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Introduction to Feminist Linguistics with a focus on the Language of Sexual Violence


Visual by Riya Srivastava


What is Feminist Linguistics?

Linguistics can be seen as the scientific study of language (Eggington, 1991). Feminist linguistics attempts to “understand and challenge social inequalities related to gender and sexuality” (Bucholtz, 2014) in language. Hence feminist linguistics is the domain that sees the notions of language and gender (as well as sexuality) as interconnected.

Susan Gal argues that representations of language are seldom only representations of language. They are “systematically related to other areas of cultural discourse such as the nature of persons, of power, and of a desirable moral order” (Cameron, 2014). Language is not a neutral and transparent means of representing reality. It is a “particular vision of social reality that gets inscribed in language—a vision of reality that does not serve all of its speakers equally” (Ehrlich & King, 1994).

This is why the domains of feminist linguistics and the feminist philosophy of language go hand in hand with feminist activism and reform. The motivations behind Feminist Linguistic Activism are to expose the sexist nature of the current language system, the desire to create a language expressing reality from a woman’s perspective and to amend the present language system to achieve a symmetrical and equitable representation (Pauwels, 2003).


Types of Feminist Linguistics

In the first chapter on “The Feminist Foundations of Language, Gender, and Sexuality Research”, Buchotlz defines feminism as a set of diverse, sometimes conflicting set of theoretical, methodological and political perspectives that have in common a commitment to understand and challenge social inequalities related to gender and sexuality (Bucholtz, 2014).

For example, from the perspective of liberal feminists, the goal of feminist linguistics is to eradicate the most overt forms of sexism in language for women, in tandem with the goal of liberal feminism in general–to eradicate barriers for women within existing social structures. Currently, liberal feminist linguistics is concerned with women’s ways of using language (Bucholtz, 2014).

Secondly, Cultural Feminism reflects their beliefs in the domain of linguistics by arguing that women’s thinking and speech patterns have distinctive and inherent qualities that should be valorised by society. (Bucholtz, 2014). For example, it is found that women consistently produce linguistic forms that more closely align with those of the standard language or have higher prestige than those produced by men, or that they produce forms of this type more frequently (Trudgill, 1972).

Thirdly, Radical Feminist Linguistics emphasises linguistic violence. Proponents consider that patriarchy is men’s systemic and structural subordination of women, and they analyse the different mechanisms of gendered power as they manifest in language use: street harassment, conversation domination: interruption, lack of uptake of women’s points, problematising of women, and so on (Bucholtz, 2014).

Feminist Philosophy of Language shares critical overlaps with the domain of Feminist Linguistics. Their critical work focuses on False Gender-Neutrality (Male as Norm Principle, Invisibility of Women), Sex-Marking, Male-encoded Language, etc. (Saul & Diaz-Leon, 2022). Feminist philosophers of language also take up the shared work of creating definitions, isolating lexical gaps and pointing out injustices in the ways that language is used by men to further the patriarchal subjugation of women.

Apart from the area of sexist language, feminist linguistic works in another important domain, which is sociolinguistic research into language variation (Coates, 1998). This domain focuses on the ways that women may use language differently. In her work on Gender and Language Ideologies (representations through which language is imbued with cultural meaning), Deborah Cameron puts forth the idea of feminist ideologies, which are ideas about how men and women use language and how they ought ideally to use it (Cameron, 2014).

Feminist linguists working in this domain also study indexicality, which is the association between linguistic features and social identities—a semiotic process whereby one entity becomes a pointer to another, constructed by repeated use of particular features by a particular group (Nakamura, 2014). Momoko Nakamura argues that if we assume that indexicality is constructed by repeated use, we should conclude that women’s language is also constructed by the repeated local practices of women.


Sexism in Language

Feminist linguistics takes up the important task of exposing the worst aspects of androcentric language. Some forms of sex bias in language are the male-as-norm principle, lexical gaps, and linguistic stereotyping (Pauwels, 2003).

Feminist linguistic criticism pinpoints the absence of words for feminine or gender-neutral alternatives—for example, Schulz writes about the absence of words for females in certain professions. Even generic or “neutral” alternatives are susceptive to the substitution of one sexually coded word for another. On the one hand, newly created inclusive language could be used more for/by women than men. On the other hand, it is also possible that the neutral term is coded as male in terms of usage and linguistically marked masculine (Schulz, 1975).

