“Men” vs. “Females” and sexist writing

So, I have a confession to make. I actually set out to write a completely different blog post. In searching Wikimedia Commons for a picture, though, I came across something that struck me as odd. I was looking for pictures of people writing, and I noticed that there were two gendered sub-categories, one for men and one for women. Leaving aside the question of having only two genders, what really stuck out to me were the names. The category with pictures of men was called “Men Writing” and the category with pictures of women was called “Females Writing”.

Family 3
According to this sign, the third most common gender is “child”.
So why did that bother me? It is true that male humans are men and that women are female humans. Sure, a writing professor might nag about how the two terms lack parallelism, but does it really matter?

The thing is, it wouldn’t matter if this was just a one-off thing. But it’s not. Let’s look at the Category: Males and Category: Females*. At the top of the category page for men, it states “This category is about males in general. For human males, see Category:Male humans”. And the male humans category is, conveniently, the first subcategory. Which is fine, no problem there. BUT. There is no equivalent disclaimer at the top of Category: Females, and the first subcategory is not female humans but female animals. So even though “Females” is used to refer specifically to female humans when talking about writing, when talking about females in general it looks as if at least one editor has decided that it’s more relevant for referring to female animals. And that also gels with my own intuitions. I’m more like to ask “How many females?” when looking at a bunch of baby chickens than I am when looking at a bunch of baby humans. Assuming the editors responsible for these distinctions are also native English speakers, their intuitions are probably very similar.

So what? Well, it makes me uncomfortable to be referred to with a term that is primarily used for non-human animals while men are referred to with a term that I associate with humans. (Or, perhaps, women are being referred to as “female men”, but that’s equally odd and exclusionary.)

It took me a while to come to that conclusion. I felt that there was something off about the terminology, but I had to turn and talk it over with my officemate for a couple minutes before finally getting at the kernel of the problem. And I don’t think it’s a concious choice on the part of the editors–it’s probably something they don’t even realize they’re doing. But I definitely do think that it’s related to the gender imbalance of the editors of Wikimedia. According to recent statistics, over ninety percent (!) of Wikipedia editors are male. And this type of sexist language use probably perpetuates that imbalance. If I feel, even if it’s for reasons that I have a hard time articulating, that I’m not welcome in a community then I’m less likely to join it. And that’s not just me. Students who are presented with job descriptions in language that doesn’t match thier gender are less likely to be interested in those jobs. Women are less likely to respond to job postings if “he” is used to refer to both men and women. I could go on citing other studies, but we could end up being here all day.

My point is this: sexist language affects the behaviour and choices of those who hear it. And in this case, it makes me less likely to participate in this on-line community because I don’t feel as if I would be welcomed and respected there. It’s not only Wikipedia/Wikimedia, either. This particular usage pattern is also something I associate with Reddit (a good discussion here). The gender breakdown of Reddit? About 70% male.

For some reason, the idea that we should avoid sexist language usage seems to really bother people. I was once a TA for a large lecture class where, in the middle of discussions of the effects of sexist language, a male student interrupted the professor to say that he didn’t think it was a problem. I’ve since thought about it quite a bit (it was pretty jarring) and I’ve come to the conclusion that the reason the student felt that way is that, for him, it really wasn’t a problem. Since sexist language is almost always exclusionary to women, and he was not a woman, he had not felt that moment of discomfort before.

Further, I think he may have felt that, because this type of language tends to benefit men, he felt that we were blaming him. I want to be clear here: I’m not blaming anyone for thier unconscious biases. And I’m  not saying that only men use sexist language. The Wikimedia editors who made this choice may very well have been women. What I am saying is that we need to be aware of these biases and strive to correct them. It’s hard, and it takes constant vigilance, but it’s an important and relatively simple step that we can all take in order to help eliminate sexism.

*As they were on Wednesday, April 8 2015. If they’ve been changed, I’d recommend the Way Back Machine.

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What counts as a word?

