“The Reality of Linguistic Violence against Women.”  Gender Violence: Interdisciplinary Perspectives, eds. Laura O'Toole and Jessica Schiffman (New York: New York University Press, 1997): 467-473.



The Reality of Linguistic Violence Against Women


William C. Gay



I.  The Concept of Linguistic Violence

Hannah Arendt says that "violence is nothing more than the most flagrant manifestation of power."[1]  Given this definition, one might expect that violence takes many forms.  Numerous writers have, in fact, applied violence to more than direct bodily harm.  Within philosophy, Newton Garver, for example, has developed a typology of violence that includes overt and covert forms, as well as personal and institutional forms.[2]  In Garver's terms, what I call linguistic violence would be an example of covert institutional violence -- assuming language is an institution and that its harm is more psychological than physical.

In this introductory section, I will respond to the position which denies the reality of linguistic violence and further clarify what I mean by linguistic violence.  Then, in the next section, I will focus on sexist language as a particularly pervasive and pernicious form of linguistic violence.  Finally, in my concluding section, I will rely on feminist criticisms of sexist language to sketch how efforts to supplant linguistic violence against women contribute to a broader practice of linguistic nonviolence.

Let me begin with a defense of the concept of linguistic violence.  Thomas Platt answers both of these questions in the negative in his criticisms of such a broad concept of violence.  Characterizing Garver's and others' usage of violence as polemic, Platt raises three main objections.  His initial criticism is that such writers draw from the condemnatory nature of the term "violence."  Platt claims that the "moral dubiousness" of various practices is independent of whether they are characterized as violent.  More specifically, he stresses that "as the range of things denoted by a term expands, its descriptive force contracts."[3]  Platt's objection, however, can divert us from the recognition that even a term that is polemic or condemnatory can have descriptive aspects.  For example, to call an act 'murder' is both condemnatory and descriptive in that one is also implying that someone has been killed.

Platt's second objection reduces the moral perspective of those who extend the application of violence to a minimalist ethic.   He contends that violence is neither the only nor the most common form of immoral behavior.  He goes on to state:

The contemporary tendency to extend the notion of violence assumes that it is the necessary condition for justifiably designating an action or practice as immoral.  This assumption in turn seems to arise from our marked tendency to adopt an entirely negative ... 'minimalist ethic'.  Such a morality equates immoral behaviour with harmful behaviour, thus reducing one's moral obligations to a single obligation; the duty of non-maleficence.[4]

What Platt notes can occur, but one can oppose harm and still affirm other moral principles.  One can regard harm as a sufficient condition for moral condemnation, rather than a necessary one.

Platt's third objection is that such expanded usage may increase the level of violence.  He suggests that claims that others are acting in violent ways can be used to justify counterviolence and can lead to increased social sanctions.  Such a development, he says, could "increase the amount of real violence in the world rather than to decrease it, while at the same time decreasing the amount of personal freedom in the world by extending the realm of behaviours justifiably subject to social control."[5]  In response, I would simply note that just as I can be more than an ethical minimalist, I can also choose nonviolent responses to violence -- regardless of how far I extend the term "violence."

I define violentism as the belief that use of violence ­­-- overt and covert, personal and institutional -- is and perhaps should be used to achieve goals.  Further, I contend that global culture has been and probably long will be one of violentism.  But how does language do violence?  How does language hurt or harm us?  Rejecting the theory of etymological oppression, Stephanie Ross argues that "the ancient roots of ordinary English words cannot -- by themselves -- make those words oppressive."[6]  Nevertheless, she contends "Words can hurt, and one way they do is by conveying denigrating or demeaning attitudes."[7]  To support her view, Ross utilizes Joel Feinberg's contention that hurt is a species of harm and that victims are necessarily aware of hurts.  (For example, while assault is a hurt, undetected burglary is a harm.)  Ross presents the distinction between offense and oppression as parallel to Feinberg's distinction between hurt and harm.  As she puts it, "One can be oppressed unknowingly but offense requires (logically or conceptually) the awareness and acknowledgment of its victim."[8]  So, language in general can perpetuate the harm of a system of oppression, regardless of whether individuals consciously experience the hurt of its offenses against them.  The issue is whether such linguistic violence is an unavoidable consequence of the institution of language or whether through conscious effect it can be eliminated.

While the concept of linguistic alienation can be traced back to Marx,[9] the most extensive and persuasive effort to develop this concept has been carried out by Ferruccio Rossi-Landi.[10]  Arguing that speaking is a type of work, he explores the analogies between linguistics and economics.  Since words can be marketed, language can function as capital with huge profits being reaped by the elite groups that control the means of linguistic production.  Those portions of language that are treated like private property result in linguistic alienation for the masses.

