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An expert’s opinion: Idiomatic expressions such as a cradle snatcher and a fish wife are examples of sexist language.

Belarusian poetess Volha Hapeyeva conducted an experiment. She asked her students to translate a phrase “I came to that place” from English into Russian. 99% of the female students translated it using the masculine grammatical gender instead of using more appropriate feminine grammatical gender. We decided to explore what shapes sexist stereotypes in language and whether something can be done about it.

 Feminist language reforms have been discussed in the West since the late 1960s, while this topic was not addressed in the former Soviet Union until the late 1990s. Dr. Alexander Pershai, expert in gender linguistics, believes that non-sexist language changes are essential to the democratizing society and everyone can contribute to the elimination of gender-based discrimination, or sexism.

 — Dr. Pershai, in your opinion, is it important for journalists, publicists and writers to focus on the “gendered” dimensions of language?

  Definitely. I would include editors, researchers, and lawyers in this list too. Linguistic sexism manifests itself in many ways, including:

- the “default” usage of “generic” masculine forms to address humans in general;

- derogatory connotations of women’s titles and jobs (in Slavic languages the female versions of many job titles imply a lesser degree of professionalism or that a woman is married to a male professional, for example the wordgeneralsha means “general’s wife”, not “woman-general”);

- degrading stereotypes of women reflected in idiomatic expressions and proverbs (such as to make an honest woman out of someone and to be on the shelf).

 — Considering Volha Hapeyeva’s experiment, why did our society develop gender-biased language stereotypes? What can teachers, parents, and opinion makers do to change them?

  Volha Hapeyeva’s experiment is an example of using the “generic he”, i.e. using the masculine grammatical gender by default when the object of nomination is unknown or undefined. The “generic” masculine grammatical gender implies the masculine standards for all people and forces everyone to fit into the androcentric blueprint. By doing so the generic masculine grammatical gender “hides” and excludes women from the public discourse. In order to change that, teachers and parents can start paying attention to how often they use the generic masculine grammatical gender. Once we begin to monitor our own speech, positive changes will come relatively easily. Unfortunately, most people do not take this issue seriously.

 — Some say that the feminization of the Belarusian language is progressing much more actively than in Russian: the words zhurnalіstka (female journalist)lіtaratarka (female writer), paetka (poetess) are now actively used.  Do you agree with this statement? If so, why does the feminization occur more slowly in Russian?

  The present-day tendency to use gender-specific job titles in the Belarusian-speaking intellectual and public discourses contributes to the neutralization of some sexist stereotypes in language. However, the eagerness of Belarusian writers and journalists to use words like dyzainerka (female designer), aŭtarka (woman-writer), etc. does not come from their struggle for gender equality. Rather, it is determined by political reasons and specific literary traditions in Belarusian and Russian. During the Belarusization in the early 1990s many people emphasized that Belarusian and Russian are two distinctively different languages and cultures. In this context the more frequent usage of female job titles in Belarusian is another way to accentuate this distinction.

 — There are two “popular” approaches to eliminate linguistic sexism: feminization (emphasizing reference to feminine notions) and neutralization (blurring the boundaries between the masculine and feminine genders). Which approach is more applicable to the Belarusian and Russian languages?

  The Slavic languages are quite specific when it comes to gender. Gender-sensitive linguistic practices in Russian and Belarusian ​​are still evolving; there is no particular approach applicable to all cases of linguistic sexism. In some cases neutralization is more efficient while feminization works better in other cases. Authors are encouraged to pay attention to their writing and speech. They should avoid the default use of generic masculine grammatical gender and use feminine forms when referring to professions and statuses where appropriate (such as issledovatelnitsa (female researcher) or zhenschina-prokuror (woman-prosecutor). Journalists should avoid using proverbs and idiomatic expressions that reflect gender stereotypes. But most importantly, it is good to keep in mind that, to some extent, sexist language can be eliminated by our own efforts. It takes time but it is possible.

 — The Western feminist language reforms such as suggestions to replace the word history withherstory and such usually receive negative feedback in the Belarusian media (for example, see a recent discussion on a popular web-resource “Onliner”). Do you think that it is high time to address linguistic sexism in Belarusian society?

  It is not the problem of changing history into herstory per se. Feminist language reforms do not guarantee the elimination of sexism in language and society. In the case of Belarus and other post-Soviet countries it is the problem of demonizing feminism and everything that is associated with it. The media actively contributes to the stigmatization of feminism and reduces it to the man-hating stereotypes of “radical” feminism. Meanwhile, Belarusian female and male journalists rarely address the positive and educational components of the feminist movement, such as bringing attention to the issues of gender equality, domestic violence, equal salaries and so on. In this context, the discussion of linguistic sexism is associated with negative feminist stereotypes and therefore criticized and rejected. It is too bad many journalists do not bother to understand the importance of anti-sexist linguistic innovations and their potential for democratic social changes.

 5 tips for gender-sensitive language:

1.     Avoid the default usage of generic masculine grammatical gender;

2.     Include people of all genders into discussions of social problems;  

3.     Use direct speech to quote people who are knowledgeable in a particular subject;

4.     Make women of different professions visible by use appropriate gender-specific job titles, such as aŭtarka(female writer) or zhenschina-kosmonavt (woman- astronaut); and

5.     Avoid using derogatory women’s job titles, such as direktorsha or professorsha that demean professionalism of women in these positions.