The Influence of Language on Gender Discrimination  

By Mohammad Alkhatib

Is the language taught to us a sculpting tool used to shape our thoughts? Sociologists, psychologists, and linguists have attempted to address this question. Around the early 1950s, linguists started researching the impact of the language spoken by people on their thoughts and perspectives of the world. Primary in this research area was the Whorfian hypothesisthat “claims that language does form thought” (Hunt&Agnoli, 1991, p. 377). Linguist Boroditsky(2011) tested this hypothesis and found that language does indeed shape thought. Nevertheless,language and behavior expresses a person’s thoughts, but can language itself influence the thoughts of a person and, in one example, make them gender biased? That is, can language shape the very thing that it exists to express? This paper argues that language has a major influence on thought and may be a reason for misogynisticbehavior. The Whorfian hypothesis argues that there is a correlation between language and actions because language impacts individual’s cognition, and hence, causes an effect in the way people project their actions towards others. The flaws and strengths of the Whorfian hypothesis are discussed in order to present a holistic image of its application in explaining how language can shape sexism. Examples will be drawn from the English language to illustrate the merits of the Whorfian hypothesis.

Whorfian Hypothesis Flaws

In 1954, the term Whorfian hypothesis raged in the fields of linguistics, cognitive sciences, and social sciences. The Whorfian hypothesis is an argument made by Benjamin Lee Whorf that “the mental development of the individual, and his way of forming concepts, depend to a high degree upon language” (Hunt &Agnoli, 1991, p. 377).  The hypothesis may seem persuasive to a certain extent, but some linguists and psychologists rejected the cognitive revolution. Others welcomed and contributed to it by performing scientific experiments to model it.

The scholars that opposed Whorfianism came up with several theoreticaland experimental flaws in his hypothesis. The first conceptual flaw in Whorf’s hypothesis is found when he says that conceptual ideas cannot be translated from one language to another (as cited in Hunt &Agnoli, 1991, p. 377). This is clearly false as can attested to by many bilinguals who are able to translate their thoughts according to the situation in which they are. For instance, Rheingold, Hunt and Agnoli (1991) mention that “the Kiriwina language of New Guinea contains the word mokita, which means ‘truth everybody knows but nobody speaks’” (p. 377). Although the English language does not have a word for this concept, it still can be translated into it.  Therefore, an individual’s ideas do not have to be sculpted by the language that they speak. There are many concepts that people share although they speak different languages. 

Another example can be seen when the Whorfian hypothesis discusses how naturally a thought can come to a person; it claims that a language could favor a certain thought that cannot be developed in other languages or would be more difficult to develop in other languages (Hunt &Agnoli, 1991, p.378). The hypothesis is significantly weak in this claim because the approach in which Whorf makes his argument is not based on experimental data. For example, Whorf could have used statistics to support the claim that he makes instead of using mere conjecture to make his argument.

The third major issue in the theorem is brought about when Whorf claims that language is the sole driving force that develops thought and codingideas into specific termswithin a language makes these conceptual ideas untranslatable to other languages. This would not explain why languages evolve with time. Thus, critics believe coding in a language occurs due to the regular need of referring to certain concepts without using long sentences. For illustration, Hunt and Agnoli (1991) refer to Hunt and Banaji’s observation, which is that in the last 20 years, surfers in Southern California invented their own vocabulary to describe different types of waves. Despite this, the surfers could describe the same types of waves they coded using descriptive sentences (p. 378), so this contradicts the theorem and ratifies the opposite, as language was not the sole driving force for the way that surfers perceive waves. It was practicality that encouraged them to add new terminology to the language that they spoke.

