Who would you picture if I were to say these sentences? “Gosh, that person is so bossy,” “Stop being hysterical,” or “This person is a feisty one.” These adjectives are all usually referring to women as a means to put them down or discredit their point. Yes, language impacts gender identity and here is how.
Many languages are heavily gendered and may subconsciously result in gender biases and reinforce gender roles and discrimination within specific societies. Studies have shown that countries with a highly gendered language have a higher percentage of gender inequality. On the flip side, other languages, such as Finnish, are literally genderless since it doesn’t have any gendered pronouns or nouns. There, children tend to understand their gender identities later than in other countries because of the neutrality of the language.
Many languages, such as French, Spanish, or Italian use the generic masculine (sex-specific linguistics/pronouns used to describe men or a mixed group) and in most societies this is considered the “neutral” form as well as the form that will prevail to designate a group, for instance. Yet, by constantly telling children that the masculine overpowers the feminine, this assumption inscribes itself as a norm in their mental representations. It becomes more than a simple grammatical rule, which negatively impacts gender equality.
Similarly, most of these languages are currently the place of fierce debate over inclusive/non-sexist writing and the introduction of gender-neutral pronouns for genderqueer and non-binary individuals. For instance, in France, many argue that introducing such changes would destroy the purity of the French language even though the rule of ‘masculine-over-feminine’ was only introduced in the 17th century alongside the masculinisation of certain professions. These changes voluntarily obliterated women from the French language as well as negatively impacted their representation in the public sphere. Inclusive writing is not about butchering a language but about reclaiming its ‘gender equal’ origins.
However, not just the generic masculine impacts how we perceive gender through language. Many languages have words or expressions specific to one gender that promote inequality. Take English for instance and the examples highlighted above. We separate women between Mrs. and Miss depending on their marital status but don’t do that for men, implying that marital status is only important for women as well as a necessary dimension of womanhood. Gendered wording in job descriptions also leads to the underrepresentation of women in fields dominated by men. Lastly, the words and adjectives we use to describe the qualities of, say, world leaders also differ according to one’s gender identity, with more communal terms for women and more agentic/power terms for men.
Therefore, yes, language shapes our thinking and impacts the way we perceive different people, which ultimately fuels discrimination based on one’s gender identity or fully invisibilises some people from certain spaces.