‘Women are witches, men are studs’

‘Women are witches, men are studs’

Historical sociolinguistics lecturer Mo Gordon on whether language can ever be truly inclusive.

Language is an essential tool that helps us humans verbalize who we are, how we view the world and see others. However, can language also be used as a tool to change our view of the world and create a more inclusive and bias-free environment? Mo Gordon explored this and other questions during a workshop at the recent Diversity and Inclusivity symposium, which this year centered around the themes Language, Inclusion and Belonging.

The term ‘inclusive language’ comprises a catch-all phrase to promote language that avoids biases and discrimination. Lists of language do’s and don’ts are readily available online. They include choosing ‘spouse’ over ‘husband’ or ‘wife’ and ‘caregiver’ or ‘parent’ over ‘mum’ and ‘dad’. Though most would agree that lists like this are helpful in avoiding, in this case, gender biases, we should also be critical about how effective these lists are. To truly achieve inclusivity, we need to go beyond those lists of do’s and don’ts.

One of the underlying assumptions of these lists is often that by choosing more inclusive words, we not only avoid certain biases, but it may also change the way we human beings tend to pigeonhole people. This idea is not new; in the 1970s, many feminists argued that language structure itself influences how we perceive the world around us.

Limitations of (re)labeling

Our reality is, to some extent, warped by the language we speak, as it were.[1] Simply put, if a language has binary gender categories such as ‘she’ for a female referent, and ‘he’ for a male referent, we are bound to perceive the world in these binary categories. Furthermore, languages such as English that use the word ‘man’ to refer to people in a generic sense, further reinforce the perceived male dominance in society. The reasoning was that if different words were chosen, such as the ‘history of humankind’, instead of the ‘history of man’, this would also make society a little less biased and give women more agency, changing our cultural consciousness as it were. But is renaming enough?

Our reality is, to some extent, warped by the language we speak

As a number of participants in the workshop mentioned, swapping terms more often than not leads to the new term rapidly acquiring the old, not-so-positive, meaning. A telling example discussed by one of the workshop’s participants is the Dutch term ‘allochtoon’, which was traditionally used to refer to any immigrant from a foreign country, as well as their descendants. Originally intended to be a neutral term, it quickly gained a negative meaning because of its persistent use in the context of negative news reporting on crime, failing health and failing education. The more politically correct term is ‘person with a migration background’, which is nowadays often found in combination with the adjective ‘non-western’ in the same negative news reports, thus linguistically singling this group out as different from people that are ‘truly’ considered to be ‘Dutch’.

It becomes clear that the context and discourse in which words are placed are perhaps more crucial than the actual chosen term, as the meanings of words are constantly (re)negotiated through the context in which they are used.

History repeated

We only need to have a look at history to see, yet again, that the meanings of words change as the cultural environment evolves and changes. As a teacher of the history of English, one of my favourite assignments for students is to have them look into the word histories of the English word pairs ‘slag’ & ‘stud’, ‘witch’ & ‘wizard’, ‘madame’ & ‘sir’, ‘spinster’ & ‘bachelor’. Students quickly discover that, over time, the masculine counterparts mostly maintain the same, neutral meaning, or even acquire a more positive meaning.

‘Stud’, for example, is most likely derived from ‘stud horse’, a stallion kept for breeding. In relation to male humans it clearly refers to a man’s virility and sexual attractiveness (we can by the way, question how positive it really is to be objectified like this). As for the female counterparts, well… ‘Slag’ has various uncertain origins, but they all have something in common: they refer to a type of waste material. Gradually, this sense was metaphorically extended to humans of inferior social status, and today it is typically associated with promiscuous women, reflecting the notion that they are considered socially inferior.

Old and unmarried

‘Witch’ suffered a similar fate; starting out as a term that could be applied to both women and men who practiced pagan rituals, it now appears to be a predominantly female occupation, and not necessarily a positive one at that. From the perspective of medieval Christians, pagan practices began to be seen as evil, regardless of the gender of the person who practiced them. By the 15th century, however, ‘witch’ became more strictly associated with women, particularly women that were old, unmarried and considered unattractive. Why? Most likely because, at the time, women of this status were generally seen as social outcasts. This, combined with the folk wisdom that comes with old age, made them popular targets for accusations of witchcraft.[2]

The history of words teaches us that a language reflects the social and cultural fabric of its community of speakers

What can we learn from all this? It is tempting to conclude that it is the language users that are biased, not the language. The word histories show us that a language’s word stock reflects the social and cultural fabric of its community of speakers. This alone is evidence that language itself does not fully determine our outlook on the world; rather, it follows suit. At the same time, we inherit some older senses, still encapsulated in the words we use today. Without realizing it, we habitually express old ideas and biases. By using ‘witch’ exclusively in reference to what we consider evil women, we perpetuate the notion of the ‘old, ugly, slightly unhinged woman’. Language is a bearer of culture and inevitably carries a bit of historical baggage. As such, a living language can never really be entirely free of culture.

Where does this leave us? The good news is, offered one of the workshop participants, that at the very least, we can stray from the linguistic paths that culture has paved for us, and choose more inclusive terms, which serves a symbolic function and, as such, can nudge a person to think along less well-trodden paths.

A living language can never really be entirely free of culture

Context is key

Will this change existing biases overnight? Probably not. Yet, by simply naming or renaming concepts, we at least have the tools to talk about existing inequalities and biases. We also need to acknowledge that we all subconsciously use biased language at times. Openness to this idea is the first step in becoming more aware and open to other points of view. If we accept that language is a vehicle of our mind that reflects, but also reinforces (older) cultural norms, we can use it to renegotiate some of these norms. The key is, however, the context in which we put these words and the interpretations we infer from them.

[1] See Cameron, D. (2002). Feminism and linguistic theory (2nd ed., [repr.,] transferred to digital printing.). Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire [etc.]: Palgrave and Cameron, D. (1998) Chapter 1. In Jackson et al (Eds.), Contemporary Feminist Theories. Edinburgh University Press

[2] See the Oxford English Dictionary for an interesting etymological account on the development of the word witch