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Did Man Make Language?

Did Man Make Language?

Alison Assiter

Males, as the dominant group, have produced
language, thought and reality.

This sentence appears on page 143 of Dale Spender’s
book Man Made Language. Spender believes that ‘maleness’ pervades language ‘as a whole. Moreover, according to her, the reality most of us inhabit most of
the time is a male one because language (male language) creates reality. I shall argue that though
Dale’s examples are interesting, her major claims
about language are sometimes unclear, and that where
they are clear, they are positively damaging for
women. I do not want to concede to the opposition,
however, that there is no ‘sexist’ bias in the
English language at all. I shall offer the outline
of an alternative account of sexism in one area of
language, the purportedly gender-neutral uses of the
class noun ‘man’ and the pronoun ‘he’.


In her book, Man Made Language, Dale Spender argues
two things: (i) that language determines the limits
of our world; constructs our reality (see e.g.

Spender [1] p.139) and (ii) that language is man made
– it is created by the males of the species and is
still primarily under male control (see e.g. Spender
p.12 and throughout the book). She believes that
there is a’man J s language’ and a ‘woman’s language’;
there are men’s and women’s meanings (see pp.68, 77,
81, 84, 95, 102, 135). While the former are ‘authoritative’, ‘serious’, ‘direct’, the latter lack all of
these qualities. And she goes further. It is not
surprising, she asserts, that men’s and women’s
languages are seen to possess these various qualities
– the one set, perferved, strong, positive; the other
weak, negative – because the very terms in which
research projects have been set up, the rules governing them, the kinds of questions asked, reflect a
male bias. This utter and total mastery over
language, Spender contends, is one means by which
males have ensured their primacy (p.12). The English
language is inclined towards males both in syntax
and semantics. (Spender refers to English. Indeed,
she argues that the supposed ‘natural’ gender in
English as opposed to the grammatical one in German,
where a wife takes the neuter gender, reflects a
greater degree of sexist bias.)
Spender presents a formidable array of examples
in support of her thesis. She points out that the
meaning of some words is different when applied to
females and males., For instance: ‘He’s a professional’; ‘she’s a professional’ (p.19). Pairs of terms
which appear to have approximately the same sense,

the only difference being that the one is applied to
males while the other is used for females, become nonequivalent, the female expression taking on derogatory significance: viz. ‘Lord’ and ‘Lady’. ‘Lord’

preserves its initial meaning whereas ‘Lady’ has
undergone a ‘process of democratic levelling’ and is
no longer reserved for women of high rank (p.17).

I believe, however, that Dale’s main claims are
often ambiguous and that they are problematic. She
does not explicitly characterise the theory of meaning upon which she relies, nor does she make reference
to a number of distinctions linguists and philosophers
of language have drawn. I’ll refer briefly to some
of these in order to bring to light some of the
ambiguities and problems in her reasoning.

Some difficulties in Spender’s reasoning

One distinction philosophers have seen fit to draw is
that between the ‘sense’ (Sinn) of a sign, and its
reference (Bedeutung). Frege described the former as
the ‘mode of presentation’ of the sign and the latter
as the object it picks out – its bearer [2]. He
pointed to this difference as a way out of a puzzle
about identity: the two expressions ‘the morning
star’ and ‘the evening star’ are identical insofar
as they pick out the same object (in reference), but
they differ in sense. A philosopher from a different
tradition has made a similar kind of point:

Saussure’s ‘signified’ is analogous to the Fregean
‘sense’ [3].

Spender claims that language creates reality. She
would presumably concur with Frege’s view, therefore,
that the ‘sense’ of an expression determines its
reference [4]. The sense of the term ‘table’, for
instance, determines which object it picks out. Now
Spender believes that language creates reality and
that language is man made. The senses of all expressions in language are thus determined by the males of
the species. Hence, the references, too, of every
sign will have been decided upon by the males. Now,
immediately, there is an ambiguity in Spender’s case.

