Gender and language are not just social constructs

About a year ago, Matthew Franklin Cooper published a very short post, Why Language and Gender Aren’t Just ‘Social Constructs’. He never addresses his claim or even attempts to, as he goes off on some tangent about Plato’s dialogues, in particular, Cratylus, where he tries to imply some sort of good enough approach to accepting language, where he sets up a straw man that language does not have to be exact to be meaningful, a point no one is really arguing.

I hate to be the one to break it to him, but language is precisely a social construct. To be blunt, what reason would there be for a person absent another to have even invented language? Language exists—among other phatic purposes—to communicate. An isolated individual has no reason to communicate with him or herself.

As such, every lexical component of language is constructed. In fact, language is arbitrary and ever-changing, even if slowly. Temporally, compare the work of Chaucer, Shakspeare, the King James Bible, and a typical English text published in the 21st century and this becomes obvious. Apologies for the ethnocentric examples.

Geospatially, compare the English ‘tree’ with the French ‘arbre’ with the Spanish ‘arbol’. These terms are invented yet socially agreed upon representations of some referent. There is no reason in particular that a different word couldn’t have been employed instead. Notice, too, that in English we still retain the Latin form of ‘tree’ in the representation of Arbor Day.

The point is that these are social constructions. As for gender—and we’ve been on this territory before—, even the etymology reveals just how arbitrary these terms are.

…a rose by any other name would smell as sweet

— William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

Historically, we had male and female designations for adult humans, but children were not gender-delineated: In Middle English children were girls. All children. The word boy was reserved for young male servants, but was generalised to all male children whilst girl was specified for female children.

Clearly, this was just a convention adopted. I am not going to write about the tortured taxonomic constraints that create this supposed dichotomy, as it falls in a category familiar to astronomers and the debate over whether or not Pluto is a planet.


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