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Manifestations of Sexism Across Languages

Info: 5447 words (22 pages) Dissertation
Published: 11th Dec 2019

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Tagged: Cultural StudiesEquality

Social Sexism Language


There is no denying that communication is one of the keys to success for individuals in a rapidly changing world. Why do mere words carry too much power? First of all, language can develop one’s consciousness from infancy. Children learning the language are likely to absorb the cultural assumptions, myths and prejudice underlying language use. Social inequity reflected in language, thus, can powerfully shapes children’s later behaviors and attitudes.

In this way, language affects socialization of the community where it belongs. The aim of this paper is to develop human perspectives on sexism in language, its manifestations and its negative impacts on women. From theory to practice, the paper, furthermore, equips its readers with relevant guidelines to stay away from unwittingly using sexist language and apply the gender-neutral language.

Chapter 1: Introduction

1.1. Discrimination against women

Sexism or gender discrimination means treating people differently on the grounds of their genders, which they were born to be. In a popular old feminist slogan, which goes “You start by sinking into his arms and end up with your arms in his sink”, the prevalence of sexism is beyond question. For years, men have held the dominant position of power and ruled the world while women have been considered inferior and useless. Even in our modern times, millions of women across the world are living in inequality, in injustice: their basic human rights are severely infringed due to no other reasons than their gender.

Discrimination against women is manifested in numerous aspects of life such as education, work, enjoyment of benefits, freedom, power, etc. Take education as an example. Women, who make up 66% of the world’s illiterate adults, may account for 55% of college students but even after they successfully completed the same course of education or training, their equal work opportunities, and equal treatment in their career life are not guaranteed.

Sex Discrimination in the Workplace

According to Women’s World Summit Foundation, globally, women perform 66% of the world’s work, but receive only 11% of the world’s income, and own only 1% of the world’s land. Also, a report released in August 2007 by the US Census Statistics showed that women’s earnings in 2006 were 76.9% of men’s, leaving the wage gap statistically unchanged from last year

Unequal payment against women

The manifestation of sexism can be found almost everywhere on earth, from most developed countries to developing countries and under-developed ones in Asia and Africa. In parts of the world, like China, India and Vietnam, parents may terminate the foetus or put the baby up to adoption on the basis that it is a girl. Abuses against women are social epidemics throughout the world.

More often than not, men in Pakistan, Uzbekistan, South Africa, and Peru, etc. beat their wives and daughters at home at an astounding rate. In Ukraine, Nigeria, and Thailand, women are bought and sold, trafficked and forced to work as prostitutes. In the meantime, women in Morocco, Jordan, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia tackle with discrimination that renders them unequal before the law.

Even in the US, where freedom is believed to reach the extreme, breaking news and articles on polygamy keep showing up frequently in daily newspaper, radio and television. Recently, a huge scandal over a polygamist broke on the front page of all the papers. Warren Jeffs, head of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Texas, was convicted after he forced a 14-year-old girl to marry her cousin. That unfortunate girl is not the only case. Hundreds of other girls and women there suffer from the same ill-treatment. Members in the sect led by Jeffs believe that a man must marry at least three wives in order to ascend to heaven. Women are meanwhile taught that their path to heaven depends on being subservient to their husbands.

1.2. Gender Equality

Thanks to the dawn of civilization, the vital roles of women have been recognized and gender equality has received major attention. Since the 1960s, feminism movements began and have blossomed all over the world. People’s attitude and ways of thinking toward women have been changing positively. In many countries, girls have the opportunity to go to school and enjoy the same rights as their male classmates. The number of female employees in the workplace has risen up dramatically.

A peak in social changes is the adoption of Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women by the United Nations General Assembly on December, 18th, 1979. It came into full force as an international treaty after the twentieth country ratified it on September, 3rd, 1981. In its approach, the Convention covers three dimensions of the situation of women. Civil rights and the legal status of women are dealt with in great detail. In addition, the Convention, unlike other human rights treaties, is also concerned with the dimension of human reproduction as well as with the impact of cultural factors on gender relations.