In addition to the ‘male’ language, she believes that
there isa ‘women’s language’. Is it her belief that
the sense, and hence the reference, of the word
‘table’ was originally determined by the males of the
species and that the females now use the expression in
a male way? Or does she think that there is a ‘masculine’ and a ‘feminine’ sense for the expression? If
the latter, are we to suppose that there are masculine
and feminine referents for this term? Or do we conclude that the two referents coincide in this case?

And, if they coincide here, why do they and what

determines when they do not? The claim that the
senses of all expressions were originally determined
by males is a much more plausible one than the view
that all terms now still have masculine and feminine
senses, but it is a weaker thesis. It lends support
to the view that ‘reality’ is male only in an attenuated sense. To draw an analogy: a house that is
designed by an architect is, in a sense, the architect’s – it is his or her creation. But it probably
belongs to somebody else. On the present interpretation of Spender, language would be ‘male’ only in the
sense that the house is the architect’s. Perhaps an
architect can make things difficult for the occupants
of buildings he or she has designed. He or she might
have created a house with a dining room far from a
kitchen, and this would have made things awkward,
indefinitely, for a housewife. Similarly, the male
‘designers’ of language may have created difficulties
for females which last as long as the language survives. But this makes language male no more than it
makes the house the architect’s. Certainly the man’s
creation here, ex hypothesi, makes matters different
for women. Just as the housewife may continue, for a
long period of time, blaming the architect for his
inconvenient design, so may the female language user
(if she were aware of the problem) criticise the men
who ‘produced’ the language. But the housewife can
neither blame subsequent architects for her architect’s creation nor could she (or would she) make out
that anyone architect owns the house. Similarly,
female language users would be wrong to blame all men
– unless they consciously continued the tradition of
the language creators – for their predecessors’ folly;
They would be mistaken too, were they to make out that
any man ‘owned’ language as a result of their progenitors’ act.

If we are to take the other way of interpreting
Spender’s claim that there is a male and female
language: that there are now two ‘sets of senses, we
come up against another major problem. If language
creates the world, and if there is a man’s language
(a man’s set of senses), and a woman’s one, and if
the two do not overlap, it follows that there is a
man’s world and a woman’s world, and ne’er the twain
shall meet. The wife inhabits one world, and her
husband [5] another. So what, you may say. The
point is important, however. If wife and husband
live in different worlds, not only do they fail to
communicate with one another (a well-known syndrome
if the stories are to be believed) but they may be
unable to understand one another. This cannot be
put to rights by careful and painstaking effort on
the part of both parties; it is an unalterable state
of affairs. Quine and Feyerabend described this
phenomenon as the ‘incommensurability’ of theories:

if the corresponding terms in any two theories differ
in sense, and sense determines reference, then the
two terms pick out different objects. No two propositions – one from each theory – can contradict one
another. They will be simply equivocal. I shall
return to this point below.

I have mentioned some problems that present themselves with Spender’s thought,/if we point to one
distinction philosophers and linguists have made.

If we refer to a further set of distinctions, difficulties of another kind become apparent. Chomsky [6]
differentiated linguistic competence – the system of
rules and norms ot- a language, from performance;
actual speech behaviour. Chomsky’s pair corresponds
roughly to Saussure’s ‘~angue’ and ‘paro~e’. Inside
the latter domain, another philosopher, J.L. Austin
[7] distinguished amongst types of acts. First of
all, there is the locutionary act – the act of uttering an expression with a definite sense and reference;
and then there is the illocutionary act, what I may do

in performing the locutionary act, e.g. I may make a
promise in uttering the word ‘I promise’: and finally
there is the perlocutionary act – the act I may
succeed in performing by means of my illocutionary
act, e.g. in saying ‘the door is open’, I may perform
the perlocutionary act of getting you to shut it.

