Is english
Language sexist?




Dedicated to the memory of Pavel Tichý


It is presently taken for granted by many western academics that there is sexist bias inherent in language. This claim is presented in various forms. The most common claim is put forward by the feminists in academia. The author of this article was often attacked by her students and fellow staff members for using what they called a sexist language, eg. saying man when she meant mankind or saying he when referring to individual members of mankind instead of using fashionable she or neutral he/she. But apart of these minor claims pointing towards present usage few feminists bother to defend the more general claim that sexism permeated the whole structure of language. It is this claim I am interested in. For the claim that there is a sexist bias inherent in language implies much more then mere capability for language to be misused by sexist chauvinist pigs. It implies that the sexist bias is embedded in the very structure of language. It implies that whatever was the mechanism by which language came to being that mechanism was flawed from the start and generated a bias against women. This is rather a disturbing thought. Language is a perfect tool for communication, a tool which is much older that any of our institutions, a tool which was not designed or created by any particular man, woman or group of people, but rather was a perfect example of the work of an invisible hand in society . It came to being spontaneously over the millennia of human history, serving all different needs of all kinds of societies. To imply that language by its very structure contains a prejudice against women implies that women were a priori by that invisible hand relegated to the second best status. This is almost equivalent to saying that the secondary place for women was embedded in the nature of society itself. It is true that language can be used to express a variety of opinions, sexists, racists, religious, fascist, Marxist, antidemocratic. Yet from the fact that Marx used the German language to express his ideas I would not jump to a conclusion that by its nature the German language is prejudiced against the bourgeoisie.

To substantiate the claim that language is sexist means to reveal something in its very structure which warrants this claim. This is the subject of the paper written by the Hintikkas.1 The Hintikkas seem to believe that the language is by its very nature prejudiced against the beautiful sex. They started their article by acknowledging that despite the fact that nobody denies that language is frequently used in a sexist way, people have a problem with paying much attention to this fact. There is a prejudice against feminist philosophy in general. Some philosophers claim that it is not a serious theoretical enterprise and that the research in it does not yield philosophically significant and sufficiently interesting results. This is true

in particular as far as research into the sexist use of language is concerned. The

next page


DISCUSSION*Jindra Tichý, Is english Language sexist ?



sexist uses of language which first come to most people's minds are likely to instantiate relatively uninteresting aspects of language. Examples are offered by sexism expressed through purely emotive meaning and by those sexist uses of language which directly reflect sexist customs and institutions, for instance the different ways of addressing a person in Japanese. There is no problem as to how such sexism is possible in language; nor is there any interesting intellectual problem as a how such sexist usages can be diagnosed and cured. Once we have our emotions in line and our institutions and customs freed from sexism, no residual problem remains. Or so it seems.2

But the Hintikkas are convinced that there are serious theoretical problems connected with sexism in language. What is needed is the diagnosis of these problems by theoretical semantics. Even though there is in some cases clear and uninteresting as to how sexist language is possible, in others the very mechanism through which it comes about presents an interesting problem.

The Hintikkas claim that in virtually every logical approach to semantics a set of representative relations between language and the world it deals with is taken for granted. It is these relations which need to be paid more attention and which presumably would reveal the sexist bias inherent in the language.

For the purposes of their analysis they distinguish between structural and referential systems. They

define it as follows: the structural system is the subsystem (a subset of the totality of rules governing language) studied in present day formal semantics. The referential system is more fundamental than the structural system. The referential system often relies on some evaluation principle outside of the language. It is the referential system which determines how a certain word can be correctly used. They are using the example of the predicate "good". When is the case that the predicate good is correctly applied is given in the referential system- which determines which extension (reference) it has.

Since such extension of our primitive terms are what is assumed to be given prior to the usual (structural) analysis of the semantics of natural language, which is the currently favoured type of semantical analysis of any notion, a single evaluation principle would be needed in order for this word to be capable of being handled in the usual approach. However, it is part and parcel of how the referential system operates that in the case of this word no unique scale or principle is forthcoming.3

The use of word "good" thus depends on tacit evaluations or interests of the speaker and may slightly vary from one language to another. The Hintikkas are using the examples of German and Swedish to show that a good man means something different in these languages than in English because neither German nor Swedish display the ambiguity about the word man which English does. In English man can mean both a male and a human being, whereas both in Swedish and in German

previous page

next page


DISCUSSION*Jindra Tichý, Is english Language sexist ?



there are two different words for the two concepts. Since I do not know much about Swedish I modify their example and use Czech instead. The same is true about the Czech language which distinguishes between muž (a male) and člověk (a human being). Now obviously although both in Czech and in English it makes perfectly good sense to say : This woman is a good human being (Tato žena je hodny´ člověk) you cannot say in English : This woman is a good man. This is a sign for the Hintikkas of the deeply embedded sexism. You cannot say it in Czech either : Tato žena je hodny´ muž, does not make sense and it is badly constructed grammatically. But I disagree that this is a sign of deeply embedded sexism. This is simply the result of the fact that male and female is defined in language as two opposites. It is not sexist but it is illogical to attribute maleness to females and vice versa as it is illogical to attribute roundness to the squares and squareness to the circles.