Lastly, critics argue that Whorf’s hypothesis is not useful because it cannot be tested and even the negation of the theorem—that language does not shape thought—cannot be tested making it part of the null hypothesis (Hunt &Agnoli, p. 378).  Despite this, some psycholinguists tried to test the Whorfian model anyway by preforming tests to show that the model is wrong. One of its critics, McWhorter (2014), points out that the milliseconds difference between Russian and English speakers in differentiating between dark and light blue, due to the fact that Russian lexica has different words to describe each of the colors, does not have to be reflected as a factor that shapes concept (p. 9). His argument was that the difference was not constant and there are many other factors that influence such experiments, such as bilingual participants and the reflex arc of each person (2014). The reflex arc of a person is the mechanism that results inthe reflex action, which varies between a person and another (2014). Further, McWhorter (2014) illustrates his point by using the Brazilian Pirahã language. Since the language lacks numbers, it is assumed its speakers should be bad at mathematics, which is not the case (p. 16). He referred to the numerical matching challenges conducted by Gordon, a linguist, onmembers of the tribes that spoke Pirahã, showing that they performed well on thechallenges he gave them (p. 16). Hence, it contradicts the thesis of Whorf. In addition, McWhorter presents a statement that highlights another flaw in the hypothesis, which is a “legless tribe [is] incapable of walking because they have no words for walk” (p. 21).The statement must be true with a connection to the Whorfian hypothesis, but the tribe will still have the vocabulary for movement in their lexica even if they are legless. This can be taken as an example of themseeing members of other tribes that can walk and later forming a need to discuss topics with each other that may include this phenomenon.

Whorfian Hypothesis Strengths

All of this said, some other scholars welcome the Whorfian hypothesis and assessed different experiments to find a correlation between language and thought. Boroditsky, Fuhrman and McCormick(2010) are cognitive scholars that noticed difference in the way English and Mandarin speakers map out time. They performed an experiment that includes English and Mandarin native speakers to identify certain events based on time of occurrence. The scholars used different placement of time keys in the experiment, one vertically and the other horizontally. The results showed that Mandarin speakers show evidence of mapping time in vertical sequences (2010). The experiment suggests that a mental representation of time is influenced by a person’s native language.

 

The psychologists Lupyan, Rakison and McClelland (2007), claim that language is a form of labeling and labels play a major role in conceptualizing the world around an individual. The psychologists demonstrate their claim by preforming an experiment that tests the ability of individuals to categorize certain images (2007, p. 1078). The participants are divided into two groups, where one group is taught a labeling method for the images and the other is asked to categorize the images without any instruction.  The results obtained showed that the people who were taught a labeling system performed better than those who were not (2007). The scholars noted the performance of the first group in this assertion: “these findings provide empirical support for the idea that words do more than communicate information between individuals and bear directly on the language-and-thought debate” (2007, p. 1081).  The psychologists then give support to the Whorfian hypothesis by concluding that “differences in language may indeed lead to differences in concept learning” (2007, p.1082).

 Further, certain scenarios that are experienced by communities are brought up by psychologists and linguists to visualize the hypothesis. In particular, that language sculpts the conceptual space of a person and can beillustrated by taking blind people as an example in their perception of colors. Although, they are visually impaired and miss the sensory experience, they can point out the fact that the sky is blue and the color purple is closer to blue than it is to green (Lupyan& Bergen, 2016, p.411). The fact that blind people can use the same terminology of sighted people highlights the power of language and how it programs a person. Lupyan and Bergen (2014) also explore the ability to make someone visualize a whole image just by uttering few words (p. 413). The scholars continue exploring the ability of language to cue imagination by mentioning the struggle faced by children to visualize things just by speech (2014, p. 413). This exploration highlights the power of language and its impact on thoughts.

Additionally, an experiment by Perlovsky (2009) found a virtual relationship between perception and language using a neural basis (p. 252). Perlovsky (2009) took several neural scans of the left and right hemispheres of the brain of different age groups and the results showed:

Categorical perception of color in prelinguistic infants is based in the right brain hemisphere. As language is acquired and access to lexical color codes becomes more automatic, categorical perception of color moves to the left hemisphere (between two and five years) and adult's categorical perception of color is based in the left hemisphere (where language mechanisms are located). (p. 252)

Categorical perception is the phenomena that categories learnt by observers alter their perception (p. 252).The fact that perception of color changes location as language is acquired suggests that language is a factor with a great influence on human cognition; cognition is influenced by the physiology of the brain. Perlovsky continues to support the experimental findings by stating how people can perceive objects independently from language using other senses, but only to a certain extent (p. 252). He continues to elaborate that another area of knowledge cannot be accessed using only cognition, even mathematics, because it is a language itself (p. 252). 

