It’s fairly common knowledge that the way we speak can help to ingrain stereotypes and can be degrading. Much of our language is inherently sexist. We often assume masculine as the default, or include diminutive endings for the feminine versions of words. Oftentimes we make words meaning “female” synonymous with weak or bad, or we use them as insults or as ways to dehumanize others. We use words like “bitch”, “pussy” or “girl” to infantilize men that we want to appear weak.
Many times, it seems that we assume that we can change our language. We recognize that we have no good words for women or women’s bodies that aren’t either scientific or degrading, and we try to suggest new ones, as if these words were only considered degrading by happenstance. It’s as if we just mistakenly forgot to create words for women that were appropriate and respectful, or that our insults just happen to be female-coded more often than they are male-coded.
However it seems to me that the reason these words are considered degrading is not happenstance. Any word that we introduce which is feminine coded that exists in society as it is today will take on a negative connotation because words associated with women are inherently negative in today’s society. Because we associate womanhood with weakness, we associate words that imply womanhood with weakness. While it’s important for us to recognize the unconscious part that language plays in our conceptions of women, it’s also important for us to recognize that simply changed our language will not help.
This is true in all kinds of language. In the past, people used the word “retarded” as an insult, and so to create more respect for those who are developmentally delayed, we introduced the phrase “special needs”. Unfortunately, that phrase has now become an insult. While it is important to continue to allow our language to change based upon the desires and needs of oppressed groups, we must recognize that our language responds most to the dominant groups, the people who use language most often and who have the power to control discourse. While we may want to create a word to reclaim our identity, the truth is that it’s likely to be co-opted by the dominant society and used against us because its association with our marginalized identity will necessarily give it a negative connotation.
As someone who is highly interested in linguistics, I respect the power that language has. But it is in a reciprocal relationship with culture. Language can’t create culture or thoughts all on its own. The Sapir-Whorf theory is pretty much bunk. Language may help us think in certain ways or confirm our ways of thinking, but we have to shape the language and we can think outside the bounds of our native language. So while we should be aware of language and work to change the problems that language reveals, we always need to remember that language is not the problem, it’s just the symptom.