Ranjit Chatterjee has made available to the English reader Rossi-Landi's radical interpretation of Wittgenstein.  Chatterjee cleverly, though sexistly, subtitles her essay "A philosopher's meaning is his use in the culture."[11]  Chatterjee claims that for Wittgenstein "philosophy is a struggle against the fascination of language."[12]  Her conclusion is that for a Rossi-Landian Wittgensteinian:

the end of linguistic alienation, of human beings being charmed and fascinated by a fetish object, comes when language ceases to be idle, but paradoxically, language ceases being idle by going to work on itself, against itself.  Just as the philosopher-fly can only leave the trap of the fly-bottle by the forgotten route of entry, every user of language can reach the end of linguistic alienation only by a thorough understanding -- and rejection -- of the hold of the fetish object.  This is the connection with negative thought Rossi-Landi detected in Wittgenstein.  By this connection, the reason for Wittgenstein's anti-theoretical posture, his noble inability to found a school, becomes clear.  The founding of a school that would expound doctrines in the medium of words would simply represent the failure of the critique of language.  Methodological minimalism in philosophy has as its consequence maximalism in the medium of deeds.[13]

I will try to take this recommendation of methodological minimalism to heart.  As a consequence, I will do more like Wittgenstein in suggesting we look at how language is used.[14]  Specifically, I will look at the diverse ways in which linguistic violence is practiced.  In this sense, I will use Wittgenstein as a facilitator for applied philosophy.  Also, in the spirit of Rossi-Landi, I will not only describe these uses but also will criticize them.

From the perspective I have just sketched, it is more important to identify and eliminate linguistic violence than it is to develop and defend a rigorous theory of linguistic violence.  In other words, I am not going to argue for a primordial, monocausal root of linguistic violence, and I am not going to develop an extensive theory of linguistic violence.


II.  The Violence of Sexist Language

Linguistic violence occurs across a continuum that stretches from subtle forms such as children's jokes to grievous forms such as totalitarian and genocidal language.[15]  This continuum contains numerous abusive forms, such as racist, sexist, and heterosexist discourse.  David Burgest, for example,  notes how racist language serves to justify and rationalize the formation of groups for purposes of isolation.[16]  As is now widely acknowledged, sexist language, along with racist language, pervades the history of discourse.[17]  Another arena in which abusive language abounds is in the derogatory terminology used to describe gay and lesbian lifestyles.  The long-standing, and often physically violent reenforcement of the heterosexism of established discourse often makes an open discussion of sexual orientation quite difficult.[18]

My focus here is on the violence of sexist language, particularly as exposed by feminist scholars.[19]  Some of these scholars have come to see the interesting way in which patriarchal language reverses nature.  Specifically, Deborah Tannen observes that while in most languages the female form is "marked" (i.e., carries endings that mark a term as feminine), biologists have shown that genetically males are the marked gender.[20]  In fact, in species that produce individuals who work but do not reproduce, such as worker bees, the workers are sterile females, which, since they have no reason to be one sex or the other, default to female.[21]

We know this reversal has occurred, but what is its status?  Is it now an ineradicable feature of language or can sexist and other violent discourse be eliminated?  Arthur Brittan and Mary Maynard contend, "language itself does not determine the oppression."[22]  They continue, "Sexism is not defined by sexist language, it is sexism which give sexist language its potency.  The labelling ... only has consequences if ... supported by the possibility of force, violence, or other sanctions."[23]  Finally, regarding the supposed inferiority and deficiency of women's language, they note, "Women's language is inferior when compared to that of males, which is already assumed to be the important yardstick and the superior form."[24]

As Deborah Cameron puts it, "Sexist language teaches us what those who use it and disseminate it think women's place ought to be:  second-class citizens, neither seen nor heard, eternal sex-objects and personifications of evil."[25]  In this way, sexist language is violent.   Cameron proceeds to refer "to violent speaking and writing and to violent-centric language."[26]  Later, she notes, "A whole vocabulary exists denigrating the talk of women who do not conform to male ideas of femininity:  nag, bitch, strident.  More terms trivialise interaction between women:  girls' talk, gossip, chitchat, mothers' meeting."[27]

My aim in this section has not been to enumerate in detail instances of sexist language and how it does violence to women.  Likewise, I have not even suggested a typology or scale in relation to sexist language.  All I have tried to do in this section is connect some feminist analyses of sexist language with the broader concept of linguistic violence.  I do not see this endeavor as problematic.  Instead, I am primarily providing a few illustrations.  More important, given this connection, is the issue of what can be done to eliminate linguistic violence against women.  I now turn to this issue in my final section  And, again, I will rely on feminist writings to suggest how the abusive use of linguistic violence might be reduced and replaced with an emancipatory practice of linguistic nonviolence.