Supposing we were to take Spender’s claim as applying
to linguistic performance, her reasoning is ambiguous
as between these three. At one point she suggests
that the same linguistic behaviour may be found in
members of each gender, but that the descriptions
given of the behaviour are gender-specific. For
instance, Spender criticizes Robin Lakoff for using
a derogatory term like ‘flowery’ to characterise
women’s language. She suggests that some less
denigratory term would have been applied to that
very same behaviour in a male. However, if she
admits that the behaviour could be the same, she may
be conceding to her opponents that the language is
the same. Witness the expression: ‘I think that’s a
good idea’. Used by a male chairing a meeting, it
could be interpreted as an authoritative, finalising
remark; whereas the same utterance issuing from the
mouth of a female from the floor might well be interpreted as expressing hesitation, diffidence. The
respective illocutionary acts here may well be very
different. The male may have performed the act of
closing the discussion; while the act of the female
may have been that of agreeing with the previous
speaker. Additionally, the relative perlocutionary
acts may differ from one ,another: perhaps the male
carried out the perlocutionary act of getting the
meeting to move on to the next topic; maybe the
female performed the act of getting the meeting to
continue the discussion along the lines suggested by
the previous speaker. However, the ~ocutionaPY acts
are the same in each case. Significantly, here, it
is the relative illocutionary and perlocutionary acts
which appear to exhibit the sexist bias: whilst it
is the locutionary acts – what is said – which deal
with reality. Where Spender takes for granted the
existence of ‘women’s language’, she is assuming its
existence in the illocutionary and perlocutionary
acts. But if she wishes to argue that ‘male’

language produces a male world, she must demonstrate
that there is a gender-related difference in languageuse specifically in the ~ocutionary act, for it is
here that reference to reality takes place.

Sense and reference; locutionary, illocutionary
acts, etc., are two sorts of distinctions philosophers and linguists have drawn. By making them we have
brought to light some ambiguities in Spender’s reasoning. A further area which might reveal difficulties
is that of speakers’ intentions. On one theory of
meaning [8], the intentions of the speaker contribute
to determining what the speaker meant by his or her
utterance. But others disagree [9]. They would
argue that what I intend to say when I use a form of
words is often no good indication at all of what I
have really said.

Spender argues that males intended to construct
language in such a way as to ensure their dominance.

(See Chapter 5.) She makes the point that a male
grammarian in the 18th century, writing mainly for a
male audience, ruled that ‘the male gender is more
comprehensive than the female’, meaning, Spender
suggests, that one male counted for more than one
woman (see p.148). Dale contends that this event
took place in order to ensure male dominance, and was
designed with that purpose in view.

She tells us also that the use of the pronoun ‘he’

to cover both sexes was not just something that took
on as custom and habit; it was deliberately enshrined
in an Act of Parliament in 1850 (p.150). As she
points out, there were no female members of Parliament

1(. —

to vote against this Act. Now, granted, the Act was
passed by males, and there was no woman to vote
against it. But this does not of itself prove that
the men passed the Act in order to ensure their
dominance. That, in fact, would be a highly esoteric
view of their intentions. In fact, the Act did not
concern the use of the pronoun ‘he’ generally. It
was passed in order to simplify the language used in
Acts of Parliament. Its title is: ‘An Act for short~
ening the Language used in Acts of Parliament’; and
it says: ‘Be it enacted, That in all Acts to be
hereafter made Words importing the Masculine Gender
shall be deemed and taken to include Females, and
the singular to include the Plural… and the Word
“Month” to mean Calendar Month … and “County” shall
be held to mean also County of a Town or City … ‘ [ID]
The intention of the man introducing the Bill was to
shorten the language used in Acts of Parliament, not
at all to ensure male dominance. The sentence about
the masculine gender occurs in a passage containing
several other proposals for the abbreviation of
language, none of which concerns the relations
between the sexes.

Spender’s way of presenting the evidence makes it
look as though men have always worn dominance on
their shirtsleeves, blatantly, for all, including
themselves, to see. But they haven’t. Though
the effect of the use of ‘he/man’ language may be to
subjugate the female sex, it is ludicrous to suppose
that every man who has ever used such language
intended to do that by his use of it. Many men may
have had every intention of not doing women down,
yet they may still have done so, precisely because
their language has an effect that is not apparent
to them.