This is because ideologies of gender and sexuality can load linguistic expressions with conceptual baggage in ways that limit communicative as well as semantic effectiveness. (Ehrlich & Meyerhoff, 2014). Patriarchal values reflect themselves linguistically, for example, in the gradual semantic deterioration of terms for women (Schulz, 1990). Schulz argues that these terms begin with neutral or even positive connotations but eventually acquire slightly negative implications; those then slowly become disparaging and, after a period of time, become abusive or are used as a slur (Schulz, 1990).

This is natural as, over the last several centuries, semantic power has been disproportionately wielded by men. To counter this, feminist linguistic activism functions in a bottom-up paradigm, incorporating grassroots activism, personal use, use by role models and pressure on key agencies (Pauwels, 2003). Some feminist linguists also endorse Linguistic Disruption, which is linguistic creativity by breaking morphological rules, for example, the generic use of “she” (Pauwels, 2003). An important example of feminist linguistic activism is the creation of a non-sexist dictionary (Graham, 1974), which focuses on removing the stereotypes and sex biases in the examples given in a dictionary as an attempt to combat the sexism socialising aimed at children.


The Language of Sexual Violence

Feminist linguists have been working on the language of sexual assault for decades. This work follows two lines of focus: the creation of new words and the usage of existing lexical terms. A case of feminist linguistic activism resulting in the creation of a new term is “sexual harassment”. Before this coinage, there existed no language to describe unwanted sexual advances at the workplace. Miranda Fricker has called this form of lexical gap a “hermeneutical injustice” (Saul & Diaz-Leon, 2022). Therefore it was great progress that there was finally a term to describe the phenomenon (Farley, 2017).

This act of naming the phenomenon was a major turning point for the women’s movement; the phrase acted as a bridge among women who had been up till that point been suffering in isolation (Swenson, 2017). Additionally, this was followed by creating a legal definition and provision for it and labelling it as a practice of sex discrimination. MacKinnon argues that this gave survivors the sense that “they are not to blame and not alone, the dignity of a civil rights violation, and a forum for accountability and relief” (Swenson, 2017). Farley describes that the newly facilitated act of sharing similar stories was “as if a light had been turned on in a dark room” and there was contagious solidarity between women. (Farley, 2017).

At the same time, linguistic activism can be limited in its scope. Ehrlich & King (1994) describe how feminist linguistic activism has a tendency to fail in a sexist environment. Linguist Robin Lakoff argues that words belonging to the language system are largely inaccessible to voluntary change by the speaker (Schulz, 1975). In the previously mentioned op-ed, Farley describes the relative failure of this activism ten years down the line; the term has since been co-opted by the corporations and businesses, treated in a sanitised fashion and thus “stripped of its power to shock, disturb and galvanise”. Most importantly, there is no reported decrease in the phenomenon of sexual harassment (Farley, 2017).

This is where analysing the usage of existing words, as well as coming up with better definitions, is an important semantic enterprise. One important way that definitions of the language of sexual violence translate to concrete social change is in the legal realm. The definition of “rape” for example, changes the legality and permissibility of certain actions, making them punishable under law. A wider definition increases the statistics of sexual violence in a country, while a narrow definition can lead to undercounting. For example, in 2011, the FBI defined rape as the “carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will” (Terkel, 2011). This was quite a narrow definition that led to many cases of sexual assault being ignored and staying unreported (Goode, 2011).

Additionally, the language used to describe sexual violence, for example, in reporting, has a tremendous impact on the minds of the reader (Ghosh, 2020). Just as societal conditioning influences the linguistic choices that we make, the language that we use in turn, shapes minds and society. Feminist linguistics thus emphasises the need for finding a ‘language’, a discourse to position rapists and victims within a space that inherently condemns violence against women (Ghosh, 2020). Language reflects cultural practices, and as of now, the language used to depict sexual violence, in reporting, in media, in politics, etc., reflects a culture that does not want to facilitate discussions around sexual violence (Grady, 2017).

