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gender and language

            The inference that language is a reflection of the thoughts and attitudes within society runs throughout language research, specifically, the existence of sexism within language has been explored extensively. The majority of work done in this area generally targets a dictionary listing of male-attributed words and a comparison in semantics with their female counterparts. For instance compare the terms "master" and "mistress," or "sir" and "madam." Both "master" and "sir" are terms of respect, while "madam" and "mistress" have acquired rather derogatory meanings. According to many feminist essayists, the English language is rooted in the glorification of masculinity, the sustenance of male dominance, and the derogation of femininity. The latter being instituted through the peroration of language used in reference to women (Schulz, 1975).
             A study conducted by Nilsen (1977) investigated 500 dictionary words that had either a masculine or feminine connotation. Nilsen found 385 masculine terms compared with only 132 feminine. For words that had a negative connotation, "feminine" connotated words outnumbered the "masculine" ones 25 to 20 (Nilsen, 1977, p. 220). Nilsen has also suggested that along with a negative image, women are described as passive within language. This conclusion was based on the proliferation of words that objectify women by referring to them as food (honey, sugar, cookie, peach), plants (clinging vine, shrinking violet, wall flower), and animals (kitten, bunny, chick).
             The purpose of the experiment in review was not only to investigate the theory stating that words applied to women are denigrated, but also to pursue the topic through a more representational approach. Although there may be more words in existence, which are negative in regard to femininity, are the qualities that we use most frequently, similarly denigrated? It was predicted that words with feminine connotations would be rated low on three semantic scales and would therefore reveal that commonly and frequently used words to describe females are perceived as bad, weak, and passive to a larger extent than "masculine" adjectives.

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