III.  Feminist Responses to Linguistic Violence Against Women

Feminism provides several role models for those wishing to supplant linguistic violence.  Feminism has exposed many practices of oppressive language.  This exposure has been radical in the sense of going to the roots of our linguistic usage.  After uncovering the sexist roots of many forms of linguistic violence, feminism has then attempted to supplant them.  To illustrate how such supplantation can be extended to other areas of linguistic violence, I will provide a few illustrations from feminist criticisms of sexist language.

One interesting study is David Graddol and Joan Swann's Gender Voices.  Going beyond the somewhat determinist poststructuralist view that "discourse is the 'site of struggle' and a cause of oppression," they claim "language both helps construct sexual inequality and reflects its existence in society."[28]  It is not so much that language determines thought, but that, for practical purposes, it makes some rows much easier to hoe and makes others require arduous and often unappreciated labor.

A book that I have found to be particularly helpful on the topics I have been addressing is Deborah Cameron's Feminism and Linguistic Theory.  She begins by noting how Mary Daly and Julia Kristeva have argued that since "language is part of patriarchy," we need a radical theory of language.[29]  But what sort of radical theory does feminist linguistics need?  Cameron cites, but ultimately argues against, linguistic determinism; in fact, referring to the 'dominant and muted' model of Shirley and Edwin Ardener; the 'man made language' theory of Dale Spender, and the psychoanalytic model developed in the wake of Lacan, Cameron notes, "All three approaches display some degree of linguistic determinism."[30]  Instead, she turns to Kristeva for an initial opening into the purported closure of linguistic determinism.[31]

Cameron concludes that "linguistic determinism is a myth," that "male control over meaning is an impossibility," and that "there is no reason in principle why language cannot express the experience of women to the same extent that it expresses the experience of men."[32]  She further notes:

The institutions that regulate language use in our own society, and indeed those of most societies, are deliberately oppressive to women.  ...  But the  language, the institution, the apparatus of ritual, value judgement and so on, does not belong to everyone equally.  It can be controlled by a small elite.[33]

Then, in a feminist counterpart to Rossi-Landi, Cameron asks several of the questions that need to be raised in relation to discourse:  "What  are the registers that men control, how  do they gain and keep control of those registers, and why  does male control constitute a disadvantage for women?"[34]  In answering these questions, she refuses to give language a privileged status in the construction of our 'personalities.'[35]

Cameron rejects the view that language itself precipitates disadvantage and oppression.  She observes that if language itself were the culprit, then we could provide 'compensatory' education to underprivileged children and assertiveness training to women; in other words, those with privilege need not give up anything and society need not admit that its institutions "disadvantage the poor, the black and the female just because they are poor, or black, or female."[36]

Finally, I wish to note that replacing sexist and other violent language with more neutral or positive forms of linguistic expression is part of a larger project of reducing cultural violence.  Graddol and Swann note:

When compared with larger social and ideological struggles, linguistic reform may seem quite a trivial concern.  A preoccupation with women's economic, social and physical oppression is one thing.  A concern to replace fireman with firefighter can all too easily bring on ridicule -- terms such as personhole cover  are part of the stock armoury of those opposed to this sort of linguistic intervention.  There is also the danger that effective change at this level is won when an institution adopts the word chair  rather than chairman  even though all 'chairs' remain male.[37]

In relation to this broader concern, Cameron has observed, "Silence is a symbol of oppression, while liberation is speaking out, making contact."[38]

The view of Cameron and others that we need to address alienation and oppression on more than one level parallels the distinction that Marx makes between formal and material equality.[39]  Changing language is like changing the law; it affects the form but not the substance; it may be necessary, but it is not sufficient.  Along with linguistic transformation, cultural transformation is equally important.  In other words, to expose and eliminate sexist language will not end violence against women.  Sexist language is a symptom of deeper cultural violence.  Nevertheless, when we realize the important connection between language and consciousness, we can also see how changing our language can lead to not only changed thought but also changed action.  Thus, the feminist critique of sexist language is simultaneously a contribution to the practice of linguistic nonviolence and to the quest for societies in which human emancipation, dignity, and respect is not restricted on the basis of such irrelevant factors as gender, race, or sexual orientation.


[1]     Hannah Arendt, On Violence  (New York:  Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1970), p. 35.

[2]     Newton Garver, "What Violence Is," The Nation  209 (June 24, 1968), pp. 817-822.

[3]     Thomas Platt, "The concept of violence as descriptive and polemic," International Social Science Journal  44, n2 (May 1992), p. 188.

[4]     Ibid., p. 189.

[5]     Ibid., p. 190.

[6]     Stephanie Ross, "How Words Hurt:  Attitude, Metaphor, and Oppression" in Sexist Language:  A Modern Philosophical Analysis, ed. Mary Vetterling-Braggin,  (Littlefield, Adams and Co., 1981), p. 195.

[7]     Ibid., p. 195.