I have mentioned some problems in Spender’s reasoning arising out of her failure to distinguish feature5
of language use to which philosophers and linguists
have drawn attention. But I want to argue more
strongly that Spender’s thesis about language is
positively damaging for women. I believe this to be
the case for four main reasons.

Spender’s thesis is damaging for women
First of all, on one interpretation of Spender, her
thesis is just too bland to be of any value to women.

Saying that all language is ‘male’ serves to divert
attention away from those areas of language which
really are sexist.

Secondly, there is the phenomenon to which I have
already alluded: the fact that her thesis leads to
incommensurability. This· is damaging for women, I
believe, for the following reason: if husband and
wife can neither understand nor communicate with one
another, then the wife cannot present criticism of
the husband’s use of language which he can come to
accept. She and he will continue, whatever she says,
to occupy their respective universes: he his, she
hers. She cannot begin to enter his, nor he hers.

Now whether or not women will agree with me that
this is damaging for them may depend on their
politics. Some feminists will draw the conclusion
that this state of affairs is not deleterious to the
feminist cause; rather, what it entails is that women
should have nothing whatsoever to do with men. Men
inhabit their patriarchal realm; women live in a
different world – and women should do their level
best to ensure that the two universes don’t overlap
in any sense. Whatever men do, they will be revealing their oppressive natures, so women should have
nothing to do with them.

Notice that Spender’s picture of language leads
to this separatist position. If men and women
inhabit different worlds as a result of their language

use, then women are unable to communicate with men.

They are consequently unable to change men, and they
might as well start building their own world, independently of the male oppressor. This is not a positive
reason for separatism: rather separatism is an effect
of a thesis about language.

I believe that one reason – my third reason – why
Spender’s picture of language is damaging for women is
that separatism – which is a consequence of Spender’s
view of language – is deleterious to women’s cause.

First of all, the separatist’s characterisation of
men as oppressors will be self-confirming, because
any behaviour on the part of a man will count as
oppressive of women.’ The separatist’s picture of
males as oppressors may even be self-contradictory,
since presumably the ascription of both of any pair
of contradictory characteristics to an individual
male will equally count as evidence of oppression.

Thus a man may be seen to be oppressive if he either
shouts at a woman or does not shout at a woman. But
that makes the view about male oppression vacuous.

Secondly, separatism leads to the view that men are
by nature oppressors – perhaps biologically or alternatively in virtue of some spiritual essence – whilst
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women are by nature what? Oppressed? Or some
alternative? Of course, no Revolutionary Feminist
woman would wish to make out that they are, by
nature, oppressed; but that looks to be the obvious
option available to her.

The separatist may accept that communication has
broken down, and suggest that only force can be
effective. But force, on its own, unless supplemented
by some account of why it may be justified in this
case, cannot succeed in changing things for the better
An IRA member may (conceivably) get a point across by
shooting a politician. But although such violence is
nasty anyway, it would be both cruel and pointless,
were there no possibility of communicating a case.

The separatist, similarly, who resorts to force after
admitting the impossibility of arguing a point of
view, acts both nastily and pointlessly.

Now, there is one option left for the separatist.

She will argue for the elimination of all males.

SCUM (The Society for Cutting up Men) proposes a
particularly radical form of surgery. Perhaps the
separatist who plumbs such depths has gone too far to
be taken seriously. Without some males the species as
a whole would probably die out (though SCUM believes
otherwise). The possibility of nuclear war presents
us with a very real threat of the Millenium. Perhaps,
historically, it is not accidental that the century
which produces the technical means to destroy humanity
should also give birth to a movement that believes in
the elimination of half of the species.

There is something in Spender which relates to my
final criticism of separatism, and which provides
further evidence (my fourth reason) of her thesis

being damaging to women. There is an ambiguity in
Spender’s use of the phrase ‘women’s meanings’. This
ambiguity is obscured by her view that there are two
worlds – that of the male as well as the women’s
world. There are those women’s meanings which are
pejorative, derogatory, because according to her (or
according to those whose research she is quoting)
they are characterised that way by males; and there
are those new, exciting, different meanings which
women begin to discover, as they talk to one another
in consciousness-raising groups and such like. In
these gatherings, according to her, women begin to
grasp that there are male and female worlds; they
begin to be critical of the dominant (male) world,
and to fashion a new one.

