Feminism and the fight for gender equality has helped society as a whole to progress cognitively as well as socially by bringing forward the elements of language and their usage into the realm of common conversation. They have achieved this by taking a stand when it came to titles and terminology. What I am referring to here, is a form of political correctness that we over time as a society have become accustomed to utilizing in our everyday speech patterns. The feminist movement had begun an attack on the usage of certain titles and terms for women, specifically when it came to a woman’s place in the professional world i.e. Actress, Comedienne, Stewardess, etc. What many had argued for was a single term for both men and women when it came to professional titles, instead of attributing a diminutive title for women and giving the men the primary titles. This may seem like a footnote in the long battle for women’s rights and gender equality, but it would seem that this battle for words plays a pivotal role in societal changes and progress.
Most of us are unaware of the fact that our language has a built-in hierarchy which molds our own social hierarchies in terms of gender roles within society. This hierarchy in linguistics is shown through the study of marked and unmarked words. The unmarked words are those that do not have an affix to modify their meaning such as in the case of “he, man, men, male, etc.” While marked words include the root stem as well as the affix to modify the meaning i.e. “she, woman, women, female, etc.” We can see in these examples that the masculine stem is infused within the feminine words with which we utilize in everyday language, which implies a sort of hidden dominance of the masculine throughout our language. Some have argued that it is this inherent dominance within the language that has an altering effect on how we cognitively approach gender in society. It is this same dominance that the feminist movement has tried to stand up against since the 19th century.
University of Chicago Professor & Linguist Michael Silverstein has shown how the Quakers had fought for language reform in Europe concerning the usage of “ye” and “thou”. You and ye were used when speaking to someone of higher social rank while thee and thou were designated for the common people. The Quakers and others fought against these distinctions, because they felt these distinctions implied a social hierarchy, and they were of the school of thought that everyone was equal, so why would they use language which implies the exact opposite. In the end they abandoned the use of the formal, and equality won out, and it was this notion of social equality which helped to steer us into the “Age of Enlightenment” and delivered practitioners of social Justice and Equality like Thomas Jefferson and others.
Although many of us want to cling on to this way of speech and argue against political correctness of this nature as do I from time to time, it seems to be making society more aware of our language on a much deeper level. It is the feminist fight which has brought forth a hyper-awareness about the language that we use, which for most of my adult life I have argued against, because I feel that the limiting of speech is akin to the burning of books. Of course all great changes have good and bad effects and it has been my feeling that the freedom of speech is paramount in the inalienable rights of the human race, as treacherous as it can sometimes be. I still believe that our freedom to say what we want is a part of the human condition and the limiting thereof is a transgression against the human spirit. But what I believe this hyper-awareness is meant to and can teach us, is to think clearly and decisively on the speech that we choose to use. Freedom implies choice and choice implies a plurality and only through information and knowledge can we be truly aware of our choices (Freedom). Without our understanding and our awareness, then we cannot truly make an informed choice when it comes to what we say, and ultimately how we act. It is my belief that the act of being aware of our language can help us to develop further linguistically and cognitively as a species. The awareness is what is most important and I believe that the condemnation of certain words is preposterous, but rather it is our development of how we utilize our language and our awareness of our language that can cognitively and socially progress the human species. Our ideas are built on the foundation of language and it is from our use of that language that we derive our ideas, it is then these ideas about the world that we utilize to help shape our environment, our relationships, and ultimately our society. Knowledge leads to true Freedom and through Freedom we can achieve equality.
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