The implementation of the Convention is monitored by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). The Committee’s mandate and the administration of the treaty are defined in the Articles 17 to 30 of the Convention. The Committee is composed of 23 experts nominated by their Governments and elected by the States parties as individuals “of high moral standing and competence in the field covered by the Convention”.

At least every four years, the States parties are expected to submit a national report to the Committee, indicating the measures they have adopted to give effect to the provisions of the Convention. During its annual session, the Committee members discuss these reports with the Government representatives and explore with them areas for further action by the specific country. The Committee also makes general recommendations to the States parties on matters concerning the elimination of discrimination against women.

1.3. Language as the reflector of society

Language is not merely a means of communication; rather, it connects people to each other in social relationships and allows them to participate in a variety of activities in daily life. There is a reciprocal relationship between language and the society in which the society dominates the kind of language spoken in its community. And in return, people’s thought is strongly affected by their languages. Every little change in the thought takes language’s influence to the extreme, transcending the whole society. Consequently, under the canopy of sexism world, language in general or English in particular is greatly influenced and turns out to be sexist, creating Sexism in Language. For example, in the Western countries, the manifestation of sexist language emerged on the very early days in the Bible.

This is the book of the generations of Adam. In the day when God created man, he made him in the likeness of God. He created them male and female, and he blessed them and he named them Man in the day when they were created. (Genesis 5:1, 2)

When Neil Armstrong, the legendary American astronaut, made his very first step on the moon, he uttered a memorable sentence: “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” If he had landed on the moon in the mid-’90s, he would definitely have said a much more politically correct sentence: “That’s one small step for a person, one giant leap for humankind.” which is less poetic but certainly more literally representative of the whole of the human race.

In the progressive, civilized world today, women and men are to be recognized equal. In the same vein, sexist language should not be welcomed and that is the reason why neutral-gender language is preferred to the sexist one by many people.

1.4. Aims and objectives

There is a long way to go until the deep-rooted concept of sexism vanishes completely though a lot of changes have come in subtle ways through our actions, our movements, our laws,. As one more step towards this end, important things like the usage of words should be taken into consideration. If children are exposed to sexist words used by their parents, relatives since their childhood, they will take it for granted that sexism is not a matter, that language is language and that we just swim with the tide.

Clearly, language may shape human thought. Therefore, in this paper, my overall aim and objectives are:

To raise public awareness in using language.

To help English learners to improve their understanding in sexist language.

To provide information that, to some extent, shows English learners to the right track of language usage so as not to unwittingly offend or hurt anyone.

To describe how discrimination against women appears in spoken and written language and explain what sexist language is and what meaning lies behind it.

To manifest sexism in Vietnamese roughly and sexism in English in more details.

Last but not least, to provide English users with some practical tips to avoid sexist language.

Chapter 2 Review Of The Related Literature

The relationship between language and gender has long been of interest within sociolinguistics and related disciplines. The possibility of eliminating sexism from language originally stems from the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which states that language is not only shaped by society, but society by its language. Since the early 1900s, Edward Sapir first identified a new concept, which is language determinism. In his perspectives, language defines the way a person behaves and thinks.

He believed that language and the thoughts that we have are somehow interwoven, and that all people are equally being affected by the confines of their language. Later, Benjamin Whorf, Sapir’s student, picked up on the idea of linguistic determinism and really made it his own. Whorf coined the so-called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which is more properly referred to as the Whorf hypothesis.

Under this hypothesis, language is believed to be more than a way of voicing ideas, but the element which shapes those ideas. One cannot think outside the confines of their language. Whorf put his whole trust in linguistic determinism; that what one thinks is fully determined by its language.

He also supported linguistic relativity, which means that the differences in language reflect the different views of different people. For example, Whorf conducted a study on the Hopi language. He did research on a Hopi speaker who lived in New York City near the place he lived. He concluded that Hopi speakers do not include tense in their sentences, and therefore must have a different sense of time than other groups of people.

On a parting note, the strong form of the hypothesis is not now widely believed. After all, speakers of one language can explain and understand the conceptual systems of another language. And grammatical categories do not thoroughly explain cultural systems. Indo-European languages put gender into a grammatical category, and their speakers may be sexist but speakers of Turkish or Chinese, languages without grammatical gender, are not notably less sexist.