Referring indiscriminately to ‘women’s meanings’

when Spender has these two, quite separate, senses of
the expression in view, serves to gloss over the
differences between them. According to her, ‘women’s
language’ is seen by men as ‘flowery’ (see Lakoff),
irrational, imaginative, etc. Now one possible
response to this is to take the very same language
but to view it positively – the women themselves may
appropriate that ‘language’ and describe it in positive terms. Thus, to take an analogy, H~l~ne
Cixous [11] describes a Chinese story, which she
takes from Sun Tse’s manual of strategy – a handbook
for the warrior. The story refers to a king, who is
reputed to have asked Sun Tse to train his one hundred
and eighty wives in the art of war. Instead of learning the code, however, the wives began laughing and
chattering and paying no attention to the lesson.

To the men, here, these ladies had failed at the art
of war. According to Cixous, however, the women’s
behaviour is to be viewed positively by themselves. Cixous describes the phenomenon as a
divergence of ‘two economies’ – a mascu1 ine economy and
a feminine one. The masculine economy is governed by
order; by rules. The feminine one is quite different.

The women’s laughter and chatter is seen positively.

It is part of their non-ru1e-governed nature. But to
see their behaviour like this is simply to take women
as we assume some men have wanted them to be, and to
redescribe their behaviour. Women, therefore, will
have a ‘natural’ way of being. Krist~va’s [12] work
is an example of this same tendency. She speaks of
‘feminine’ discourses: poetry, irrationality, art,
etc., which draw on areas the patriarchal culture

It is not in women’s interest, however, simply to
remain as they have previously been characterised by
males. Their ‘natures’ are not static. Women are
not simply nurturant, passive, poetic and imaginative.

They are not irrational. They are also active and
rational creatures. Spender’s picture of language by leaving ambiguous the notion of ‘women’s meanings’

– allows for the Krist~va reading of this expression.

It allows ‘women’s language’ to be the same as it is
characterised by males, instead of being a new and
exciting creation of women themselves.

Sexism and ‘He/Man’ language
I believe, then, not only that there are problems
with Dale Spender’s thesis about language, but that
her view is positively damaging for women. However,
I don’t want to say that language never exhibits
sexism. I do believe the use of the expressions ‘he’

and ‘man’, for instance, in their purportedly genderneutral fashions, reinforces power relations between
the sexes. Let’s look at some of Spender’s examples.

She tells us that, in 1746, John Kirkby formulated
his ‘Eighty-eight grammatical Rules’. One of these,
she says, stated that the ‘male gender was more comprehensive than the female’ (p.148). As she points out,

in articulating this norm, Kirkby did not mean that
there were more males than females. What he must
have been doing was reflecting the common belief, in
society at the time, that males counted for more than
females. Of course this common belief was actually
true. It was the aristocracy and the gentry – males who occupied the positions of power in England: they
were the politicians and the doctors, and generally
the educated. Women, as Rousseau said (and, of
course, he meant upper-class women) were to be educated to be pleasing to men (L e. males). And even in
the working class, the man (the male) held power and
authority in the family (though he did not in the
work-place). So Kirkby’s reasoning did indeed serve
to reinforce a state of affairs that was already in
existence: the domination of women by men.

