gender bias in language
Feminism Women Power

Call It a Rose (or Not): Gender Bias in Language

It has been a little more than two months now that I have wanted to write an article for Girls of Wisdom. I have sat before my laptop many times, and once even managed to get out a first, wobbly draft of… something. I have stared at that draft, wondering what was wrong with it, imagining ways in which I could make it better. Actually, just ways in which I could make it readable (my standards had sunk pretty low by that point). It was a piece about a feminist essay written by a Nigerian, US-published author (brownie points if you can guess which one). Furthermore, considering she is already quite famous in the Anglosphere, I decided to write the article in Albanian, my mother tongue, so as to bring her closer to the Albanian-speaking readers.

And that was exactly my problem. I tried to write something highly personal in a language I never use as a way of expressing myself. (I don’t use Albanian even for my own Instagram post captions). It was while wondering about the intricacies of language and how one can give voice to their thoughts better and find the right words in a language which is not their mother tongue (I was reminded here of Joseph Conrad, a 19th-century writer who authored Heart of Darkness, a masterpiece of English literature; he spoke English as his third language, right after his native Polish and French); that I decided on my current topic. However, one moment I was thinking about multilingualism and classic novels no one seems to like except me; the next, I was considering feminism and language.

You might wonder what feminism has anything to do with language. After all, words are arbitrary, which in linguistics refers to how we, as humans, have assigned meaning to words. To use an example, there is no reason why the English call it apple and the Albanians call it mollë. In Act II, Scene II of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, when Juliet is bemoaning the fact that Romeo is a Montague, and thus an enemy of her and her family, she says:

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;

The essence of the rose does not change, no matter the name we give it, or whatever language we use to refer to it. So, language is factual, and simply put, it is what it is. Then why am I writing about feminism in language?

There is, undoubtedly, gender bias in language.

Most, if not all neo-Latin languages (I am not proficient enough in many of them, so I am just making an educated guess) have gendered words. Albanian too. A mountain is masculine—mali. It gives the connotation of strength and stability. How can one look at the Albanian Alps, those peaks which have inspired countless ballads and epics, and not think of might? The cat is feminine—macja. It represents grace and sensuality, the lithe and agile movements of the feline body. In English, ships are always referred to as “she”, something quite ironic as in the past women would not be allowed on ships because it was considered bad luck.

Why is the sun a he and the moon a she in our collective unconscious? In Greek mythology, the Sun God Helios would drive his horse-chariot across the skies and change night into day and day into night, in an endless cycle of light chasing the shadows and shadows chasing the light. The moon, instead, is female. It is the goddess Selene driving a moon-chariot much like her father Helios; the goddess Artemis, with her hunting bow and light steps in the primeval forests of times past. Neither the sun nor the moon posses a gender: one is a ball of gas floating in space, the other a cold rock stuck in Earth’s gravitational pull. It is us humans that assign genders to words.

The majority of words do not have a hidden, sexist agenda behind their grammatical gender. In Albanian, a table is feminine and a chair is masculine and a telephone is masculine and no particular connotations can be suspected regarding these terms. Nonetheless, some, such as those mentioned above, make one ponder about the qualities and phenomena we associate with the male gender, and those with the female gender.

Another gender bias in language is the use of the pronoun “he” in a general way. For example, in some laws and contracts I have personally had to translate, I have found abundant the use of the pronoun “he”, instead of “he/she” or “they”. Albanian genders even third-person plural, dividing it into ata (masculine) and ato (feminine), and using the masculine whenever one refers to a mixed-gender group.

The list goes on. Words like “chairman” have become famous for the fight against their explicitly stated gender, stressing the need for gender-neutral forms, such as “chairperson”. Italian, a language whose words possess grammatical gender, recognizes as grammatically correct only architetto, the masculine variant, while the feminine architetta is considered incorrect. The first case of the use of the feminine variant was in 2017, in Bergamo, after a woman architect officially requested it for the seal of her business. In the (not so far) past, these positions were inaccessible to the average woman, and while the situation has vastly changed, the language we use today stills reflects centuries and centuries of the limitations imposed on women.

Language has power.

The power to influence our perception of reality, to shape the world and give it the form we desire. For that reason, taking into consideration the ways in which women and femininity are represented in it is not merely nitpicking, but it is rather about understanding and undertaking small steps towards change—towards a more equal world.

And you? What examples of gender bias in language can you think of?

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