A weak form of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, that language influences without determining our categories of thought still seems justifiable, and is even backed up by some psychological experiments like the finding of Kay & Kempton which depicts, in distinguishing colour triads, a pair distinguished by colour names can seem more distinct than a pair with the ‘same’ name which are actually more divergent optically.

As a field, prompted by the blossoming Western Women’s Movement, language and gender really took off in the 1970s with particular interest from feminist researchers, in the potential for male dominance of mixed-gender talk such as men interrupting women more often than the reverse case or in the clarification of distinction between female and male speaking styles and in sexism, or sexist bias, in language.

The year 1975 can be regarded as a milestone in the study of language and gender in the West. In that year three important books were published. They are Robin Lakoff’s work Language and Women’s Place, Thorne and Henley’s co-edited collection named Language and Sex: Difference and Dominance, and Key’s book about Male /Female Language.

With a closer look at Lakoff’s book, he focuses especially on female’ use of “woman talk” in society and the problems women must overcome to be seen as effective, strong thinkers and speakers. The author uses classroom observations and examples to convey the idea that children are taught to speak politely and to accept people’s ideas. Ridicule from older boys causes boys around the age of five to stop using “woman talk” and adopt a masculine language. Girls sustain their old language and are discouraged from using masculine language.

As for adults, a problem arises when women has to handle both business and personal relationships. They use neutral language for business but mostly feminine language when talking to friends. If they refuse to talk like ladies, they are ridiculed for being masculine, but they are also ridiculed when they use feminine language because they are seen as unable to speak forcefully. Basically, women are “damned if they do and damned if they don’t.” Men, from childhood on, have taken control over the society and speech by using strong expressions while women have had to adapt their language to variations, no matter business or personal.

For instance, a woman may say an idea is terrific in a board meeting, but when she is talking to her female friend she may utter that the idea is divine. The adjectives used vary with a woman’s environment. Because women have to make adjustments in their speech, Lakoff observes, most women never really master either language or feel comfortable using both. Therefore, the overall effect of “woman’s talk” is to engage a woman’s personal identity and her ideas, erasing the chance to take power.

Thanks to observations, the author notes that women outnumbered men in utilizing more tag questions (questions that don’t commit the speaker to an idea either way) because they want reassurance that their statement is correct. Lakoff concludes that women’s speech is devised by society and taught to girls through socialization to prevent the expression of ideas that may increase women’s status.

A writer and administrator at Arizona State University, Nelsin P.A (1977) carried out a study of the dictionary prescribing sexism in English. Using richly detailed historical evidence, she disclosed how often English expresses sexist assumptions among males and females. In her study, she read a desk dictionary and jotted down note cards on every entry that seemed to refer to male and female. Her collection of note cards brought to her mind the association of English with the society.

As for her, “Language and society are intertwined as a chicken and an egg”. The values and beliefs of a culture can be revealed through its language. A language may change fast as new words can be easily introduced but it also takes a whale of time for old words and usages to disappear. Based on Nilsen’s note cards, she found out three main points about the comparison between men and women: “Women are sexy and Men are successful”, “Women are passive and Men are active” and “Women are connected with Negative Connotations; Men with Positive Connotations.”

More recently, Marlis Hellinger and Madumod Bussman (2002) (as cited in Ansary and Babaii 2005), two German linguists published their work “Gender across Languages – Linguistic representation of women and men”. They have managed a long time of intensive preparation to create an outstanding project gathering linguists to present research on gender representation across 30 countries, namely China, Norway, Spain, Finland, Holland, Vietnam, etc. The project provides an incredible huge amount of new insights into the topic of linguistic representation of gender in different languages.

Various pieces of linguistic research from different countries have been collected in three volumes. Each of the three volumes is introduced by an identical article of the editors giving some general information about the project, the topics to be discussed for the different languages in the volumes and the terminology used.

