Monday, February 27, 2012

Gender Words as Cultural Colors

In English we do not have masculine and feminine words; all words are neutral, we think. A table, for example, is an object, an "it." But in another language, "she" may be calmly waiting to present us with our food like a stereotypical mother, or "he" may stand solid and strong like a stereotypical father. 

In the article "Tip of the Tongue," wine writer and expert W. Blake Gray writes about a hypothetical international dinner party where no one can agree on the description of the wine.  Each person's view is colored by whether the language s/he speaks refers to the wine as masculine or feminine, among other considerations. Gray points out that the language we use for a common object affects our perception of that object. He cites Dr. Robin Lakoff, Berkeley sociolinguist, who notes that the word "bridge" in French is masculine and the French think of bridges as strong and powerful; while in German the word "bridge" is feminine, and the Germans may think of bridges as beautiful or have delicate cables.

Even though English has gender-neutral terms, we might become more observant and careful writers if we pay attention to how gender aspects color our world.

Try choosing an object, setting a timer for five minutes, and jotting down the characteristics of that object. Quickly and automatically: describe it, its uses, and how it functions. When the timer rings, look back at what you wrote. What do you think? Are you male or female? Did you write words more commonly used for your gender? Equal? Opposite? Interesting.

Protecting the Forest, 2010
photo by Sibila Savage

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