Right now I'm looking for papers on how sexism is reflected in the English language. A lot of the literature is from the 1970's and is seen as a little out there and not empirical. Besides reading the abstract carefully, reading the actual study, and common sense, are there any general "warning signs" on what I should avoid in the literature?

Also, are there any specific studies that are well known and should be avoided or are must reads? I'm focusing on semantic change and words used in relation to women.

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    What exactly is sexism in language? Can it be scientifically defined? – Otavio Macedo Nov 19 '11 at 20:25
  • What is your particular subject of interest (within semantic change)? Do you have examples of what you want to study/know more about? – Mitch Nov 21 '11 at 2:38

Sexism is in general not reflected in language. Rather, changing standards about what is considered sexist are reflected in the metalinguistic discourse of commentators on gender issues. I do not know of any literature on this topic (metalinguistic discourse about sexism), but it seems like a very interesting one and I would be happy to learn that I was mistaken about its non-existence. For scholarship about how gender and sexuality are reflected in sociolinguistic variation, and about the study of gender and language in general, you might start with works by Penelope Eckert. I suppose it is possible that some sociolinguistic variables identifiable with subcommunities of people who are openly sexist could in principle be identified.

A simple approach might be to use the Oxford English Dictionary, which has detailed word histories.

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    "Sexism is in general no reflected in language"? Really? Actor/actress, stewardess/flight attendant, use of singular 'they' instead of he or she, 'man' instead of 'people'. There's quite a bit of sexism -in- the language, not just talk about the language. – Mitch Nov 21 '11 at 2:37
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    @Mitch: depends what you mean by "in the language". Many people have changed the way they use some of those words because of concerns about sexism, but the words have been around longer than the concept of sexism. I suppose it also depends on whether you think sexism was invented or discovered. – Colin Fine Nov 21 '11 at 12:52
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    @Mitch you are right to say that there is sexism in the language, but it does not mean that there is sexism reflected in the language. For sexism to be reflected in the language, a word which was known to be "sexist" at the time it was coined would have to fully diffuse and become part of the general language. The examples you refer to were not sexist at the time they entered the language, but they only became sexist because of changes in the society that uses the language. – user483 Nov 21 '11 at 15:46
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    @Mr.ShinyandNew安宇: If you assume that "sexist" is not culturally relative, but definable in the absolute, my analysis will not be able to stand. The relativist position predicts that it is not possible for us to know, being embedded in a specific culture and time, what will be considered sexist in the future. According to the absolutist position, however, it should be possible to identify objectively what is and has always been sexist. Bear in mind that nearly all scholarship in feminism takes relativist philosophy seriously. – user483 Nov 21 '11 at 19:24
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    @Mitch: Sexism is the belief that one sex is superior or discrimination against one sex. I cannot see how having some gender-marked job names could be seen as sexist. – JPP Nov 22 '11 at 10:02

This topic usually gets covered in a few "womens studies" courses.

A couple of books I'd point you at include Women Fire and Dangerous Things and The Handbook of Nonsexist Writing. Suzette Haden Elgin wrote a number of books with "gentle art of verbal self defense" in the title that also analyzed differences in male and female speaking patterns, although hers were aimed more at how to avoid verbal abuse.

Much of what get called "sexism" in language reflects relics of old and middle English. Or changing words. In Shakespeare's day, the word girl meant "teenager" and referred to both males and females alike.

One gripe is that "man" is used to reflect the generic human (some folks use "they" to refer to the singular generic human). In olden times, that was correct: man meant "adult human". wifman meant "adult female human" and werman meant "adult male human". The "wer" prefix has since been eliminated from English except for one word: "werewolf", and "wifman" changed phonetically and is now spelled "woman".

For the actor/actress issue. Again, back in "olden times", the endings er (and sometimes ster) represented "male who does $verb", likewise the ending ress (and sometimes stress) represented "female who does $verb" (much like Spanish with the dor suffix for verbs, such as matar + ~dor becomes matador). Likewise the pattern of "person who does $noun" would be the noun + man, example "taxman") That's an artifact left over from when English was a gendered language like German or French. The genders in languages don't really map to what is dangling between one's legs, which is why nouns get classified as different genders in different languages (such as moon being masculine in German and feminine in French). Those artifacts, combined with gender stereotypes is why we keep words such as "seamstress" while the contra "seamster" is forgotten. And for a particularly bizarre combination of all of these, one old (and obsolete) Spanish verb meaning "to pack tightly" is "estevar", so someone who packs (ships) tightly was an "estevador". The word was borrowed in English for the port occupation of "stevedore", and that word itself was rendered obsolete by containerization in the shipping industry and the replacement word is "longshoreman".

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    Was there ever a word like "wifewolf" for a female werewolf? – dan04 Sep 9 '12 at 1:19

Douglas Hofstadter's A Person Paper on Purity in Language is not exactly a "study", but I consider it a must-read. It is a satire on racism and sexism in language. I'll let Hofstadter himself summarize it for you.

Perhaps this piece shocks you. It is meant to. The entire point of it is to use something that we find shocking as leverage to illustrate the fact that something that we usually close our eyes to is also very shocking. The most effective way I know to do so is to develop an extended analogy with something known as shocking and reprehensible. Racism is that thing, in this case. I am happy with this piece, despite-but also because of-its shock value. I think it makes its point better than any factual article could. As a friend of mine said, "It makes you so uncomfortable that you can't ignore it." I admit that rereading it makes even me, the author, uncomfortable!

Speaking for myself, the piece did not make me uncomfortable in any way... I just found it very very amusing.

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    What is the gist of that paper? Can you put it in your answer? – Mitch Nov 24 '11 at 14:39
  • @Mitch: done !! – prash Nov 25 '11 at 13:21
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    Can you summarize the content rather than...well...that summary just touches on the shock one might feel on reading, but doesn't have any summary of the -content-. – Mitch Nov 25 '11 at 14:08
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    @Mitch, the author swaps "white" and "man" in order to mock racism and sexism in language: clergyman becomes clergywhite, and Snow Person is associated with the 7 dwarves. – Tangurena Nov 25 '11 at 19:36

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