Language imbalance

[ed.note: this is a short post to make up for not posting last night]

In conversation last night, I was grasping for the female equivalent of emasculate. When a guy has his masculinity taken from him, it removes his strength, his power. There’s no equivalent word for women; defeminize doesn’t have the same connotations of disempowerment. We found this imbalance interesting. It implies that masculinity is strength, but femininity is not; that men have power, but women don’t. Our language enforces power differentials by not even providing words for the same concepts for each gender. It’s insidious in that way.

Another example of a word that has no opposite gender equivalent is wiles. The phrase is “feminine wiles”. “Masculine wiles” sounds wrong and ridiculous. The word wiles implies treachery, cunning and deceit. This conception of femininity is built into the language. In some people’s conceptions, it goes all the way back to Eve’s association with the deceitful serpent. To the present day, some men fear the trickery inherent in a woman’s wiles, fearing her sexuality is a strategem to disempower/emasculate them. Men have power, women have wiles, implying that the only way a woman can get power is to trick a man into giving it up.

I was trying to think of other examples of this sort of imbalance this morning. It’s hard because language is so pervasive. It’s hard to think about ideas that aren’t supported in language – our brains may be patterned by the language we use. This is the idea behind the attempts by feminists to restructure the language with terms such as womyn.

I thought all that politically correct stuff was bogus at the time, but as I grow older and more of a relativist, I at least see where they’re coming from. It’s not objective in the hard science sense, as it’s difficult to run a good experiment with controls, but there’s definitely some interesting stuff here. We can’t even talk about certain concepts because our language does not provide the words to do so. Cultural conceptions are embedded into the language, which reinforces those conceptions. These assumptions are hard to see and articulate, especially for privileged bastards like myself. But every now and then, I stumble across them, as when I was searching for a word last night, and am fascinated by the subtleties of language.

8 thoughts on “Language imbalance

  1. It’s not even that terribly hard to design experiments. I know of one study, for instance, which of course I cannot cite even a litle bit, in which participants were given a set of words (I think in this case it was professions: doctor, lawyer, teacher, nurse, police officer) and asked to choose from pictures of people. Then you track your chosen attributes from the pictures. F’rinstance.

  2. Be careful with Sapir-Whorf. There’s definitely some validity to the notion that language can make some ideas easier or harder to deal with — that it influences thought. (That’s the weak Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.) That’s one of the reasons why disciplines develope specialized jargon, right?

    But there’s NO validity to the notion that language determines what you can think — that it constrains thought. (Strong or radical SWH, advocated by neither Sapir nor Whorf.)

    It’s pretty easy to disprove radical SWH. Have you ever had a feeling or idea you had a hard time articulating in words? Or discovered a new word that perfectly described something you always circumlocuted around before? Then radical SWH must be wrong: without words for it, you shouldn’t have been able to think it in the first place, right? Orwell’s Newspeak is total fiction; it would never work in real life.

    And while biased language can provide tacit support to a prejudice, eliminating the words doesn’t eliminate the bias. Consider the evolution of racial terminology in the U.S. (negro -> black -> african-american). The problem isn’t that the words themselves are racist, it’s that over time racist attitudes taint the words by associating a negative connotation with their initially neutral denotation.

  3. Oh, yeah, it’s a big topic, and one I’ve obviously thought some on…

    For instance, what’s the parallel word to “sissy”? Well… tomboy, sort of… except sissy is strongly negative, whereas tomboy is usually mildly positive.

    This wouldn’t be a popular idea in the home of the Fuck You fight, but I’m even uneasy about the embedded implications in The F Word. What does it mean – sexual intercourse, or violent anger? Well, it means either… which has a frightening implication that they might be interchangable. That makes it sound like a linguistic building block of “rape culture”.

  4. Man. This is what happens when I post on a topic that all of my friends know more about than I do. I’ll have to spend some more time thinking and reading before I post on this topic again.

    At least I know how to provoke comments now!

  5. I liked the way Sheri S. Tepper chose to use the word ‘womanly’ in The Gate to Women’s Country. I found the meaning changed for me with just one reading of the book. I think the female characters also tended to use ‘womanly’ as a positive characteristic, and the male characters would use ‘womanish’ to make it negative.

  6. Oh yeah, I also meant to say that I think I would use the phrases “feminine wiles” and “masculine wiles” with the same amount of tongue-in-cheek-ness at this point. Referring to the use of sex appeal as a feminine quality is just too 1960s for me.

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