Take Vietnamese research as an example. Ms. Hoa Pham manages to show in her very informative article in Vietnamese the role, social status and traditional values play for person reference forms. She focuses in her study on terms women and men use in various relationships in urban settings among young and/or educated people. Her study therefore emphasizes the role concrete communicational situations play in person reference.

Vietnamese as a classifier language expresses gender mainly by special morphemes used as modifiers. The role gender specific reference takes and the way it is expressed is dependent on the communicational context including the relative status and age of the people addressed, speaking and referred to. Nevertheless, social changes play an important role here as well. Terms of address, self-reference and reference have changed in the last few decades with the change of women’s roles in society.

Chapter 3 Sexist Language

3.1 Background & Definition

Research on sex roles conducted by Swim, Mallett and Stangor (2004) indicates that sexism comes out in many forms, which are blatant, covert and subtle sexism. Both blatant sexism and covert sexism are defined as intended but differ from each other in the visibility. Blatant sexism which means unjust and discriminatory treatment of women relative to men is showed up obviously while covert sexism inclines to invisible ill-treatment of women.

Compared to those two kinds, subtle sexism represents unfair treatment to women, which is hardly recognized for it is perceived as normative and conventional. Similar to covert sexism, subtle sexism is hidden away but it is not unintentionally harmful. In fact, subtle sexism is of particular interest of researchers due to its wide prevalence and adverse impacts on its victims.

Sexist language is part and parcel of subtle sexism. It is the “language which devalues members of one sex, almost invariably women, and thus foster gender inequality”. In other words, sexist language consists of speeches and utterances that strengthens, perpetuates gender stereotypes and status differences between women and men.

In a human life chart, sexist language may appear in the very first lines. Kids learn it from their parents, siblings, neighbors and as time passes by, it mutates and evolves into a linguistic habit. People may use sexist language for a handful of reasons. It may be owing to the tradition, the norm ingrained in current written and spoken language and hard to change. Some people lack the knowledge about what makes up sexist language. Some do not believe that such language is sexist. Others may attempt to uphold the hierarchism in their societies.

3.2 Sexism in English

Is English sexist? There is nothing denying it. English, one of the world’s most spoken languages indeed proves to be sexist through its historical and current use. It has been a norm in the past to refer to individuals in general terms as being male as in the sentence: “When an average British goes out in the rain, he takes an umbrella with him.” To the ear of most of English speakers, the use of “she” and “her” in that context would sound a little strange. In deed, the word “woman” in English is defined in terms of “man”. From the Old English, the word “man” means “person” while “woman” clings to the view of “wife of a person”. In his translation of the Book of Genesis, which explained Eva was formed by a “spare rib” of Adam and Adam made his declaration:

“This is now bone of my bone, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.”

And the fact remains till today that “woman” derives from “man” as Winston Churchill put it: “In grammar, as in love, the male embraces the female” when he was asked by a feminist on this point.

Ambiguities may occur when using only one word “man” for both sexes like in the following examples:

Eg 1: Like other animals, man nourishes his baby with milk.

Hearing such sentence could make people roll on the floor laugh because it sounds contradictory to the common sense.

Eg 2: The Company only employs experienced men with good English command.

The sentence could make listeners confused since they do not know what the exact sex that the Company wants to employ. Can experienced women with good English command or with much better qualities get a job in the Company?

3.3 Sexism in Vietnamese

Under a thousands-of-years feudal regime, especially the prolonged domination of China, patriarchal ideology was adopted, nurtured and practiced by the whole Vietnamese society. Such ideology dominated the Vietnamese culture for quite a long time, breeding malicious disregard and contempt of women. Though Vietnam has endeavored to develop a country of gender equality, sexism still exists in many parts of the country, especially in rural areas. This is, to some extent, reflected through the society’s conceptions of women in general and the sexist language people used when it comes to women in particular.

“Nhất nam viết hữu, thập nữ viết vô”

The above sentence can be read literally “One boy child, write “yes”, ten girl children, write “no”. Right at birth, a gender discrimination barrier was set up between a male and a female. The saying affirms the dominant role of the male the family clan and yet if the baby turns out to be a daughter, her existence would mean nothing: her name will not be registered in the family tree. This perspective of the Vietnamese older generations, unfortunately lingers on. In reality, it is common in Vietnam that a poor couple may already have a dozen of daughters but still wish for more until they have a son who will be considered the only heir to the family’s property and tradition.