Another demonstration of the language influence on cognition is seen in how different cultures process directions differently. Hunt and Agnoli (1991) verify that language does shape thought by observing the terms used to describe geographical directions of the Quechua language. The observations exhibit that directions cannot be translated literally to another language that uses the cardinal points for directions because Quechua uses body parts to refer to different directions (p. 386). Hence, Quechan cognition is sculpted by the boundaries of their language, and they visualize the mountain parts using body parts (1991, p.386). Therefore, this is a viable observation that language sculpts people’s thoughts. Overall, the claim that language shapes thought could be used to reflect on other social aspects, since many experiments and visualizations found correlations between an individual’s thoughts and native language. 

 

Sexism in Language and Whorfian Hypothesis Feasibility in Sexist Behaviour

Since the Whorfian hypothesis, which states that language shapes thought, is true to a certain extent, can it influence a community to the point of becoming sexist? Linguistic sexism can be observed through orthography, the use of generic pronouns, and in the literature of a language. Weatherall (2002) demonstrates sexism in the English language by showing how it assumes women are invisible, defines them narrowly, and depreciates them. He explains, “a well-documented aspect of women being ignored in language is the use of masculine forms, such as ‘chairman’, ‘mankind’, ‘guys’, ‘helmsman’ and ‘fireman’” (2002, p.14). These terms are masculine generics that are used to refer to unknown personsregardless of their genders. Although the English language has developed since the time Weatherallpublished his research, society still falls into the same mistakes. For example, corporations still title a job position as ‘chairman,’ although awareness is being raised around the topic.

 

Moreover, adding a term to the word “man” forms the orthography of these words with sexist semantics built-in. The fact that individuals are surrounded by labels and terms that point to males only shapes the way they perceive these jobs and anideal society.  Weatherall (2002) also claims that these masculine generics are not natural, but they are the results of focused efforts by past linguists (p. 14). Weatherall elaborates on the historical use of these masculine generic terms by citing that “[it] was introduced as legal usage by a British Act of Parliament in 1850. It was not until that time that masculine generic forms became conventional in written language” (2002, p. 15). Thus, this illustrates that such agendas could be set to sculpt a sexist community, and the consequences of this rule can be sensed in this century. 

 

Another feature of English that displays how the language is male-oriented is the lack of discourse to describe women’s experiences. For instance, Weatherall (2002) quotes “that all the linguistic emphasis of words and labels describing the sexual act (e.g. fuck, shag, screw) had been placed on the penetrative act performed by an active male on a passive female” (p.19). These verbs can be used when women are the subjects, but even then, the implication is that they are enjoying the role that men usually play, implying that they are on some level unfit for the roles that they take on. This point validates the claim that language can produce a sexist community, such that people view sexual activity positively only from the male perspective and situate the woman as the passive party.  

 

Even when differentiating between males and females in titles of common jobs, two suffixes are used, which are ‘-ess’ (e.g. waitress, actress) and ‘-ette’ (e.g. suffragette, bachelorette) (Schulz, 1975, p. 164). The suffixes used for women undermine the effort made in the job or description. Hence, language contributes to deeming any position that a woman holds as less important by holding the connotation of the word less for the titles given to females.

 

Moreover, English terms of addressdefine women narrowly in terms of discussing them based on their social status. Women’s titles signify whether they are in a relationship with a man or not.Today, the titles are overextended even to women who are in same-sex relationships. For instance, married women should be referred to using Missis (Mrs.), while if they are single the word Miss (Ms.) should be used instead (Wanitzek, 2002, p. 6).Weatherall (2002) states that “both female titles stem from the word Mistress: Miss being used to refer to a girl and Missis (Mrs) to an older woman” (p. 21). Equally, Weatherall believes the titles serve two purposes, 1) to indicate the availability of women sexually and 2)to apply social pressure towards marriage by lumping single ladies with prepubescent girls (p. 21). The fact that women are referred to based on their marital status exhibits the misogyny they deal with on a daily basis. Women’s identities are directly connected to their relationships to the men in their lives. Regardless of a learner’s gender, learning a language that defines females based on marital status shapes the learner’s thought about women’s roles in that language’s society and how they are viewed through it.

