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On Being a Woman

September 2004

1. Introduction

Since the 1970s there have been attacks on the English language for having views about subjects, including men and women, which are wrong or immoral. The English language is said to denigrate women and cause their oppression.

This view is false since no natural language has any theory and the position of women in English-speaking countries is not worse than the position of women in places where non-English languages are spoken; in fact, women are not oppressed in English-speaking countries.

2. Natural languages and theories

Edward Sapir (1884-1939) and Benjamin Lee Whorf (1897-1941) argued that different languages have different theories about the world. Whorf, for example, argued that Hopi Indians do not think about time as English speakers do because the Hopi language does not have tenses.

This view underlies the theory that English has a theory about the sexes because it has gender, because some words include the word 'man,' and because some words distinguish between men and women.

A. The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

I will not deal with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in detail here except to note faults with it. (Sapir and Whorf were, incidentally, fine linguists.) Many people speak several languages without changing their views of the world. Isaac Newton wrote in both English and Latin but had the same views. Although many languages, like Hopi and Chinese, do not have verb tenses, people who speak these languages do have concepts of time, of the past, present, and future. In English we say that the sun rises and sets, but most current speakers of English do not believe that the sun revolves around the earth, but attribute sunrise and sunset to the rotation of the earth.

B. The Sexes and the English language

1. Gender:

Gender is a grammatical category. Some in the recent past have proposed that the word be used to refer to conventional differences between the sexes, while the word 'sex' should be reserved to refer to the biological differences.

This proposal has been a failure, since now the term 'gender' is beginning to be used for the biological differences!

There is very little gender left in English. Only the third person singular pronouns, 'he,' 'she,' and 'it,' have the genders respectively, masculine, feminine, and neuter. Other languages have all nouns with gender, for example, French has two (masculine and feminine) and German three (masculine, feminine, and neuter), while other languages have none, for example, Chinese and Turkish.

There is little (but sometimes some) connection between gender and sex, and the distinctions called 'masculine,' 'feminine,' and 'neuter,' could just as well have been called 'red,' 'white,' and 'blue,' or 'one,' 'two,' 'three.' (Aristophanes has much fun with the distinction discovered by the Greek grammarians in his comedy The Clouds. See the confusions of Strepsiades when he discovers that nouns like 'pigeon' and 'trough' have gender, ca. 654-700.)

In German, two words for 'girl' are neuter (das Fraulein. Das Madchen) - the word for 'cat' is feminine (die Katze) and for 'dog' is masculine (der Hund), and Germans know perfectly well that the sex of girls is female and that cats and dogs come in two sexes. In French, the word for 'person' is feminine (la Personne), though every Frenchmen knows that persons come in two sexes. Germans do not think that the sun (die Sonne - feminine) is a female nor do the French think that it is a male (le soleil - masculine).

The confusion about gender and sex perhaps arises more easily among those who only speak English because there is so little gender in the English language. Remnants like referring to a dog as 'he' and a cat as 'she,' or a baby as 'he' or 'it' when the sex is not known do not show that the speaker does not know that dogs, cats, and babies come in two sexes. The character Alfie in the movie Alfie refers to women as 'birds,' and when he is talking about a 'bird,' he refers to 'it' - Alfie the womanizer knows quite well that a 'bird' is of the female sex! When a Scot refers to a young man as 'she,' he does not think that the young man is a woman!

2. The word 'man:'

Some argue that the word 'man,' either by itself or as part of a word, means an adult member of homo sapiens of the male sex, so that words like 'chairman' and 'layman' have been changed to 'chair' and 'laypersons.' A program at the University of Waterloo instituted in 1969 called 'Man and His Environment,' eventually had its title changed, and a course I taught 'Mankind and Nature' was changed in the University of Waterloo Calendar to 'Humankind and Nature' (without my knowledge or permission). So until very recently, English speakers knew that the word 'man' is the name of the species as well as sometimes a male of that species. Unless censors bowdlerize English writings, drama, film, and television from before 1980 or so, any English speaker will have to know this.

The one word refutation of this mistake is in the word 'WOMAN' itself, which does not mean someone of the male sex! (Some women have tried to hide this by rewriting the plural as 'wymmyn,' - some comic strip writers used 'wimmin' - but this changes the facts about the word 'man' not one bit.)

In fact, the original meaning of 'man' was for the species. I include material below from The Oxford English Dictionary and Dr. Ernest Klein, A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the English Language, on the words 'man' and 'human'. The OED is more cautious about the IndoEuropean root.

  1. Man: Man (Old English) - generic term for homo sapiens, probably originally meant 'one who thinks' from the Indo-European base *men "to think', whence also OI 'matih', 'm=E1tih’ - 'thought', Latin 'mens, mentis' - 'mind', Gothic “muns’ - 'thought', 'munan' - 'to think'. 'Mathematics' from the Greek 'mathematikos', from 'mathema' - 'to learn', ultimately from the same Indo-European root *men-dh 'to have one's mind aroused, apply oneself to'. 'Mind' - from same Indo-European base *men 'to think, remember, have one's mind aroused, apply oneself to'.
  2. Human: 'humanus' (Latin), from 'homo' (Latin) - 'man'. Related to 'humus' - 'earth'. (Like Hebrew "Adam' - 'man', 'the one formed from earth'.)

Those familiar with Sanskrit or languages derived from it will recognize that 'man' means 'thinking being.'

In English, the word 'man' appeared as parts of two words in about the eighth century: 'wereman' meant the male of the species and 'wifman' meant the female. By the twelfth century, 'wereman' had been contracted to 'man' and meant both the species and the male of the species, to be understood by context. (Again, see the OED.) This is clear in the King James translation of the Bible: "So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them." (Genesis I, 27)

3. English-Speaking Countries and the Status of Women.

Those who have attacked the English-language as contributing to the subjection of women claim that it has the theory that women are inferior to men (in unnamed ways) and should be treated under the law with lower status. But is this true? Is there any relation between any natural language and the status of women?

A. Languages without gender

There are languages without gender, like Chinese and Turkish, yet countries where those are the main languages have not been countries where the legal status of women was equal to that of men and superior to that in English-speaking countries. What the status of men and women is relative to each other is not always easy to determine, so my comments are fairly general. Changes in the status of women in China and Turkey have occurred because of political changes, changes in ideas about the status of women, and not because of the languages. The status of women in England has for many centuries been superior to that in China and Turkey in the past.

B. The Legal Status of Women in English-speaking political units.

The legal status of women has been different in different political units where English is the language. The laws of England, for example, were and are different from those in Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and the different states of the United States. The states in the United States have different laws. Wyoming gave the women the vote in 1896, while other states did not. Before the Women's Suffrage Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1921, fifteen states had already granted women the vote.

C. Opportunities for Education

Even in the colonial period of English North America, girls had elementary education as well as boys. (The Massachusetts Bay Colony required that all children had to learn to read and write.)

Higher education for women was made available in the United States before it was available anywhere else in the world: Oberlin College, Mt. Holyoke, and others from the 1830s on; my alma mater Swarthmore College in 1865; graduate education at my graduate alma mater, Yale University, in 1891.

D. Disagreement about the status of women

There has been much disagreement about what the status of women should be in English, because, of course, the English language takes no position whatsoever on the issue. Disagreement would be impossible if the language required one to take a position. Even those who attack the English language as pernicious show that their view is false just because they attack it in English!

E. Conclusion

The English language had and has no influence on the status of women in English-speaking areas. Those who have discussed in English what the status should be have had that influence, but not the language itself.