Women Changing Language
Anne Pauwels (1998)
London and New York: Addison Wesley Longman
Pp. xvi + 267
ISBN 0-582-09962-5 (paper)
US $18.42 (also available in cloth: ISBN 0-582-09961-7, US $48.38)
This book is concerned with language planning and language reform. Language planning is a misleading term. Here it means "deliberate language change" or, more precisely, "coordinated measures taken to select, codify and, in some cases, to elaborate orthographic, grammatical, lexical, or semantic features of a language and to disseminate the corpus agreed upon" (p. 2).
The author starts from an unquestioned and unquestionable feminist perspective. Objections to that perspective are not ignored but are examined, discussed and then overruled: language is sexist and reflects the sexes' unequal status. The author of this book, and many others with her, question what can and should be done about it. Feminist language planning stems more from political motivation than pure linguistic motivation. It involves analysis of the problem followed by modification, replacement, and/or creation of new language forms and expressions.
There have been many books and articles on this subject, witness the lengthy bibliography (24 pages). Women Changing Language stands out among the better documented, with the main conclusions of many studies reported on. This can only encourage the doubting student/scholar to conduct such studies (there is no lack of material!) and realise for him/herself the extent of the problem. The book has the merit of examining the workings of sexism in several languages, including lesser known ones, clearly enough so that a command of the language does not prove necessary. This highlights the fact that sexist practices reflect a common reality of gender inequality: men as the norm (generic use of male terms to designate all human beings), women as a deviation from this male norm and dependent, stereotypes, relations between grammatical gender and linguistic (and extra linguistic) sexism, lexical gaps, asymmetry and non-reciprocity of terms.
In chapter 2, Anne Pauwels examines how sexism works in language. She uses a number of studies to do so: studies of schoolbooks (native language and EFL/ESL), the mass media, law, religion and other domains. All this data is familiar to anyone who has given some attention to feminism, and particularly to language issues from a feminist point of view. The evidence is overwhelming, and the amount of work needed to eradicate sexism from language (and society) can be measured by the degree of resistance that language reform encounters. [-1-]
In the next two chapters, after wondering if sexist language should be changed, the author answers positively by exposing the various ways in which this has been done and can be done, examining the respective merits of the solutions. Chapter 5 completes this by examining which agencies are most likely to implement language change.
Chapter 6 discusses the difficulties faced by language reformers, and the various arguments put forward to resist language change, to deny its urgency: denial that sexism in language exists, accusations of censorship or attacks against the literature and traditions of a country (accompanied by a refusal to see that language is not static, that it is continually evolving), minimising the importance of the problem compared to other areas of discrimination against women, ridiculing the proposed language changes, accusations of fanaticism, and so forth.
Finally, chapter 7 attempts to assess whether progress has been made, whether change has occurred. It does not end with a triumphant conclusion, far from it. In many areas, nothing has changed. It particularly breaks my French feminist heart to see how France is lagging even further behind many countries in this domain. Anne Pauwels shows how the most obvious language changes may in fact not be advances at all. For example, the use of Ms. is often introduced as yet another category, which does not suppress the use of Miss or Mrs., but merely points out a woman as a feminist! Or the use of the suffix -person (as in chairperson,)which is applied mostly to women. Changes seem to have occurred mostly in written language, where they are both easier to use and more visible, and women use new forms more frequently than men.
Still, Anne Pauwels tries to find ground for hope in spite of the strong resistance that language changes encounter. While it is premature to gauge the impact of language reform, she thinks the greatest impact has been on raising awareness on the issue of sexism in language. Furthermore, she feels that the actions in favour of language reform have at least "established women as active makers and creators of meaning, no longer satisfied with being consumers of language" (p. 223).
While this book may not break new ground, it offers a very comprehensive approach to the question of sexism in language; it is clear, readable, and provides enough repetitions and summaries to ensure that the messages sink in. It would be a valuable tool for students and lecturers in sociolinguistics and women's studies, of course, but it should also be prescribed reading for all language teachers, whether they teach native or foreign languages. It is especially important for teachers of English, as proposals for reforms in English-speaking countries have been discussed for nearly three decades now, and these countries have seen more studies and changes than others. [-2-]
Language is a very sensitive, very personally-felt issue; touching it causes reactions that are largely irrational, making changes all the more difficult. School is definitely the place to start raising awareness in those matters.
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