A man marries but a woman gets married (Chele Biye Kore, kintu Meyer Biye Hoy) !
(a) My friend’s son who is still unemployed has married a girl working in a company.
(b) My neighbor’s daughter, a highly placed software engineer has got married to a guy.
While we look at these two sentences, it is evident that man is always an active doer while women are destined to play a passive role. In Bengali, there is a saying “ Chele Biye Kore, Meyer Biye Hoy” A man marries but a woman gets married!
The question of ‘sexist language’ and the world view it reflects is a highly contentious issue that needs to be examined from diverse perspectives. It is often argued that sexist language conditions our gender sensitivity and perpetuates gender inequality. As language carries the ideology of a society and its people, a number kinship terms used in the patriarchal society are related to the subordination and the subjugation of women. Right from the day one of their socialization, women are linguistically exploited by instilling an inferiority complex that perpetuates gender discrimination and social exploitation.
While reading numerous reports on the International Women’s Day being celebrated today, I googled the net to find out the lexical meanings of words like ‘woman’,’ man’, ‘wife’ and ‘husband’ and was appalled by the gender insensitivity and gender inequality of a number of kinship terms used in our patriarchal society. The connotation of some of the words used in our woman-man relationship is objectionable and disgusting. The lack of gender equality is too pronounced in the kinship terms that we use in our day to day life.
The word ‘woman’ is derived from ‘wvfman’ which is a combination of the words ‘wvf’ (wife) and ‘man’. The word ‘husband’ comes from old Norse word ‘husbondi’ which meant ‘master of house’. The Bengali word for husband is ‘swami’ which means a master, a lord, an employer, a boss, an owner, a ruler, a chief or a leader. The other word for husband is ‘Karta’ which literally means ‘maker’ or ‘master’. The Hindi word औरत (wife) comes from the Arabic word ‘awrah which originally meant ‘defectiveness, faultiness, deficiency, imperfection. Another Hindi word for woman is अबला which literally means powerless or without strength.
It is really unfortunate that various patriarchal societies often failed to recognize women as persons having an identity of their own. They are always defined with reference to their male counterparts. She should be somebody’s daughter or somebody’s sister, somebody’s wife or somebody’s mother. Can we define male human beings with reference to their female counterparts too? Think of the oft repeated cliché “women’s emancipation” used on the occasion for the International Women’s Day. The very word ‘emancipation’ in this context implies male domination. Lexically, emancipation means, “the freeing of someone from slavery”, or “ the process of being set free from legal, social or political restrictions.” You can emancipate someone who is imprisoned. The medieval knight rescuing and freeing the imprisoned damsel kept captive in a lonely tower!
“It is language which determines the limit of our world, which constructs our reality,” asserts Dale Stephender, the author of the provocative book entitlled Man Made Language. Dale Stephender,(1980) argues very forcefully how men literally ‘ made’ the English language and have never relinquished control over it. She points out that many everyday English words, motherhood for example, reflect a kind of ‘trapped’ expression as their meanings were fixed by men.
It is generally accepted that sexist assumptions are often reflected and perpetuated in the day to day use of a language. But finding fault with a language on the basis of the theory of linguistic determinism is rather too simplistic. Sexism in language should be considered from the point of view of a ‘functional view of language, not from the point of view of ‘linguistic determinism.’
Language is never a neutral medium of communication. When we acquire or learn a language, we do so in a cultural context and therefore, learning or acquiring a language is an ideological engagement ( Curdt-Christiansen, X. L and Weninger, C: 2015:1).
Curdt-Christiansen, X. L. and Weninger, C. (2015). Language, Ideology and Education, Newyork: Routledge.
Simpson, P.(1993). Language, Ideology and Point of View. .NewYork: Routledge.