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Sexism in Language

Posted July. 25, 2003 21:45,   


Sexism: Women Locked Up by Men, written by Jung Hae-gyung, 373 pages, priced at 15,000 won and published by the Humanist

“How many brothers do you have?” You are to be asked by this question when you live in Korea. They do not ask. “How many sisters do you have?” This commonly-asked question indicates that the gender of men includes the gender of women in this society, but not vice versa.

Language is often considered neutral. But it is not neutral, in fact. Grammars are not neutral, either. It works in the way of serving authoritarianism and oppression against certain groups and individuals. The only truth about language is that it is authoritative and oppressing.

Dictionaries also present the standard of measurement in meanings and usage of language, instead of objective meanings of words. They do not deal with a variety of languages such as dialects or African American English.

Language never knows about equality. It is not hard to find violence in language –men`s violence against women, whites against blacks and majorities against minorities. The inequality arises from power structure of the society, but at the same time the inequality serves as a tool of perpetuating the distorted order. It is scary, therefore, seeing how the hierarchical society and linguistic inequality work together to maintain the circle.

The authoritarian nature of language is easily witnessed through the asymmetric relations between men and women. Men are the standard of measurement in language, and women can express themselves only through relations with men. The standard of measurement is set by a majority, which has something to do with who has power, not who outnumbers.

There are words like `female professor,` `female writer` and `female worker`, but not `male professor,` `male writer` and `male worker.` It is because words like `professor,` `writer` and `worker` are considered equal to `male professor,` `male writer` and `male worker.` Likewise, there can be `the history of women,` but not `the history of men.` Because history has always been `his story.`

One of the slang expressions men who grew up in a male chauvinistic society first learn is the term ‘eat a woman’ in talking about sexual relationships. Expressions that perceive women as ‘food’ are commonly seen in English, German, and French etc. Such expressions clearly show that men`s relationships with women are centered round sex. What`s hopeless is that prohibiting men from using such expressions or purifying the language will not change men`s fundamental perception on women. In order for the perception to change, we must first settle the problems surrounding the concept, definition and distinction in language usage. This is where the importance of this book lies. Language controls human mind in a secretive manner.

Therefore, it is necessary to raise questions on the legitimacy of the standard itself in order to eliminate inequality in the language and to change the power structure in the real life. The issue at stake is not to interpret the world, but to reform it.

Koh Bong-jun, Literary Critic