To conclude, feminist linguists argue that social agents have agency and creativity in the constitutions of gender as well as language. Notions of normality in discourse (what we consider to be “normal” words and language) have a regulatory force that is influenced by language users (Ehrlich & Meyerhoff, 2014). Feminist linguistics argues that language affects thoughts, attitudes and cultural practices but also that these latter influence language and language use. To put it simply, feminist linguists believe that words have power. Feminist linguistics isolates and analyses our unthinking or deliberate sexist usage of language. It empowers us not only with the language we need to describe and criticise our current patriarchal situation but also gives us the words we need to envisage and implement the feminist reality we strive for.


 

References

Bodine, A. (1975). Androcentrism in Prescriptive Grammar: Singular ‘They’, Sex-Indefinite ‘He’, and ‘He or She’. Language in Society, 4(2), 129–146.

Bucholtz, M. (2014). The Feminist Foundations of Language, Gender, and Sexuality Research. In The Handbook of Language, Gender, and Sexuality (pp. 21–47). John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. https://doi.org/10.1002/9781118584248.ch1

Cameron, D. (1990). The Feminist critique of language: A reader. Routledge.

Cameron, D. (2014). Gender and Language Ideologies. In The Handbook of Language, Gender, and Sexuality (pp. 279–296). John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. https://doi.org/10.1002/9781118584248.ch14

Coates, J. (1998). FEMINIST FUTURES AND LINGUISTICS. Hungarian Journal of English and American Studies (HJEAS), 4(1/2), 195–199.

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Ehrlich, S., & King, R. (1994). Feminist Meanings and the (De)Politicization of the Lexicon. Language in Society, 23(1), 59–76.

Ehrlich, S., & Meyerhoff, M. (2014). Introduction. In The Handbook of Language, Gender, and Sexuality (pp. 1–20). John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. https://doi.org/10.1002/9781118584248.ch0

Farley, L. (2017, October 18). Opinion | I Coined the Term ‘Sexual Harassment.’ Corporations Stole It. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/18/opinion/sexual-harassment-corporations-steal.html

Ghosh, S. (2020, December 3). The Need To Radically Change The Language Around Rape. Feminism In India. https://feminisminindia.com/2020/12/03/language-around-rape-india/

Goode, E. (2011, September 28). Rape Definition Too Narrow in Federal Statistics, Critics Say. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/29/us/federal-rules-on-rape-statistics-criticized.html

Grady, C. (2017, November 30). The complicated, inadequate language of sexual violence. Vox. https://www.vox.com/culture/2017/11/30/16644394/language-sexual-violence

Graham, A. (1974). The Making of a Nonsexist Dictionary. Undefined. https://www.semanticscholar.org/paper/The-Making-of-a-Nonsexist-Dictionary.-Graham/1d360c104ff57ff8350e464d86f38972087ee576

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Nakamura, M. (2014). Creating indexicality: Schoolgirl Speech. In Gender, Language and Ideology: A genealogy of Japanese women’s language. John Benjamins. https://benjamins.com/catalog/dapsac.58

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Saul, J., & Diaz-Leon, E. (2022). Feminist Philosophy of Language. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2022). Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2022/entries/feminism-language/

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Schulz, M. R. (1990). The Semantic Derogation of Woman. In D. Cameron, The Feminist Critique of Language: A Reader. Routledge.

Swenson, K. (2017, November 27). Who coined the term ‘sexual harassment’? The Day. https://www.theday.com/article/20171127/OP03/171129656

Terkel, A. (2011, October 20). FBI’s Definition Of Rape Is Outdated And Narrow, Agency Panel Concludes. HuffPost. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/fbi-rape-definition-oudated_n_1021738

Trudgill, P. (1972). Sex, Covert Prestige and Linguistic Change in the Urban British English of Norwich. Language in Society, 1, 179–195.

Young, S. L., & Maguire, K. C. (2003). Talking about sexual violence. Women and Language, 26(2), 40–53.


Simran is a philosophy student and language teacher, with a Bachelors in Philosophy from Fergusson and Masters in Cognitive Science from IIT Gandhinagar. Their recent research work in Feminist Phenomenology culminated in a thesis titled "The Impact of Sexual Violence on Female Embodiment". They are interested in the domains of feminist phenomenology, feminist linguistics, ethics, and queer philosophy, with a focus on sexual violence and sexuality.


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