Kirkby’s Rule that the male gender is more comprehensive than the female makes no sense independently
of these facts about 18th-century society. In a
society where the roles of men and women were equal,
no grammarian would propose that the male gender was
‘more comprehensive’ than the female. Kirkby did not
need to justify his rule, since it was quite acceptable, because it was implicit in ‘common sense’

assumptions of the period. In fact, if allowed to
stand on its own feet, independently of the common
sense assumptions which give it some sense, there are
no grounds for accepting Kirkby’s rule. Byarticulating these assumptions, and giving them the authority
of a grammatical rule, Kirkby was surely reinforcing
them. Subsequent usage of the pronoun ‘he’ in its
supposedly gender-neutral manner has continued this

With reference to the Act of Parliament mentioned
earlier; although, as I have remarked, I disagree
with Spender as regards the intentions of those proposing the Bill, I do believe that it had the effect,
and even the function, of preserving male dominance.

Once again, if it had not been for male dominance
generally, in society, there would have been no reason
for proposing that ‘he’ should encompass ‘she’ rather
than the other way about. It did not have to be
uppermost in the minds of those introducing the Bill
that they wanted to ensure male dominance, because the
phenomenon was already well entrenched at the time.

After all, the proposal that ‘she’ should encompass
‘he’ rather than the other way about would have fulfilled equally well their aim of simplifying the
language. They would not have been keen on this
suggestion. They wouldn’t have liked it because
they would have believed that it would have led to
the subordination of males in some way. Some
evidence that this would have been their reaction is
provided by a parallel case recently – male nursery
school teachers objected when it was proposed that
‘she’ should be a generic term for them. They resented the suggestion because they believed it would
have implied a lowering of their status.

This latter example suggests that ‘he’ is not
functioning as a generally neutral term at all. ‘One’

unlike ‘man’ carries no non-neutral connotations.

‘Old’ is sometimes used in neutral fashion, as in
‘How old are you?’, but it is invariably clear from
the context that this is how it is intended. In th~
case of ‘man’ :’and ‘he’, however, the context does not
always make it clear that the term is supposed to be
being used in a neutral manner. Elaine Morgan describes the writings of evolutionists and ecologists
when they say things like the following ‘it is just
as hard for man to break the habit of thinking of
himself as central to the species as it was to think
of himself as central to the universe. He sees himself quite unconsciously as the main line of evolution with a female satellite revolving around him … ‘

(Morgan, in Spender, p.152).

The sense of the noun ‘man’ is ambiguous. It is
not clear whether or not the expression is to be
understood in a neutral manner. The ambiguity allows
for the continued subjection of the female. Evolutionists began by thinking neutrally and then,
tacitly, switched to thinking in terms only of the
male. Employers who advertise for a ‘man’ can trade
on the ambiguity (a) to dissuade women from applying
for the job; and (b) to appoint a male.

Here it is the confusion generated by the continued use of ‘he’ and ‘man’ in their purportedly
neutral senses, I believe, which justifies the claim
that continued use of this language serves to reinforce male oppression. So long as we can switch,
unconsciously, from the neutral to the non-neutral
senses, in one breath, we are silencing and
excluding women.

There are two reasons, then, why ‘he’ language
tends to reinforce unequal power relations between
the sexes. First of all, the claim that there is a
genuinely neutral sense of the term ‘he’ is, in fact,
false; rather the introduction of such language presupposes unequal relations between the sexes. Its
continual use reinforces oppression. Secondly, there
are often tacit switches from the supposed neutral to
the non-neutral sense, slides which confirm that a
greater degree of importance is often attached to the
male in the neutral use of the expression.

Use of ‘he/man’ language specifically, then, does
seem to reinforce unequal power relations between
the sexes. I would propose, however, that, rather
than this indicating that these expressions are part
of a male language reflecting a male reality, it
suggests that such discourse is ideological – it
functions to disguise the power relations between the
sexes. These relations are not presented clearly,
for all to see; rather it is because there is domination of one sex by the other that the expressions
‘man’ and ‘he’ can be used in their purportedly
neutral senses. But, as we have seen, there is
l’eall,y no such thing as a neutral use of them.