The concept of “Tam tòng” adopted from Confucius philosophy has been spread out widely from generation to generation in Vietnamese families. “Tại gia tòng phụ, xuất giá tòng phu, phu tá»­ tòng tá»­” means a girl, since her birth, is a belonging of her father; after she gets married, she becomes a property of her husband and even when her husband passes away, she belongs to their son. In all the stages of her life, the woman has never lived, even for a minute, as an independent human being but an item passed over from one man to another. She cannot make a decision for her own life. Vietnamese literature contains a staggering amount of sexist proverbs and folk- songs where men are deemed to be superior to women.

“Phận gái có hai bến sông, Bến đục thì chịu, bến trong thì nhờ . “

The two sentences in the folk-song describe the unpredictable fate of women. They have to accept and unconditionally obey the decision made by her parents whether it is right or wrong one. If , for example, a woman was fortunate enough to marry a good man, she could live a happy life. Otherwise, she would have to endure all the hardships, misery or even sufferings for the rest of her life. The unpredictability of a woman’s life in the past can be found in many other folk-songs and old poems such as:

“Thân em nhÆ° hạt mÆ°a xa Hạt rÆ¡i xuống giếng hạt vào vườn hoa.”

Thân em trắng phận em tròn

Bay nổi ba chìm vá»›i nÆ°á»›c non

Rắn nát mặc Ä‘áºu tay kẻ nặn..

Not only Vietnamese women lost their freedom, did they also suffer from the disrespect for their intelligence and education.

“Đàn ông nông nổi giếng khÆ¡i. Đàn bà sâu sắc nhÆ° cÆ¡i Ä‘á»±ng tráºu.”

Literally translated, a man may act hastily but his thought is likened to a deep well whereas a woman may think deeply but her thought is just as narrow as the platter of betel. These two sentences implied a gross underestimate of women’s mind in comparison with men. In the old days, women had almost no access to education and very few opportunities to communicate with the outside world. For this reason, women at that time were not as knowledgeable as men who were granted a preference to pursue their study.

Women can also mean misfortune or bad luck, which is clearly expressed in the following tip-of-the-tongue saying: “Ra ngõ gặp gái.” This expression says when you go out in the morning, if the first person you meet is a female, you are deemed to fail to gain what you planned to do or you may face with some trouble or even with an accident. A lot of Vietnamese, especially old and rural people, remain sexist in their language usage.

They now often say, for example, “Đàn bà thì làm được gì!”, which covers the idea that women are worthless and women are never able to do anything serious or important. The word “gái” which used to refer to the prime time of a female now comes to be used in many contexts as a derogatory term, for example: gái đấy (that’s a whore.), gái gọi đấy (that’s a call girl), đồ gái góa (that’s a stuff of widow), đồ gái Ä‘Ä© (that’s a promiscuous stuff), etc.

Those judgements, nevertheless, no longer holds water in the 21st century Vietnam society, in which women enjoy the same right to go to school and interact socially with others. It is a society where men and women are equal in all aspects: a great number of women are now members of Parliament, senior officials in the government, leaders in a number of industries, honoured professors and doctors.

Chapter 4 – Sexist English & It’s Manifestations

Language can be likened to a social phenomenon, closely related to social attitudes. What happens in our daily life is partly reflected in our language. The existence of sexist language depicts in the pervasion of sexism in our day-by-day conversations, in our messages, and in our thoughts. In the past, women were supposed to stay at home, remaining powerless and generally subordinates to men whereas men were the focus, the centre of the family and even the whole society. Women have been looked down on as “the weaker sex” and should be dependent on men. Language simply reflects social facts.

4.1. Ways of addressing

Addressing practices for men and women are asymmetric. Inequality is implied when different endearments “Mrs.” and “Miss” are used for women in different situations while men are associated with only one endearment “Mr.”

