There is sexism in language, it does enhance the position of males, and males have had control over the production of cultural forms. (Spender 1985: 144)
Sexist writing takes one of a few forms: you could assume that all your readers are men or you could use gender essentialist views of women and men.
Why does this matter? Surely, women have made many advances in the last 100 years? And surely, no-one means to subjugate women by something as simple as language?
My answers: it matters because women are human beings. Women and men should receive the same social, political and economical treatment. Yes, women have made many advances over the last century or so. But that does not mean that the process is finished: we still need to eliminate much man-centric language and thought processes. The former will only happen once the latter – modifying our thought processes – becomes the norm. And changing our thought processes is dependent on changing our language; the one cannot happen without the other.
And yes, most people do use [sexist] language innocently but that is a poor excuse for using sexist language.
I recently started reading Die Burger again and was offended at the subtle jabs at women in this Afrikaans daily: journalists write of companies, the SA government and processes as ‘he’, ‘his’, and ‘him’.
I had a look at my copy of the Afrikaanse Spelreëls but I couln’t find any rule that promotes the use of the male pronoun when writing of inanimate objects. And even if there exists a rule such as that, surely Afrikaans – and, by extension, Afrikaans editors – should change the ‘convention’ to something more fitting the 20th century? Surely we should lobby the Afrikaans media to change their writing style to include, and not exclude, women.
One of the excuses apologists offer for using sexist language is that it’s a reflection of today’s society. And that’s where they leave it; they’d rather not try to change the language – that’d be too drastic and would give to much power to the ‘PC brigade’.
I wrote Henry Jeffreys, Die Burger’s editor, a few emails – first email on 17 August – and only received a response from Hendrik Coetzee, Die Burger’s ombudsperson, on 2 September. He offered one reason why they support the male hegemony: it has been thusly decreed by the compilers of Afrikaanse Woordelys en Spelreëls and Sakboek van Regte Afrikaans.
Here’s the problem I have with that argument: it’s lazy and does nothing to change the status quo; instead, it approves of, and justifies women’s oppression. Another excuse Hendrik offered was that other languages — English, French, Dutch — use sexist ‘conventions’; therefore, it’s OK that Afrikaans follows their example.
I wrote an email to Die Suid-Afrikaanse Akademie vir Wetenskap en Kuns and received – instantly! – an email from Professor van der Elst: he’s referring this issue to Professor Kotze, the head of their language commission. Professor Kotze doesn’t agree: he reckons that this has nothing to do with sexism; it’s part of the language conventions.
Professor Kotze from Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University answered one of my many questions about the gendering of pronouns. I wasn’t satisfied with his answer and tried to prod a bit more. And then he wrote an incredibly patronising email to me – and to me alone; he had not CC the other respondents in on this last mail – with the hopes that I’ll have a wonderful life: “Sterkte met u lewe vorentoe.” It is OK for him to disparage me; however, it is not OK for me to be offended at his actions.
I’ll try to contact a few Afrikaans and Women’s Studies professors to see what they think.
I don’t know whether they’ll agree with me that this is sexist; many women are indoctrinated by society — they don’t see sexism. And they are some of the key people we need to speak out and voice their disapproval — if they do disapprove after they had given the issue deep thought. Your organisation or company needs an anal grammarian to obsess over everything you send out – to internal as well as external clients. But this person needs to be progressive, or at least aware of all the -isms out there.
So many of us wordophiles — my word — obsess over whether to use may or might; few of us obsess over non-ableist language. A few of us claim to watch our sexism but how many have a definitive stance on which term is more appropriate — gypsie or Roma? How many are there who still use ‘men’ and ‘guys’ as generics?
I’m not sure what to do next. The gatekeepers have spoken and I feel powerless. I feel powerless because of my inability to have a conversation with them without getting told off for my tone. I feel powerless because of the lazy arguments they use to justify the language rules. And I feel powerless because far too often I have to hear how I should rather fuss over more ‘worthy’ things. What those things are I don’t know.