English Language Day 2018 — Women and the English Language

Our annual theme this year, inspired by the British centenary of votes for women, will address a range of issues connected with the portrayal and representation of women in the English language. We shall also look at the influence of gender within the language itself, considering such grammatical constructs as: agent nouns, grammatical gender in Old English, today's neutral gender, and Genderlect. Finally we shall examine sexually charged language, and women writers from Julian of Norwich to J K Rowling (or should that be Robert Galbraith?). We shall organise events and publish a series of monthly short essays which aim to raise ideas, ask questions and seek the involvement of others.

On 6 February 1918, the British granted votes for the first time to women. It was a limited suffrage, but it was a signal moment. Women had demanded, and been given, a public voice. In 2018, the Centennial year of that event, the English Project will post pieces reflecting on women and the English language.

We invite you to offer us your pieces for posting. We shall post the following (click the links to read the essays which are already available):

February: The Public Voice of Women.We start with Emmeline Pankhurst’s 1913 speech to the people of Connecticut and Nancy Astor’s 1920 Speech to the House of Commons. Pankhurst and Astor give context to the United Kingdom’s 1918 Representation of the People Act.

March: The Language of Patriarchy and the Press. When women are written about in newspapers and represented in works of fiction are they still treated differently from men? Research into children’s fiction and the popular Press has shown some disturbing stereotypes – but have things moved on?

April: English Agent Nouns. Most agent nouns in the English language presume the agent is a man. Bride/bridegroom and widow/widower are rare and significant exceptions.

May: English First Names and Family Names. Many first names reflect virtues wished upon the baby: be strong, be beautiful, be rose-like, be handsome. Two sets of virtues? Two kinds of babies? Naming can be powerful. First names tell stores and so do last names.

June: The ‘Mother’ Tongue. The English language has a male tilt, but we call it our mother tongue not our father tongue. Why is that? Babies babble. We respond in what linguists used to call Motherese. What was that? Should it be called Parentese or even caretaker speech today?

July: Grammatical Gender. Old English had something called grammatical gender. The moon (mona) was masculine, gift (giefu) was feminine, and woman (wif) was neuter. What was going on?

August: Logical Gender. Middle English replaced grammatical gender with logical gender. Why did English abandon an ancient practice, widespread in the world’s languages? German and French haven’t abandon grammatical gender. Why not?

September: Neutral Gender. Modern English is attempting to move beyond both grammatical and logical gender. A stumbling block is our pronouns. ‘I’, ‘you’ and ‘they’ are gender neutral, but the third person singular is gendered: ‘he’, ‘she’ and ‘it’ (traditionally in that order) along with ‘his’, ‘hers’ and ‘its’. Where to go: ‘ze’, ‘zir, ‘hir, ‘xe’, ‘xem’, ‘xyrs’?

October:  Developing ideas of Genderlect. The twentieth-century language debate began in terms of women’s speech being in ‘deficit’, shifted into the view it was ‘different’ then became talked about as one of many ‘diverse’ styles; in the Twenty-First Century, how do we describe the speech of a range of genders?

November: The Naming of Parts - Sexually Charged Language. The English language has three ways of naming our body parts: clinically, euphemistically, grossly. We enter a linguistic minefield.

December: The Woman's Page. Was Julian of Norwich the first woman to write in English? What happened to Judith Shakespeare? Why did George Eliot call herself George? Why does Joanne Rowling call herself J. K. Rowling and Robert Galbraith?

Bibliography: Combined bibliography for all the above articles.


The Trustees of the English Project 2018