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Sociological interfaces

by Phil Bartle, PhD and Nemat

Training Handout

Good evening Dr. Phil, I have a project to do and I need help in it. I was searching your web site and I couldn't find anything. This is a the question, "How is language linked to gender." I wrote some but still need some more ideas if you can help me please? Thanks, Nemat

There are several places where gender and language interface in sociology.

When sociologists study the process of socialisation, they not only look at how the biological organism, human individual, becomes human (a learning process) but also at how society and culture reproduce themselves when their human biological carriers die.

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis suggests that, as we learn a language, our sense of reality is shaped.  Therefore our attitudes of what is masculine and feminine are taught to us mainly through our process of learning a language.

Language then stays as part of culture long after its first speakers die, and its changes often lag far behind other social changes.

The word “gender” (which is the social difference between masculine and feminine) is borrowed from grammar, and is different from “sex” (which is the biological difference between male and female).

Our culture has a strong prejudice that these are polar opposites and that there are only two categories.

Biologically that is untrue.

We have people who have an extra Y or X chromosome, and cannot be classed as either male or female.  We have fraternal twins whose zygotes merged in the womb, and born as a single person, leaving one set of DNA in one part of the body (eg the skin, hair and external elements) and another DNA in another part of the body (eg the internal parts).

Our variations in genitalia are surprisingly very minimal (when scrutinised carefully), and even our variations in secondary sex characteristics are minor compared with the over 99 percent of our physical makeup which is the same for males and females.

By using specific drugs we can induce secondary characteristics in individuals, giving them the alternate characteristics.

Our language, in contrast, is set up to see these minor differences, male and female, as polar opposites, and categorise people that if they are not in one then they are in the other.

Careful observation of how we speak indicates that men and women use slightly different tone systems.

Tone is used in some languages (Chinese and Akan) to vary vocabulary.

In English, it is used to nuance the formal structure of our sentences.

Men are more predisposed to use three tones while women tend to use five tones in their day to day speaking.

This is a learned difference, and people who are not tone deaf who learn and practice the language can learn to speak with the alternate tone system.

English, unlike many other languages, has two words, he or she, but no word meaning either.

This is a cultural variable.

My second language, Akan Twi, has one word “no” meaning both he and she.

In English, we cannot use the word, “it,” because that is for non humans.

In written English, I prefer to use the word, “s/he” to overcome that when the gender is unknown or either.

Amharic, the main language of Ethiopia, has a feminine (anchi) and a masculine (anti) form of "you."

Thai (Siamese) has two different forms of "thank you," depending if the speaker is male (kop-kun-krap) or female (kop-kun-kaa).

Furthermore, we can trace many elements of our language which identify feminine characteristics as second rate, inferior and subservient.

The gender biases we learn from the time we learn our first language, is often unconscious, but based on those turns of phrase.

There are now conscious attempts to remove gender bias from our language practices.

Hurricanes were once all named with feminine names, but now are masculine or feminine (but most ships are still feminine).

Close examination of language usage, however, indicates that we still have a long way to go.  Phil

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