The Hintikkas also raise the question of possible worlds and cross identification. They accept David Lewis's theory that cross-identification takes place according to similarity. Those individuals in different possible worlds are identical which are most closely similar to each other.4 Lewis does not give us any clues as to how to establish the similarity. The Hintikkas think that to match different possible worlds depends very much on the way how we build the assimilation comparisons.

Individuals corresponding to each other in the

closest match we can achieve would be Lewisian counterparts. Such possible
  cross-world comparisons obviously depend much more on the relational and functional characteristics of the denizens of the different scenarios ('possible worlds') we are envisaging than on the essential properties of the entities involved in the comparison. For instance, these non-essentialist modes of cross-identification may depend on the continuity properties of the entities in question, which are of course relational rather than essential properties.

What is striking here is that certain psychological studies suggest that there may be sex-linked differences (whether innate or culturally conditioned does not matter for our purpose) in the very matter of such assimilation comparisons.5

Turns out that some studies suggest that boys tend to bracket together objects whose intrinsic characteristics are similar, eg. a truck, a car and an ambulance, whereas girls compare entities according to their functional and relational characteristics. So they would bracket together a doctor, a hospital bed, and an ambulance. Each of those two methods would lead to different kind of cross-identification and thus to a different kind of ontology.

So the Hintikkas conclude that since it is very likely that there are sex-linked differences in our process of cross-identification those differences might have their consequences in the more refined areas of speculative thought.

previous page

next page


DISCUSSION*Jindra Tichý, Is english Language sexist ?



Indeed, cross-identification methods are in an obvious sense constitutive of our ontology. Hence, what we are suggesting is that language could perhaps be, if not sexist, then at least sexually biased and sensitive to sex differences in the very respects that are most closely related to the structure of our ontology.6

The Hintikkas see a definite bias in the Western philosophical thought in the fact that it has been overemphasising such ontological models which postulate a given fixed supply of discrete individuals, individuated by their intrinsic or essential (non relational) properties. These models are apparently unfavourably disposed towards cross-identification by means of functional or other relational considerations. So their argument proceeds from an assumed and not proven assumption that men, in particular philosophers, construct their ontologies from individuals individuated by their non relational properties to the conclusion that there is a bias in natural language against women. I think that even if Western philosophical thought is guilty as charged it proves something about fancy universes of discourse and artificial languages7 philosophers love to construct but it does not prove anything much about the natural language itself. If it was true that women and men construct their ontologies systematically in a different way the result would be that they would hardly use the language in the same way. They simply would not understand each other. There is no evidence of that in the western world. I also

doubt the thesis concerning the artificial languages. If there was a problem about cross-identification surely it would be difficult for women logicians to master Lewis's or Kripke's theories. So I think that the evidence of sexism in semantics is ambiguous to say the least. Perhaps more promising line of inquiry would be provided by analyzing syntax. There some languages display indisputably a sexist bias. In particular the grammar of the Slavic languages discriminates against females. Gender plays a big part in the grammar of Czech. Czech nouns have no article before them but nevertheless each noun is assigned a gender. They are masculine, neuter or feminine. Nearly all words denoting human adults are masculine or feminine. Words denoting children and the young of animals are neuter. All three genders are found with the names of animals, plants and things. The numerals, pronouns and adjectives have three forms according to the gender of the noun it accompanies. The verbs in past tense also have three forms according to the gender of the noun. The sexist bias becomes obvious when the subject of the sentence consists of nouns of different genders. Then there is a strict hierarchy of genders dominated by the masculine one. Thus if we speak about both men and women than the verb must be in the masculine form. If we speak about women and children than the verb must be in the feminine form etc.

None of this is true about English. Whereas in Czech we can recognise the gender of the things or persons spoken


previous page

next page


DISCUSSION*Jindra Tichý, Is english Language sexist ?



about just by observing the grammatical structure of the sentence, English is in this respect quite opaque. Sentence Ae: Jan went for a walk, does not reveal anything about the gender of Jan (I am presuming that Jan can be both a name of a male or a female). Whereas in the Czech equivalent Ac: Jan šla na procházku, the form of the verb reveals that Jan is a female. The grammar of English does not discriminate against any gender. Thus in a sentence Be: John, Mary, Helen and Sara went for a walk, the English grammar does not signal that in some sense John is more important person than Mary, Helen or Sara. Whereas the Czech translation of the sentence clearly indicates that John is more important than the three girls. Thus in Bc: John, Mary, Helen a Sara šli na procházku, the verb is in the masculine form despite the fact that John is outnumbered three to one by the ladies. Had he been the last male left on the earth and took all the surviving three billion of women for a walk the Czech verb would still have to be in the masculine form in the sentence describing this remarkable achievement. Compare the sentence Ce: All women of the world went for a walk (in Czech Cc: Všechny ženy světa šly na procházku) with the sentence De: John and all the women of the world went for a walk (in Czech Dc: John a všechny ženy sv?ta šli na procházku). Whereas in English the verb in the sentence De is in the same form as in Ce, the verb in Dc underwent transformation from its form in Cc. It is now in the masculine form since there is one masculine noun in the subject of the sentence Dc. In fact Czech is really insulting to the women because even the animals of the male gender are put above the females of the human species. Thus the sentence Fe: Mary, Helen and their dogs went for a walk, translates into Fc: Mary, Helen a jejich psi šli na procházku, where the verb is again in its masculine form since the dogs are in Czech of masculine gender. The sexist bias is spread throughout the Czech language; thus its grammar cannot be unravelled without taking gender into consideration. But this is not true about the English language. English is remarkably free from a sexist bias displayed by Czech.

