I have forever and will always be deeply in love with language. Though, this being said, I am constantly aware of its shortcomings. Language is one of our most powerful and prominent tools for expression, but it can feel pretty damn constraining from time to time, wouldn’t you agree? We advocate for free speech and we encourage each other to speak our minds, but to what extent does language actually suffice in terms of our expression? How free can speech really be within the patriarchal constraints of language? After all, language is man-made.
In an article entitled “An Analysis of Sexism in English,” Guimei He discusses the extent to which the English language reflects society and, in turn, reflects sexism.
Gender discrimination is felt and found universally, Women have been considered to be inferior to men. They have been discriminated in one way or another. Sexism in English is a reflection of sexism in social reality.
Put simply, have you ever heard the phrase “history is written by the victors”? Well, our language and the beginnings of our history as a human race were written solely by men. This leads me to wonder, am I ever speaking freely if my tools for speech are not my own? Do women truly have any ownership of this communication tool which we are forced to use, yet simultaneously oppresses us?
Like I said, I love language, I am in love with language, but I find it troubling that its roots are so far from female. The essay goes on to say: “In English lexicon, one of the most obvious evidences of the sexism is the affixes which lead to a view of women as a derivation from a male term. The feminine one is always derivative of the masculine one by adding a feminine suffix such as -ess and –ette.” So, it seems, we women are just a deviation from men, something which required the molding of an existing word for proper understanding.
Let’s put it this way. Here’s the origin of the word “woman:”
“Old English wimman, literally “woman-man,” alteration of wifman (plural wifmen) “woman, female servant” (8c.), a compound of wif “woman,” wife”
Basically, woman means either a woman-man, a female servant, or a wife. Sounds about right, yes? No!
As someone who looks to words for expression, reflection, creativity, safety, and self, I’ve come to the decision that we must consciously deconstruct what we know in order to speak freely and free ourselves from the constraints of patriarchal language. Here are some tips I’ve come up with:
1. Make Your Own Meaning
In the constraints of language, we do have some space to operate freely. For instance, referring to the special women in your life as “sisters” when they are not your sister in the literal sense allows us to award meaning to the word and to the individual that may not have been there before.
2. Get Creative With Expression
Though language is my favorite tool for expression, it is not my only tool. Language does not always suffice to properly express our deepest feelings, so use the creative tools you have been given and award meaning through alternative means. Even something as simple as physical touch or body language may speak volumes in the place of words. And when it doubt, dance it out.
3. Own Your Words
By “own your words” I mean own the words which you use to describe yourself and which you allow others to describe you with. Select a handful of words that make you feel good, even if they just feel good leaving your lips. Speak them often, and speak them with pride. Hopefully, others will follow suit.
4. Be Mindful When You Speak
Words are powerful, and when they are selected carelessly they can do a lot of damage. Think before you speak. Understand how the words you are speaking make you feel and may make others feel. This should be practiced in most circumstances, especially when you’re struggling to relate to or understand the one whom you are speaking with.
5. Always Be Open to Learning
If something you have said has hurt someone or provoked a response you may not have expected, ask why rather than jumping to your own defense. Learning why a word or a collection of words may have harmed someone is always valuable.
6. Understand Your Power When Speaking
We don’t have to feel beaten down by language. It is an incredible tool, after all. Each time a word is spoken it assumes a different meaning. In the end, a word’s origin may not matter at all. Understand that you have the power to transform words as you speak them, and do so with the best of intentions.
7. Feeling Free = Being Free
Put simply: speak freely. Don’t let yourself feel trapped in the chains of language, speak with passion, intention, and kindness and your speech will always feel free.
Language is powerful, painful, beautiful, and ever-changing. Speaking freely is invigorating and transformative. Don’t let language define you, but let it help you understand yourself, relate to others, and be the radiant, loving person you are.