Sexism and Lies: Dangerous Words

When a bee wants to tell the rest of the hive that he’s found a new source of pollen, he does it with a dance.

By Colin McGregor

When we want to communicate with each other, we use words. And the words we use have a strong effect on our entourage. We have become more conscious than ever of this.

In prisons outside Quebec, calling an inmate a “goof” obliges the two involved to fight, immediately. It’s seen as bad form to not hit someone who has called you that. It’s a fairly harmless word outside of Anglophone prisons. Think of the Disney character Goofy. Amiable, fun Goofy wouldn’t last long in an Ontario jail.

For hundreds of years, French can be seen as being a sexist language. That language has genders, masculine and feminine. But in terms of everything around a noun, if you have, say, a crowd of 100,000 women and only one man, the crowd becomes masculine. You have to say “ils sont” rather than “elles sont.” That’s because that grammar rule was decided on by a group of French monks. All monks are male.

When the Normal French conquered England in 1066, they brought their masculine and feminine language to Britain. The English already spoke a Germanic language with three genders: masculine, feminine, and neutral.

And at some point, everyone was so confused they decided to drop genders entirely and just put everything in the masculine, which is why English today has no genders. We don’t have to presume that all tables are feminine or all books are masculine, like the French do. In English, “it” covers all objects.

There is still sexism in English. The word “woman” comes from the root words wif (wife) and man (a male person). The woman is a simple prolongation of her husband.

In French Canada, professions are being feminized. Before, all doctors were described by a masculine word, docteur. Now in French they’ll put an “e” at the end (docteure) to signify a female doctor. This is considered thoughtful and modern. But in English if we described a female doctor as a “doctorette,” it would be considered sexist and degrading.

Why worry about sexism in language? After all, the Banawa language, spoken in the Amazon jungle, uses the feminine form to describe people in general. And yet they treat their women horribly, says linguist Dan Everett.

The Toronto psychologist Malcolm Gladewll talks of “moral license.” We use nice words while continuing awful behavior. For example, the Americans elected a black president, but continued to mistreat its black population. Some Americans scream, “We’re not racist anymore! Look, we elected a black president. How can we be racist?” Electing Obama gave Americans moral license to abuse black people.

2,400 years ago, the Greek philosopher Democritus, who was ridiculed because he thought that everything is composed of atoms, also said: words are the shadows of actions. Words count. They have an effect on those around us. But they can also hide some awful deeds.  

First seen in Reflet de Société, Vol. 26, no.1, hiver (winter) 2018, pages 28-29

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