Nothing proves better my point than the language analysis used by Pavel Tichý in his unpublished manuscript: The Logic of English-An Introduction to Meaning-Driven Grammar.8

Pavel Tichý developed in his logic the concept of construction. In his unpublished last work, he applied this concept to the analysis of English language. The result is the theory of meaning-driven grammar. According to this theory a natural language is a code and the task of a person who wants to decode it, usually the task of grammarian is to determine how meanings are decoded in the language in question.

The notion of a code presupposes that prior to, and independently of, the code itself there is a range of items to be encoded in it. Hence if the grammarian is to be seen as someone attempting to crack the code of a language, meanings cannot be conceived of as products of the language itself. They must be seen as logical rather than linguistic

previous page

next page


DISCUSSION*Jindra Tichý, Is english Language sexist ?



structures, amenable to investigation quite apart from their verbal embodiments in any particular language. To investigate logical constructions in this way is the task of logic. The linguist's brief is to investigate how logical constructions are encoded in various vernaculars.9

I shall outline the main ideas of P.Tichý's approach.

(i) The grammar of a natural language must take the form of an inductive definition, since there are infinitely many meaningful expressions in English and mathematical induction is the only way how to handle infinite sets.

(ii) Grammar must generate pairs consisting of a meaning and a form of words expressing that meaning. Before we can decide whether such a pair was well formed we have to take into a consideration several things:

a) the grammatical category

b) the agreement characteristics like number, gender, and case

c) whether they are absolute or relative

d) their positive or negative polarity

e) their anaphoric and coordination status.

Only if all these characteristics are taken into a consideration we can determine whether a compound was correctly formed and interpreted.

(iii) The basic unit of the generative process is meaning/expression pair supplemented with indicators indicating the value of these grammatical features. Tichý

calls such indexed meaning/ expression pairs semantic pairs, briefly s-pairs. Here is an example of an s-pair.
1.   x





1.   G a s p z

 (iv) Here C is a meaning, ie. a complex which constructs an object from other objects in terms of functional application and functional abstraction. C is a string of letters which expresses that meaning in English. x is the logical type of the object constructed by C. G is the grammatical category of the string, a an agreement index indicating gender, number, person, case etc., s is a status index showing whether the string is absolute or relative, and p and z are a polarity index and anaphoric index respectively.10

The important difference between English and Czech is that in English we do not have to take into consideration the gender at all. It does not occur as a significant factor in any s-pair. Thus the gender does not play any role in s-pairs generated by Ae, Be, Ce, De, Fe . In Czech the agreement index indicating gender in Cc would significantly differ from the agreement index indicating gender in Dc and Fc. This seems to me to indicate that English does not display the sexist bias inherent in some other European languages.

previous page

next page


DISCUSSION*Jindra Tichý, Is english Language sexist ?




1. Merrill B. Hintikka and Jaakko Hintikka: How Can Language Be Sexist? in Discovering Reality, Sandra Harding and Merrill B. Hintikka ed., D.Reidel, Dordrecht 1983, p.139

2. Ibidem, p.139

3. Ibidem, p.141-2

4. David Lewis: Counterpart theory and quantified modal logic, Journal of Philosophy 65 (1968), pp.113-126

5. Merrill B. Hintikka and Jaakko Hintikka, op.cit. p.145

6. Ibidem, p.146

7. Pavel Tichý calls them toy languages.

Modern logic is best described as linguistics without tears. Our declared interest is language. But we have found that the language we actually speak is too complicated and that life is too short. So instead of studying real languages we investigate toy languages invented by ourselves for our own convenience. It is a bit

as if zoologists dismayed by the complexity of real ducks and bears, decided to study plastic ducks and stuffed teddy bears instead. Or perhaps as if an engineer, daunted by the complexities involved in building real bridges spent his time playing with Lego pieces.

We flatter ourselves that somehow or other our findings concerning the toy languages will be relevant to understanding how a real language works. But the nature of this relevance has never been made clear.

Pavel Tichý: Cracking the Natural Language Code, p.1(7); a paper delivered at Symposium in Villa Lana, Prague, September 1994.; in: From the Logical Point of View 2/94, pp.7-19

8. In fact were Tichý's works of reference (see supra et infra) published in the last issue of our journal (note of editors).

9. Pavel Tichý: The Logic of English - An introduction to Meaning-Driven Grammar, p.2(43); in: From the Logical Point of View 2/94, as 'The Analysis of Natural Language', pp.42-80

10. Pavel Tichý: Cracking the Natural Language Code, p.6(12)

previous page