Influential relationships between language, gender and society

My name is Alba Biosca and I am the WAVE Youth Ambassador in Spain. Although I am currently studying a Bachelor of Science in Nursing, I previously completed a year of Philology, where I spent much of my time learning about Sociolinguistics, and especially the differences between women and men while speaking. I was also looking for information about the use of certain linguistic structures and/or a specific vocabulary that configured in one hand the feminine gender in a certain way and on the other hand the masculine gender, generally in a more positive way. Therefore, this column aims to draw a series of lines that show the more or less reciprocal influence produced between the language we use, the society in which we live and the gender to which we refer.

During my university period at the Faculty of Philology in 2016, along with 3 other students (Gemma, Meritxell and Maria), we realized that in most of our subjects and study manuals the gender perspective was practically non-existent. Interestingly, I am not only referring to the fact that the presence of women and their contribution to literature was conspicuous by its absence, but also that in the examples and non-literary texts that we had to read, for example, in Grammar or English I, micromachisms were constant. That is to say, terms with which we designate situations that we have accepted as everyday, but that, in reality, are samples of subtle strategies of the exercise of power by the masculine dominion that attempt to act against the feminine autonomy. So we decided to carry out an analysis of what was happening at university level with sexist language, and we created a proposal for an online and offline project called ‘Language for Equality within the University’, with the aim of trying to reduce cases of sex discrimination in the Faculty, putting emphasis on the treatment of language, being aware of the socio-linguistic reality and being able to advocate for gender equality.

Our analysis first highlighted the scarce application of resources that make it possible to mention both men and women when reference is made to collectives made up of both sexes; referring to, for example, collective or abstract nouns. This point is probably meaningless to those whose languages do not use gender-inclusive language in their words or articles with gender nuances, but in the case of Romance languages it is very visible. In fact, in Spain it is a situation that creates great controversy with its detractors claiming that the language is not sexist, while other sectors offer solutions to try to be more and more inclusive. And of course, above all, it has been noticed in the political discourses, that the feminine is used more and more to designate a collective that integrates people of any gender or sex.

Secondly, our report called out the repeated use of sentences alluding to high positions of responsibility (business, politics, etc.) that were almost exclusively held by men, and the traditional assimilation of certain careers, considered of a higher rank, to the masculine collective, which is to the detriment of other professions related only to the feminine collective. I would like to point out that what was serious in this matter was that most of the texts we analysed, which were not even literary, had been produced by the publishing houses themselves, including that of the University, which were published only a short time ago and were therefore current. Only rarely, when they were not cited as mothers, did women appear as teachers, while men occupied a large list of renowned professions. We certainly believed that this was not a distant fact, but helped perpetuate gender stereotypes and the devaluation of women.  

However, in one of the classes, the expert sociolinguistic teacher explained to us some differences in the overall communication between men and women. Above all, I remember a distinction between both at the level of conversation and active listening. In the case of women, the professor said, we are more accustomed to nodding our heads and expressing several yes-es to show the other person that we are following their conversation. In the case of men, they usually nod only when they agree with what has been said. You can imagine the confusion that must have occurred.

Introducing Linguistics: A Graphic Guide gives a brief overview of the different currents and aspects of linguistics. Relevant to the above is to mention that a group of men tend to construct their discourse rather one by one, while women will do so collaboratively from the beginning. Or, on the other hand, the difference between the Sapir-Whorf linguistic relativity hypothesis stating that language can determine our vision of the world, and cognitive linguistics suggesting that it is the way we perceive the world that conditions our use of language (in TRASK, R.L.; MAYBLIN, B., p.50).

Be that as it may, this column has only been a small introduction, from theory and experience, to the influential relationships between language, gender and society. I hope that those who have read it will want to go deeper into the subject, but above all, be more aware of the language they use; if it is one that dismantles prejudices or if it unfortunately maintains them.

Let’s raise our voice and StepUp for everyone!        

written by Alba Biosca, WAVE Youth Ambassador from Spain


TRASK, R.L.; MAYBLIN, B. (2012). Introducing Linguistics: A Graphic Guide, United Kingdom: Icon Books Ltd.