, and how that shapes practice and assumptions.

I am trying to pick your brains, I know, but it seems like a good place to ask. I have posted on here before under a different name.

deydododatdodontdeydo Thu 05-Oct-17 14:59:29

Not sure whether this is what you want, but anyway:
I work in medical research. Until very recently, initial human trials have always been referred to as "first in man" or "FIM" for short.
It's always irritated me, although of course trials are nearly always mixed men and women, unless for specific conditions.
In the last couple of years I have noticed more and more people using "first in human".
It probably doesn't change much, but it's an improvement.

Bucketsandspoons Thu 05-Oct-17 15:14:09

Deborah Cameron has written about linguistics and feminism, and how language constructs reality. I'm sorry it's too long ago for me to remember titles now, but her work makes for an interesting read.

DJBaggySmalls Thu 05-Oct-17 15:28:33

Theres an interesting essay here, which has a comprehensive bibliography;
plato.stanford.edu/entries/feminism-language/

I also like this blog post which includes plain English as a goal;
www.aroomofourown.org/malespeak-with-radical-feminist-translations-by-elaine-charkowski/

slug Thu 05-Oct-17 16:42:45

Dale Spender's Man Made Language is good on this.

NoLoveofMine Thu 05-Oct-17 18:08:33

I am wondering how much the fact that legal and medical professions, say, are traditionally male, shapes the ways in which professional language has developed, and how that shapes practice and assumptions.

I think hugely so. My mum and dad work in those professions (medical and legal respectively) and the language used from what I know is very much "male", with males being the default in so many ways (male pronouns always being used, those in the profession being referred to as male as default and so on). As you say this stems from them being historically the preserve of men, then male dominated (though decreasingly so) but I think it has an impact on us now and centres men, suggesting women are merely an addition, with men still being default.

In the last couple of years I have noticed more and more people using "first in human".
It probably doesn't change much, but it's an improvement.

Whilst it may not change anything practically, I do think this kind of thing is important. I can't stand "man" being used when "human" is meant, "mankind" and so on. On a more general level this leads to "he" being so often assumed and words such as "statesman" being commonly used for women as well as men yet "stateswoman" is barely used and never would be for men. It all suggests men are default and women are an addition, an afterthought, lesser. Many would say it's "only" language but language has an impact on society and very much has...meaning.

BertrandRussell Thu 05-Oct-17 18:12:34

Just coming to suggest a Man Made Language.....

Fosterdog123 Thu 05-Oct-17 18:26:06

I used to be a pain in the arse challenge this kind of language every time in work. I remember pulling one of the maintenance guys up for saying manhole and giving him the feminist slant on it and that if its arbitrary, then let's use woman as the default instead. From that day forward, he'd always refer to it as a womanhole and always deadpan without a flicker of a smirk. His delivery made me laugh so much, especially when you saw the confused look on other guys faces!!

NoLoveofMine Thu 05-Oct-17 18:36:34

That's a great image Fosterdog123 grin

I challenge it a lot as well, mainly with family though. I think I'm going to start using, for example, "stateswoman" as default including when speaking of male politicians, then if pulled up on it point out the person doing so would probably think nothing of "statesman". Also with sport I always say, for example, "the men's rugby" and use the women's tournaments as default.

MiniTheMinx Thu 05-Oct-17 18:45:10

Some of the French Post-Structuralist feminists have written quite about language, in particular Hélène Cixous. Écriture feminine is a type of writing or discourse that she claims sits outside of and opposed to patriarchal writing and language. Her writing is very playful and challenging to read, and quite poetic.

GuybrushThreepwoodMightyPirate Thu 05-Oct-17 18:50:21

Deborah Xameron has a great blog called Language: a feminist guide. She posts once or twice a month and has a fair archive building. Some really interesting and often topical insights.

GuybrushThreepwoodMightyPirate Thu 05-Oct-17 18:50:59

Cameron (where did an X come from?!)

CocoaIsGone Thu 05-Oct-17 19:08:55

Thanks, yes, this is what I was meaning, about language centring men and thus both shaping and reinforcing gendered reality.. I will look up the references.

I think things like chairperson, firefighter etc - language has caught up to an extent, but consciousness not yet, as the default for these roles would still be he; it tends to be said to be politically correct, rather than there is genuinely just as likely to be a woman in the role.

But some things like, for example, a tie-clip microphone are designed for men, as the name suggests. Even if you call it a radio mike, the design still expects some kind of tie/suit/pocket. So, changing the language does not change the presumption that the speaker is male.

And then some things, like high conflict relationship, for domestic abuse, positively erase the power dynamic at play.

I don't know why I have never thought of it - if the professions and public life were predominantly male, then that is reflected not only in the assumptions, but the language.

So, 'womanhole' is funny, but surely personhole would be the way to go.

DJBaggySmalls Thu 05-Oct-17 19:58:16

Access hatch makes more sense than personhole or womanhole. Its not about replacing one sex with the other, but making any change intelligible.

BertrandRussell Thu 05-Oct-17 20:01:25

"From that day forward, he'd always refer to it as a womanhole and always deadpan without a flicker of a smirk. His delivery made me laugh so much, especially when you saw the confused look on other guys faces!!"

Sorry, sense of humour failure here. That is such an arsy misogynist thing to do!

KatherinaMinola Thu 05-Oct-17 20:04:04

Cixous a good place to start. Also Luce Irigaray.

CocoaIsGone Thu 05-Oct-17 20:09:55

Access hatch is good - or what about access cover? But yes, point taken about being intelligible and not arsy.

I have never read any Irigary, although I have heard of her; the others are new to me. Thank you for all the suggestions! Really very much appreciatedflowers

NoLoveofMine Thu 05-Oct-17 20:10:35

Sorry, sense of humour failure here. That is such an arsy misogynist thing to do!

I didn't think of it like that as I read it but that's true, he was probably mocking the notion there was anything questionable about the male being the default.

BertrandRussell Thu 05-Oct-17 20:36:05

Yes- and then using it as an excuse to use an offensive sexist term in front of you from then on.. <shudder>

OutsSelf Thu 05-Oct-17 20:38:54

Deborah's Cameron's The Feminist Critique of Language is a great really easy round about look at the matter

flamingnoravera Thu 05-Oct-17 22:30:46

Chemis Kramerae and Paula Teichler’s Feminist Dictionary is also an interesting read. Although like Dale Spender’s book it’s quite dated now.

Fosterdog123 Fri 06-Oct-17 07:57:02

No, that's not how he meant it. Not that I'm defending him necessarily, as he was never going to win a prize for Feminist of the Year but he did absolutely understand my challenge to him and the rationale behind it. Agree, a neutral term is far better (like police officer) but we're talking about a very male-centric industry that was only ever going to change very slowly.

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