A lot of us, as literate English speakers, have probably experienced that queasy moment of dread when you’re writing something on the computer and suddenly get a squiggly red line under a word you use all the time. You look at the suggested spellings… and none of them are the word you wanted. If you’re like me, at this point you hop online really quickly to make sure the word means what you thought it did and that you’re not butchering the spelling too horribly. Or maybe you turn to the dictionary you keep on your desk. Or maybe you turn to someone sitting next to you and ask “Is this a real word?”.

Latin dictionary
Oh, this? It’s just the pocket edition. The full one is three hundred volumes and comes with an elephant named George to carry it around your house. And it’s covered in gold. This edition is only bound in unicorn skin but it’s fine for a quick desk reference.
The underlying assumption behind the search to see if someone else uses the word is that, if they don’t, you can’t either. It’s not a “real word”.  Which begs the question: what makes a word real? Is there a moment of Pinocchio-like transformation where the hollow wooden word someone created suddenly takes on life and joins the ranks of the English language to much back-slapping and cigar-handing from the other vetted words? Is there a little graduation party where the word gets a diploma from the OED and suddenly it’s okay to use it whenever you want? Or does it get hired by the spelling board and get to work right away?

OK, so that was getting a bit silly, but my point is that most people have the vague notion that there’s a distinction between “real” words and “fake” words that’s pretty hard and fast. Like most slang words and brand names are fake words. I like to call this the Scrabble distinction. If you can play it in Scrabble, it counts and you can put it in a paper or e-mail and no one will call you on it. If you can’t, it’s a fake word and you use it at your own risk. Dictionaries play a large part in determining which is which, right? The official Scrabble dictionary is pretty conservative: it doesn’t have d’oh in it for example. But it’s also not without controversy. The first official Scrabble dictionary, for example, didn’t have “granola” in it, which the Oxford English Dictionary (the great grand-daddy of English dictionaries and probably the most complete record ever complied of the lexicon of any language ever) notes was first used in 1886 and I think most of us would agree is a “real” word.

The line is even blurrier than that, though. English is a language with a long and rich written tradition. In some ways, that’s great. We’ve got a lot more information on how words used to be pronounced than we would have otherwise and a lot of diachronic information. (That’s information about how the language has changed over time. 😛 ) But if you’ve been exposed mainly to the English tradition, as I have, you tend to forget that writing isn’t inseparable from spoken language. They’re two different things and there are a lot of traditions that aren’t writing-based. Consider, for example, the Odù Ifá, an entirely oral divination text from Nigeria that sometimes gets compared to the bible or the Qur’an. In the cultures I was raised in, the thought of a sacred text that you can’t read is strange, but that’s just part of the cultural lens that I see the world through; I shouldn’t project that bias onto other cultures.

So non-literary cultures still need to add words to their lexicons, right? But how do they know which words are “real” without dictionaries? It depends. Sometimes it just sort of happens organically. We see this in English too. Think about words associated with texting or IMing like “lol” or “brb” (that’s “laughing out loud” and “be right back” for those of you who are still living under rocks). I’ve noticed people saying these in oral conversations more and more and I wouldn’t be surprised if in fifty years “burb” started showing up in dictionaries. But even cultures which have only had writing systems for a very short amounts of time have gatekeepers. Navajo, which has only been written since around 1940, is a great example. Peter Ladefoged shares the following story in Phonetic Data Analysis:

One of our former UCLA linguistics students who is a Navajo tells how she was once giving a talk in a Navajo community. She was showing how words could be put together to create new words (such as sweet + heart creates a word with an entirely new meaning). When she was explaining this an elder called out: ‘Stop this blasphemy! Only the gods can create words.’ The Navajo language is holy in a way that is very foreign to most of us (p. 13).

So in Navajo you have elders and religious leaders who are the guardians of the language and serve as the final authorities. (FUN FACT: “authority” comes from the same root as “author”. See how writing-dependent English is?) There are always gray areas though. Language is, after all, incredibly complex. I’ll leave you one case to think about.

“Rammaflagit.” That’s ɹæm.ə.flæʒ.ɪt in the international phonetic alphabet. (I remember how thrilled my dad was when I told him I was studying IPA in college.) I hear it all the time and it means something like “gosh darn it”, sort of a bolderized curse word. Real word or not? The dictionaries say “no”, but the people  who I’ve heard using it would clearly say “yes”. What do you think?