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Τετάρτη, 29 Μαΐου, 2024
ΑρχικήEnglish EditionCultureSexism in Language: Historical Reality and Reflection of Society

Sexism in Language: Historical Reality and Reflection of Society

By Carmen Chang,

If we reconsider what the term “sexism” means—”the discriminatory attitude of someone who undervalues people of the opposite sex or makes distinctions based on sex”—we can infer that, although there has been an evolution in society regarding gender equality, a discriminatory bias towards women still exists in most cultures, albeit to varying degrees. This segregation is related to the gender or biological sex of human beings. Discrimination is not limited to cultural, ideological, or social domains but also extends to the linguistic realm.

In relation to the aforementioned, the article “Langues et cité” (2013: 1), which deals with “Feminine, Masculine: Language and Gender,” specifies that grammatical gender should not be confused with biological sex:

“In fact, there remains a domain where the distribution between the feminine and masculine retains significance and continues to play a role: where it corresponds to a sex opposition. There is no question of confusing the gender of words with biological sex, but refusing to use grammatical gender to express sexist supremacy is legitimate.”

Image Rights: CC BY-ND

Image Rights: Wes MountainLikewise, the same aforementioned article, “Langues et cité” (2013: 1), refers to the fact that the use of grammatical gender generates debates concerning language, sex, gender, and social equality: “Masculin-féminin: la grande affaire! All the following texts testify to this. Languages for which grammatical gender is constructed from feminine and masculine poles are the subject of debates articulating language, sex, gender, and social equality.”

To better understand our study, it is important to differentiate between linguistic sexism and ideological sexism. María Márquez (2013: 744-756) makes a distinction between the linguistic and social planes, the former being related to the form of the message and the latter to its substance:

“According to Álvaro García Meseguer […] ‘Linguistic sexism occurs when words (lexical sexism) are used or sentences (syntactic sexism) are constructed in a discriminatory manner based on sex due to the form of expression chosen by the speaker’ (1996: 24). And he distinguishes it from ideological sexism, pointing out that it is very important not to confuse the social plane, reality, and the linguistic plane; according to our author, linguistic sexism lies in the form of the message, not in its substance… Social sexism and linguistic sexism would be, according to Meseguer, interdependent; diachronically, the form gives rise to the latter, but the latter contributes to reinforcing the form, since language partly shapes the mentality of speakers. The problem with García Meseguer’s definition lies in the difficulty of distinguishing between form and substance. Let’s consider another subsequent definition: ‘A speaker engages in linguistic sexism when they emit a message that, due to its form (that is, due to the words chosen or the way they are strung together and not to its substance, is discriminatory based on sex). Conversely, when discrimination is due to the substance of the message and not its form, social sexism is engaged in’ (199: 51). At no time is it specified what ‘form’ and ‘substance’ are. It could be thought that Meseguer considers as ‘form’ everything that is not explicitly contained in the message (Vigara, 2009: 31); these would be unintentional contents, somehow fixed or encoded in the language system itself, ‘subliminal information’ (Calero Fernández, 1999: 190), presupposed in the words themselves or in the way they are strung together.”

As mentioned before, there are divergent positions regarding this matter. On one hand, it is argued that language would not be sexist, but rather the use made of it, that is, the users of a language would imbue it with sexism when expressing themselves; on the other hand, it is argued that language could be sexist, male-chauvinist, and discriminatory, especially regarding the invisibility and subjugation of women, or, for example, in relation to certain terms that tend to be neutral or positive in their masculine sense and pejorative in the feminine sense.

Image Rights: Maggie Dougherty

Regarding the first mentioned position, Héctor Velis-Meza (2020:43) in his book “Cómo el machismo contaminó el lenguaje. Historias de palabras que perdieron su inocencia” argues that it is not that language is sexist, but rather its users who practice linguistic sexism:

“Language is innocent; it is people who positively or negatively weigh down words, depending on the context in which they are used. For this reason, it is not fair to claim that Spanish is a macho language or that it is becoming impoverished because, in reality, it is individuals who use speech, with specific purposes or intentions, and deteriorate the ability to communicate. Never have dictionaries been presented so up-to-date and enriched with new words as today and never, in history, have people used so few words to communicate to the point of bordering on functional illiteracy.”

On the other hand, Mayte Rius (2017), in her article “El sexismo que ocultan las palabras,” classifies two types of linguistic sexism:

“In broad terms, we can say that there are two types of sexism in language: jokes, macho jokes, and expressions, and that derived from the fact that language has ways of speaking that obscure the presence of women and prioritize the reality of men. The former is easier to control, but the latter is difficult to correct because the grammatical rules that have become rooted in language are the result of a misogynistic, androcentric society that places man as the measure of all things and uses the word man to refer to all humanity, father to refer to fathers and mothers, etc.,” says sociologist Inés Alberdi.

  • Sexism. Oxford Language. Available here
  • Tipos de sexismo. Psonnie. Available here
  • Féminin, masculin : la langue et le genre. Langues et cité. Available here
  • María Márquez. Género gramatical y discurso sexista (Perspectiva Feminista). Editorial Síntesis, S. A. Madrid. 2013.
  • Héctor Velis-Meza. Cómo el machismo contaminó el lenguaje. Historias de palabras que perdieron su inocencia. Ediciones Cerro Huelén. Santiago de Chile. 2020.
  • El sexismo que ocultan las palabras. La Vanguardia. Available here



Carmen Chang
Carmen Chang
Passionate about education and teaching, she was able to acquire skills through her experiences in many countries of diverse cultures. Teaching assistant at CentraleSupélec, Paris Saclay University, France. She is a Peruvian woman who always wanted to be teacher. Over the course of her life, she has discovered different cultures and has become passionate about several languages. She speaks and writes fluently Spanish, English and French. In parallel she has a project to launch a Spanish blog for teachers in which she will discuss the design of training programs, learning management, curriculum development and facilitation in training.