To conclude: while I strongly disagree with the
‘philosophical’ strands in Dale Spender’s book, I
believe that she presents an array of examples from
English, many of which do provide incontrovertible
evidence of sexism in language. Recognising that
‘he/man’ language – as one case of such sexism reinforces male supremacy is not at all to do away
with that primacy. But it is a step in the right

To say, as Spender does, that there are two
realities – the male and the female – is not only to
make criticism of the male ‘reality’ impossible, but
it is to weaken the feminist case. Supposing that
the phenomenon is ubiquitous makes it more difficult
to see where sexism in language really operates. [12]
Alison Assiter
D. Spender, Man Made Larzguage, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1980
G. FreRe, On Sense and Nomination, in H. Frege and W. Sellars (eds.),
Readings in PhUosophiaal Analysis, NY, 1949
3 F. de Saussure, Course in General Linguistias, McGraw Hill Book Co.

Toronto, London, 1966
See M. Dwmnet, F’1’ege: Philosophy of Language, Duckworth, London, 1973
I put the point in this picturesque fashion for effect. It is, of course,
intended to be generalisab1e beyond husbands and wives.

6 N. Chomsky, Aspeats of the Theory of Syntax, MIT, CambridRe, Mass., 1965
J. L. Austin,
See, for instance, H.P. Grice, ‘Heaning’, in Philosophiaal RevieN, 1966
For example, Keith Graham, in ‘I11ocution and Ideo1o!”y’, in Issues in Mar:cist
Philosophy, Vol. IV, Harvester, 1981, argues that intentions are sometimes
irrelevant in determining which illocutionary act has been performed. The
speaker himself, he claims, may sometimes be unaware of the true import of
his/her utterance.

10 The Papers of the House of Cormrons, 31 January – 15 August 1850, Bills,
Papers 1.

11 H. Cixous, ‘Castration or Decapitation’, Signs, Autumn 1981
12 I should like to thank Jonathan R~e, Martin Boxer and Keith Graham for
commenting on an earlier draft of this, and No~n Parker for his assiduous
commenting on several versions.


Fatherfuck or

Mike Shortland and John Favvel

The numerous reaent writings on sexist language have
prompted the fol,l,owing exahange of letters between
two members of the Col,l,eative:

Dear John,
I enclose the book on sexist language [1] I mentioned
during our last conversation. I think it ought to be
reviewed for the next RP. Would you take it on,
perhaps adding in The Handbook of Non-Sexist Writing
[2] too. Several of us believe RP should tackle the
whole issue of sexist language in a serious and
practical way – beyond simply inserting a note inside
the back cover of the journal to the effect that
‘Authors should write accessibly, and avoid sexist
and racist formulations’. (I’m not sure we ought to
have such a note anyway; for one thing ‘accessibility’

is difficult to define a priori, and for another it
is our job as editors to deal with th~s .. If sexist
or racist formulations were intrinsic to the piece
we would either not be publishing it, or we would be
publishing it precisely for its problematic position
on this. This is, of course, to consider hypothetical
In practice, we work closely with authors to make
their work clear in meaning and intention. Beyond
that, my initial reaction is to beware of any great
reformulations of language beyond those which, for
example, would alter gender-specific formulations
like ‘chairman’ to ‘chairperson!. I am conservative
in this regard not just because I hold the English
language in high respect but because the impulse
behind some of the linguistic prescriptions being
advocated strikes me as crude and poorly thought

I have only skimmed through The Handbook, but
chunks of it remind me of Orwell’s Nineteen EightyFour. The whole intention of his Newspeak was that
if one could manage to eliminate certain words from
normal currency, the emotions the words labelled
would also disappear. The point was that unexpressed
thoughts and emotions atrophy. There is something
frightening – or is it instead liberating? – in the
notion that new linguistic structures and contents
will reshape a person’s view of reality and truth.

In any case, is there anything more involved here
than a satiric thrust against polysyllabic prose,
vague pseudo-scientific concepts and ugly neologisms?

Linguistic relativism which, according to Sapir [3],
has the real world unconsciously built up on the
language habits of different groups is a powerful
theory, but how would one go about proving or disproving it? I will grant that the argument that a
language biased against one sex can inflict harm upon
members of that sex (and perhaps on members of the
opposite sex as well) makes great psychologican sense.


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