The discourse surrounding identity markers used to describe women reflects the sexism in the English language. Women have been facing violence for a long time, but it was an invisible crime until the last 30 years. Even when male violence became a crime, the words used to describe it were still oriented in a misogynistic manner. The words used to describe male violence are domestic violence, family violence, violence against women, and wife abuse, such that the word man is never mentioned (Phillips & Henderson, 1999). None of the terminologies shed light on the criminal and few refer to the real victim explicitly. Therefore, “when the perpetrator is genderless and the violence described only includes the identity of the female victim, male violence against women is constituted as a problem of women” (1999, p. 120). Accordingly, to make English language unbiased towards women, it needs to refer to the perpetrator when describing the prejudice faced by them.

The use of sexist language has an impact on the cognitive process of individuals, which is proved by empirical and experimental methods. Based on a proactive inhibition process, a psychological cognitive test that focuses on the memory and how memory is able to recall words found that words that were genderless were automatically attributed to men by the test takerseven when tied to women in the original context (Weatherall, 2002). Thus, a sentence that is describing a person of unknown gender is always linked to a masculine persona. In addition, experiments show that the understanding and recalling of information written in masculine generic terms is different for males and females. Men tend to think of themselves when masculine words are used, regardless of the original context; the words are always inclusive of them. Women, on the other hand, tend to interpret and use the truly generic way because it is the only way to include themselves to the reference group (Weatherall, 2002, p. 28).  Altogether, the English language exhibits sexism, and it contributes in shaping male self-righteous thoughts and concepts.Another point that may demonstrate the impact of language on the society’s behavior towards women is the way the Finnish women are treated. The number of sexist incidents is low in Finland, and in the Finnish language “sex plays no part at all in the obligatory selection of grammatical categories” (Beit-Hallahmi et al., 1974, p. 427). Therefore, a speculation could be raised that there is a positive correlation between a non-grammatical gendered language and the society’s behavior that speaks such language.

Further, Ochieng (2012) did a research on the American authors and how language is used discriminatorily to women in their writings. The research followed a cognitive literary criticism, which is a way to root the bias; if the author is unconsciously biased or the discourse in the language is sexist. Ochieng (p. 20) results showed that “males were assigned more agentive roles in kiss and hug, and female in divorce” (p.20). This result clearly projects the discriminatorily discourse used to describe women or the way they are given a role in a story.

Conclusion

Language is a communication medium that is developed by people. It does sculpt thoughts to a certain extent, but it is not the only factor that impacts their thoughts. Thus, the Whorfian hypothesis can be a solid statement on a certain basis. That is, language is one of the reasons for the misogynous behavior observed in some communities. The gender bias caused by language can be observed in both English and the Arabic speaking countries. A neutrally gendered language can be developed as a solution, but it should be accompanied with changes to the cultural norms.The token with which some non-gendered phrases have been implemented within the English language can be taken and applied more aggressively. This can be done in the implementation of a new neutrally gendered language. This neutrally gendered language should be smoothly introduced and integrated into schools’ curriculums. The results of such a solution would be observed in later generations as the shaping of thoughts happens in the early stages of an individual’s life.

 

 

References 

Beit-Hallahmi, B., Catford, J., Cooley, R., Dull, C., Guiora, A., Raluszny, M.(1974). Grammatical gender and gender identity development: Cross cultural and cross lingual implications. The American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 44(3), 424-31.

Boroditsky, L., Fuhrman, O., & McCormick, K. (2011). Do English and Mandarin speakers think about time differently? Cognition, 118(1), 123-129.doi:10.1016/j.cognition.2010.09.010

Lupyan, G., & Bergen, B. (2016). How Language Programs the Mind. Topics in Cognitive Science, 8(2), 408–424. https://doi.org/10.1111/tops.12155

 

McWhorter, J. (2014). The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ochieng, D. (2012). Sexism in language: Do fiction writers assign agentive and patient roles equally to male and female characters? Journal of Language and Linguistic Studies, 8(2), 20-47.

Phillips, D., & Henderson, D. (1999). "Patient was hit in the face by a fist..." A discourse analysis of male violence against women. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 69(1), 116-121.

Schulz, M. (1975). How Serious Is Sex Bias in Language? College Composition and Communication, 26(2), 163-167. doi:10.2307/357109

Wanitzek, U. (2002). The power of language in the discourse on women's rights: some examples from Tanzania. Africa Today,49(1), 3-19. 

Weatherall, A. (2002). Sexist language. In Gender, language and discourse (Women and psychology). Hove England: Routledge.

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