Words and Women
by Casey Miller and Kate Swift

The authors make a convincing case that the English language gives priority to men. The word "man" is used both for the male of the species and for the species itself. The male pronouns "he, him, his" are also used both for the male of the species and for situations where the sex of the person referred to is not known. English needs new pronouns for the latter situations because the male pronouns are not accurate or logical, which can cause confusion and miscommunication, and because some women are offended by the undue emphasis on men. On these main points I agree with the authors.

Unfortunately, they want to go further. They point out many sexual stereotypes that are built into common speech, and they claim that these stereotypes result from patriarchy. I agree that these stereotypes exist, and it may be true that they reflect the former patriarchal structure of our society. However, I fail to follow their logic when the authors say that we need to change the English language to eliminate words and phrases that reinforce the sexual stereotypes.

The authors praise the McGraw-Hill Book Company's "Guidelines for Equal Treatment of the Sexes." I wonder why anyone would want to treat the sexes equally. The authors seem to assume that most apparent difference between the sexes are the result of these stereotypes. I see it the other way around. The stereotypes are the result of behavioral differences between the sexes. So while the authors think that eliminating the stereotypes will result in changes that will make men and women more alike in their behavior, I think men and women will continue to behave differently, and we will have lost the way to understand the differences by expelling stereotypes from our language.

The authors try to explain too many behaviors as the result of the alleged patriarchal structure of our society. To explain why women in general are verbally superior to men, the authors endorse Mary Ritchie Key's theory that women attempt to reach "a higher status in language to compensate for their lower status as members of society." If this option is available to any low status group, why have Afro-Americans not chosen it?

The authors complain that stereotypes about masculinity and femininity, which are part of our language, may reinforce double standards that suppress spontaneity and individuality in people of both sexes. Yes. But why is this not desirable? Their complaint makes no sense unless we assume that this result is undesirable, but they offer no evidence or arguments to show that there is anything wrong with this outcome.

Overall, the authors are not as strident and unreasonable as some feminists. The book contains many interesting facts about the etymology of English words that pertain to gender.

Year Read: 1992


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