Panelists, Students Discuss Gendered Language

Panelists from across the University explored how language can both perpetuate gender inequality and act as a tool for feminist activism on Friday night.

The event, “Gendered Language,” which was sponsored by the International Women’s Rights Collective, featured a guest panel that featured anthropology professor Nicholas H. Harnkess; Lauren R. Eby, a graduate student in linguistics; and Maria Cristina Vlassidis, graduate student at the Divinity School. Panelists pointed out that some aspects of language are heavily gendered—which they argued can complicate feminists’ attempts to use language for social change.

To introduce audience members to this concept, panelists compared the gender politics of English, French, German, and Spanish pronouns.

They also noted that nouns are not inherently gendered in the English language.

Eby said that objects such as bridges, for example, can be referred to in both the masculine and the feminine in English.

“A bridge is masculine because it’s phallic and it’s feminine in that it brings people together,” Eby explained.

Students questioned the extent to which lexical choices affect the way in which men and women are viewed in a society and the possibility of reclaiming language in order to alter its meaning.

Both the undergraduate students and panelists also discussed gendered curse words.

Several students shared personal anecdotes about situations in which someone used language with derogatory connotations and, when confronted about using insensitive language, defended using the word by saying they did not intend to insult.

But Vlassidis said that intent doesn’t erase the history of those words.

“I question the person’s privilege or lack of awareness of that privilege,” she said.

Lynne S. Peskoe ’14, who helped moderate the event, pointed out imbalances in language, saying that words have been shaped by specific cultures in a way that encourages certain identities while dismissing others.

“You can’t use language to be anti-straight,” Peskoe said. “I can’t even think of a pejorative word for straight.”

“The reason that it’s more significant and more relevant and scary when it’s used against groups that are not in power is because they’re not in power,” she added. “The organization of power is inextricably tied to the organization of offense.”

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