Language and Sexism

  • Giulio Lepschy
Part of the University of Reading European and International Studies book series (UREIS)


The notion of sexist language, or sexism in language, is, as far as I know, relatively recent. It appears to have been elaborated within the feminist movement in the last few decades.2 The proponents of this notion sometimes place it within a more general philosophical context consisting of assumptions derived from Nietzsche, Freud, Heidegger, Lacan, Althusser, etc., and sometimes invoke, from a more specifically linguistic viewpoint, what is known as the ‘Sapir-Whorf hypothesis’. This label refers to ideas about the relation between language and thought which belong to a tradition going back at least to Humboldt, have been discussed by one of the most acute linguists of our century, Edward Sapir, and have found a more extreme expression in the work of B. L. Whorf, an original and eccentric thinker, who was not a professional linguist (he trained as a chemical engineer, and worked for an insurance firm). Studying American Indian languages, and contrasting them with what he called Standard Average European, Whorf came to the conclusion that languages may embody different views of reality, and that, for instance, Einstein’s theory of relativity would be more easily formulated in Hopi (an American Indian language, of the Uto-Aztecan group, spoken in Arizona) than in German. The fact that the theory of relativity was actually expressed in German and not in Hopi does not make Whorf’s points less stimulating.


Language Policy Feminist Movement Grammatical Gender Past Participle Professional Title 
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© Zygmunt G. Barański and Shirley W. Vinall 1991

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  • Giulio Lepschy

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