Monday, 2 March 2009

Meeting 5 - Language

One of us is teaching feminist science fiction, currently ‘Native Tongue’ by Suzette Haden Elgin. This novel is about a group of women who are oppressed but are linguists who then decide to create a new language that will open people's consciousness to a new reality. We began the discussion by asking if this were possible. Does language merely reflect cultural assumptions or can it change them?

An example given was the assertion in a quote by Reagan that the Russians didn’t have a word for freedom, as though that implied that they didn’t understand the concept. There was a view that language didn’t control our thought processes but could be used politically to exclude.

We talked about how we had felt about the introduction of the address Ms and how women had previously been defined, even in their title, by their marital status. This had felt like a victory at the time. But was this merely changing language to reflect a change in cultural attitudes?

We then talked about recent changes in language. For example the use of the word ‘guys’ to address a mixed or even wholly female group. Was this actually a gender neutral term? One view was that the word "man" is gendered now, but there is nothing to prevent it from becoming gender neutral in the future.

The point was made that the relationship between language and culture/social formations is indeed complex, but that the feminist dictum "talk it into being' is still valid.

Should the use of gender biased language be challenged?

The best quote : I guess the thing to do is to have the ovaries to call it to people's attention.

Was a term like this designed merely to startle or is it a way to draw attention to the use of language and to challenge attitudes? Did we only challenge language when it was used in a derogatory way? Were we afraid of being too preachy or being seen not to have a sense of humour?

‘ I'm wondering if there are times when we protest the use of sexist language and cause ourselves damage, I mean, when we can appear to be nitpicking’
‘Do you know the feminist movement has no sense of humour -- no, but hum a few bars, and I'll sing along’
‘Oh well ...who cares...we know we are very witty :)’

We acknowledged how language is evolving by discussing the word ‘bitch’ and its current usage. How does an expression that is so deeply misogynist take root so easily in our supposedly "liberal" society? Is this a rebellion against liberalism or a reaction against feminism? It was thought that for some young women it is a kind of claiming they are not a feminist "but" young women and they have ways of making this claim by using language in that way.

It was acknowledged that language is not monolithic: it has cultural contexts and that it can be arbitrary and that language morphs continually but that it never morphs out of context of differing power relations. Language is not "stuck." It's a political tool.


Then the inevitable conversation:-
: I knew someone who used the term "schmuck" all the time until I told him it meant "prick". He was very embarrassed
: I didn't know that!
: makes a note . . .
: This group is sooo useful
: Yiddish for penis
: gosh. I guess I will stop calling people schmuck! especially my girlfriends!
: not only a penis... an uncircumcised one
: Oh!
: lol, that makes a difference?
: I have learned a lot today!
: schmuck is the German word for jewellery
: family jewels
: For adornment only . . .
: well it also means a contemptible person
: so therefore is a penis a contemptible person?
: (not putting this bit in the blog notes ...don’t want people to think we sit around talking about penises)
: We actually use references to male genitalia a lot - much less for female.
: oh no ...the biggest insult surely is the c word.
: In Bengali the word for frog and vagina are so closely related it is hard to talk about frogs
: I will remember to avoid talking about frogs in Bengal

******************************************************If you would like to continue or contribute to the discussion please do that on the SLLU blog, or on

Next Sunday the discussion topic will be ‘Protest in Second Life: is it effective?’

We may want to plan something for International Women’s Day.

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