Choosing a title for women depends on their marital status. If a woman is still single, she will be called “Miss” but after she gets married (or was married as with widow), the title will be changed into “Mrs.” Thereby, when noticing how a woman is addressed, people can tell that woman has made a wedding vow or not. Using title “Mr.” before the name of a person, on the other hand, merely shows that the person is a male adult. The term “Mr.”, used for both single and married men, has perfectly masked the marital status of a man.

This linguistic distinction implies that it is more important for woman than man to show whether one is married. However, in a modern and civilized society, a woman’s avowed commitment to another human being which characterizes a marriage is a personal and private matter that bears no relevance in the public sphere. Hence, women should be able to enjoy the same status with the male counterparts who do not need to define themselves in terms of marriage.

4.2. Terms ending in “man” refer to functions performed by both sexes

In English, there is a huge amount of male-oriented words (those contain the element “–man”) that can in fact apply to both sexes. In deed, when referring to students newly joined a university, the word “freshmen” is used as if all new students were male.

For example:chairman congressman councilman

newsman foreman freshman

policeman salesman mailman

Occupational nouns and job titles ending in -man obscure the presence of women in such professions and positions. For a long period of time, women are deserted from power and the right to voice their opinion in such fields as politics. Hence, it is common sense to view jobs like “congressman” as for male only, discounting the fact that the number of women making contribution to the political arena is skyrocketing.

4.3. Sex-linked modifiers

While male-oriented words are used for both sexes, some other words, especially name of some professions which can be applied for both sexes, are habitually associated with male only. In order to refer to female of those professions, we have to add a modifier such as “woman”, “lady” or “girl” before each name of profession albeit those names of common gender.

Common Gender Female

Doctor Woman doctor

Professor Woman professor

Engineer Woman engineer

Lawyer Lady lawyer

Reporter Girl reporter

The addition of modifier is a piece of evidence for discrimination against women as it reflects the perspective that women are appendages of men.

4.4. Bound morpheme used for a feminine form of a noun

Gender discrimination in language also shows in the fact that a feminine noun of some words can only be obtained by adding a bound morpheme.

For example:


Man Woman Manager Manageress

Prince Princess God Goddess

Author Authoress Mayor Mayoress

Count Countess Shepherd Shepherdess

Host Hostess Steward Stewardess

Poet Poetess Usher Usherette

Heir Heiress Sailor Sailorette

Hero Heroine Conductor Conductette

4.5. Words that point to Marriage issue

In a wedding ceremony, after the couple exchange their rings, the priest will utter his last words: “I pronounce you man and wife” to officially recognise the connection between two human beings. In the priest’s sentence, there is a lack of parallelism in “man and wife”. After marriage, the man remains the status of a “man” while the woman shifts her status into the “wife of a man”. In a traditional Christian wedding, the official asked “Who gives the bride away”. And the father would reply “I do” or “Her mother and I do” but there in the question lied an inherent problem. The idea that the bride is something to be handed over from one man to another conjures up images of the day when wife and children of a man were considered his properties and establishes the woman in the subservient role of wife.

More interestingly, there is much linguistic evidence depicting that weddings are more important to women than to men. A woman cherishes the wedding and is considered a bride for a whole year, but a man is referred to as a groom only on the wedding day. The word “bride” appears in “bridal attendant”, “bridal gown”, “bridesmaid”, “bridal shower”, and even “bridegroom”. The word “groom” comes from the Middle English word “grom”, meaning “man” and in the sense is seldom used outside of the wedding.

With most pairs of male/female words, people habitually put the masculine word first, Mr. and Mrs., his and hers, boys and girls, men and women, kings and queens, brothers and sisters, guys and dolls, and host and hostess, but it is the “bride and groom” who are talked about, not the “groom and bride”. The importance of marriage to a woman is also shown by the fact that when a marriage ends in death, the woman gets the title of “widow”. A man gets the derived title of “widower”, which is not used in other phrases or contexts, but widow is seen in “widowhood”, “widow’s peak”, and “widow’s walk”. A “widow” in a card game is an

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