The award for most sexist language goes to…

Last week, the 88th Academy Awards ceremony was held in Los Angeles and we have probably all seen or heard that Leonardo DiCaprio has finally got his Oscar for Best Actor. On the other hand, the Oscar for Best Actress was awarded to Brie Larson. The Oscar for best Director was given to Alejando Iñárritu, who directed The Revenant. But… why do we distinguish between actors and actresses but not between director and directress? Is “directress” even a word in English?

The words actor and actress represent one the most remarkable distinctions between genders with regard to professions in English, a language in which this is a relatively rare phenomenon. In other languages, Germanic as well as Roman languages, do distinguish a lot more between gender when it comes to professions. A male director is called Regisseur in German and Dutch, whilst a female director is called Regisseurin (German) or regisseuse (Dutch). As for Dutch, my mother tongue, I have to say that the use of these female varieties is diminishing. This is probably due to the fact that people, mostly females, consider that distinguishing between genders with regard to professions, leads to gender inequality.

An example to show where this perception of inequality comes from, can be found in King and Queen. Till date, a king always overpowers a queen, and that is why a queen’s husband can never be called king, but should be called prince instead. In fact, when the Dutch King Willem-Alexander was to be crowned, some people argued that his wife Máxima should not be called Queen, but princess, in order to consider King and Queen as equals. In the end, Máxima is called Queen as a courtesy title, which means that officially and according to law she can’t be considered Queen.

Along those lines, the fact that there is an award for best actor and best actress, can be compared to the fact that female athletes do not compete with male athletes in sports. However, acting is not like sports and there are no physical differences between men and women that should be taken into account. For that matter, one could argue that this distinction should therefore not be made.

Whilst in Germanic languages the use of feminine varieties of professions seem to be less popular and is considered sexist, contrary tendencies can be found in Spanish. In this language, the masculine (pro)nouns do generally refer both to males and females: even though there is one male and nine females, they are referred to with the third masculine plural pronoun ellos. In a way, the same phenomenon can be observed in the English word guys, referring to both girls and boys and very common to distinguish between singular you and plural you (guys). In Chinese we have observed the same phenomenon as in Spanish to generalise gender when using pronouns.

One of the solutions to use no sexist language in written Spanish is to use @. In spoken language, one should say Estimados alumnos y estimadas alumnas (Dear students) to use no sexist language, leading to a high level of redundancy,which  in my opinion is undesirable for efficient communication. Another example is hermanos as a reference to both brothers and sisters and for which in English has the neutral word siblings. What’s more, in German brothers and sisters are referred to as Geschwister, a neutral gender word which shows great similarity to the word Geschwester (sister). Maybe it’s time for Spanish to introduce neutral gender as well?

Nonetheless, there is no doubt that Spanish a more sexist language than English, German and Dutch, for instance. This can mainly be found in words that have a negative connotation when being feminized, like zorro (fox) and zorra, meaning female fox as a reference to the animal, but a slut when used a reference to a human being. This is something that could be worked on, but the big question if sexism in language should be reduced through a change in culture, or if sexism in culture can be reduced by changing the language…

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