[8]     Ibid., p. 197.

[9]     Cf. Richard W. Wilkie, "Karl Marx on Rhetoric," Philosophy & Rhetoric  9, n3 (1976), where he notes (on p. 237), "Language symbol alienation, that is, the estrangement of human beings from their concepts and ideas as expressed in words, appears to Marx to be the case of language symbols having lost or distorted their human referent.  People, therefore, having lost such referential meaning in their language, will have lost or lost control of their own consciousness as well, since ... language "produces" consciousness."

[10]   Ferruccio Rossi-Landi, Linguistics and Economics  (The Hague:  Mouton, 1977); Language as Work & Trade: A Semiotic Homology for Linguistics & Economics, trans. Martha Adams et al, (South Hadley, MA:  Bergin & Garvey Publishers, Inc., 1983; "On Linguistic Money," Philosophy and Social Criticism  7 (1980), pp. 346-72; "Ideas for the Study of Linguistic Alienation," Social Praxis  3 (1-2), pp. 77-92.  I have used his work in my essay, "Nuclear Discourse and Linguistic Alienation," Journal of Social Philosophy  18, n2 (Summer 1987), pp. 42-49.

[11]   Ranjit Chatterjee, "Rossi-Landi's Wittgenstein:  'A philosopher's meaning is his use in the culture,' " Semiotica  84 n3/4 (1991), pp. 275-283.

[12]   Ibid., p. 278.

[13]   Ibid., pp. 280-81.

[14]   Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. G.E.M. Anscombe,  3rd ed. (New York:  The Macmillan Company, 1958).

[15]   I elaborate on this continuum in "Lingusitic Violence," Presidential Address, Sixth Annual Conference of Concerned Philosophers For Peace, Hamline University and Macalester College (St. Paul, MN:  October 9, 1993).  This address is forthcoming in a volume from Rodopi Press being edited by Deane Curtin and Bob Litke.

[16]   David R. Burgest, "The Racist Use of the English Language," The Black Scholar  (Sept. 1973), p. 44.

[17]   Cf. Luce Irigaray, "The Language of Man," trans. Erin G. Carlston, Cultural Critique  13 (Fall 1989), pp. 191-202.

[18]   For a response within the gay and lesbian communities, see Stephen O. Murray, "The Art of Gay Insulting," Anthropological Linguistics 21, n5 (May 1979), pp. 211-223.

[19]  Cf. Jean Bethke Elshtain, "Feminist Discourse and Its Discontents:  Language, Power, and Meaning," Signs:  Journal of Women in Culture and Society  7 n3 (1982), pp. 603-621.

[20]   Deborah Tannen, "Marked for life," St. Petersburg Times  (July 18, 1993), D 1 and 5.  Here she cites the work of biologist Ralph Fasold who has shown that "while two X chromosomes make a female, two Y chromosomes make nothing.  Like the linguistic markers s, es or ess, the Y chromosome doesn't 'mean' anything unless it is attached to a root form--an X chromosome."

[21]   Ibid., D 1.

[22]   Arthur Brittan and Mary Maynard, Sexism, Racism and Oppression  (Oxford:  Basil Blackwell, 1984), pp. 19-20.

[23]   Ibid., p. 20.

[24]   Ibid., p. 164.

[25]   Deborah Cameron, Feminism and Linguistic Theory  (New York:  St. Martin's Press, 1985), p. 91.

[26]   Ibid., p. 4.

[27]   Ibid., p. 155.

[28]   David Graddol and Joan Swann, Gender Voices  (Cambridge, MA:  Basil Blackwell, 1989), p. 164.  Cf. "Sex Differences in Language, Speech, and Nonverbal Communication:  An Annotated Bibliography," compiled by Nancy Henley and Barrie Thorne, in Barrie Thorne and Nancy Henley, eds. Language and Sex:  Difference and Dominance  (Rowley, MA:  Newbury House Publishers, Inc., 1975), pp. 204-305.

[29]   Cameron, Feminism and Linguistic Theory, pp. 1 and 3.

[30]   Ibid., pp. 92-93.

[31]   Ibid., pp. 125-126.

[32]   Ibid., pp. 143-44.

[33]   Ibid., p. 145.

[34]   Ibid., p. 146.

[35]   Ibid., pp. 169-170.  In this regard, she notes the equal or even greater influence of "socio-familial relations," "the division of labour and economic organisation that regulates societies," "the physical environment," and even "individual genetic make-up."

[36]   Ibid., p. 171.

[37]   Graddol and Swann, Gender Voices, p. 195.

[38]   Cameron, Feminism and Linguistic Theory, p. 5.

[39]   Karl Marx, "On the Jewish Question," The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert C. Tucker, 2nd ed. (New York:  W.W. Norton, 1978), esp. pp. 30-36.