The feminist movement in the 1970s has paved the way for reform of the use of sexist language. Traditionally, the word ‘he’ or ‘man’ as in ‘mankind’ has been used to describe both sexes. Pauwels (2001) conducted a study on the use of gender pronouns in Australian public speech and found that the masculine generic pronoun ‘he’ was used extensively and almost exclusively (approximately 95%) in the pre-reform era (1960s and 1970s). The language used portrayed a very androcentric world.
Feminist argued that women’s rights and equality were at stake when their identity fell under the blanket of a male symbol (Spenders, 1980 as cited in Holmes & Meyerhoff, 2003). As men were traditionally in organisational roles, they were prominent in language planning and policy making (Pauwels, 2001). In the pre-reform era, the generic ‘he’ and ‘man’ still evoked a mental imaginary of the male sex and masculinity (Pauwels, 2001). A few studies have showed that sex bias in language elicits sex bias in attitudes and thoughts (Pauwels 1998).Through time, women have continued to challenge the boundaries of their role in society, breaking beyond the identity of a homemaker.
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Hence feminist commentators called for a need for language reform and gender-neutral pronouns. The generic ‘she’ was introduced in addition to alternating masculine and feminine pronouns throughout text but was not widely accepted (Pauwels, 2001). The pronoun he/she was also introduced but received critique that the use of it was awkward and ineloquent especially when used in speech.
Consequently, it is not versatile enough to be used extensively.Another suggestion of reform is to use the word ‘they’ as a singular pronoun. Proponents of it said that this would be effective as it is already widely used and thus compliance would be higher as compared to using a newly coined word. Conversely, critics underlined the importance of being grammatically correct and the acceptance of ‘they’ as a singular pronoun will steer English language users away from grammatical accuracy (Pauwels, 2001). Another area which concerns many feminist is the gender marking in nouns describing occupation or human classes.
In strides with the language reform, occupational nomenclature has been re-examined. Gender neutral words for occupational nouns are preferred as compared to –man compounds. For example, the neutral version of chairman is chairperson, chair or head. Spokesperson is preferred in contrast to spokesman. Although many nouns in the English language do not refer to any specific gender, high status occupations such as surgeon or lawyer are commonly associated with the generic pronoun he (Holmes & Meyerhoff, 2003). The title Ms which was introduced in the 1970s was intended to replace Mrs or Miss (Ehrlich & King, 1992).The aim was to create an equivalent of the title Mr. whereby no marital status needed to be divulged.
However, the implementation and the intended use were deemed idealistic by many due to the misuse that ensued (Ehrlich & King, 1992). Gender issue in Malaysia “Still far from equal” was the headline of the Malaysian local newspaper in 2011 highlighting the status of women in Malaysia (Azizan, 2011). In 1982, there were only 72,500 female employed graduates as compared to 155,600 male employed graduates (Department of Statistics Malaysia, 2011, p. 0). Although in 2010, the number of female employed graduates (965,100) was almost on par with male employed graduates (1065,500) (Department of Statistics, Malaysia 2011, pg 10), the wage gap is still significant and women may be paid up to 50% less in the private sector (Ahmad, 1998, pg 38). Feminism is still at its grassroots in Malaysia but more and more women are gaining awareness of the need for equality and championing for it. There has been little research done on the topic of gender language in Malaysia.
This study aims to look into the use of Ms as a title for women and the use of variant forms for certain human class nouns and occupational nouns. Based on prior research, there have been a few studies which concluded that women use more gender neutral forms of words (Lee, 2007). Thus, my hypothesis is women in Malaysia use more gender neutral pronouns/occupational nouns and prefer using the title Ms. Method The data for this study was obtained through a survey (Appendix 1) which was circulated through email to a range of participants known to me. A request for it to be circulated to their contacts was also made.
The participants were of Malaysian nationality who were more than 18 years of age and participated on a voluntary basis. A total of 30 replies were received but two were removed due to data issues, leaving 28 participants. Fifteen (54%) of them were women and 13 (46%) of them were men. The survey required them to answer five questions. The questions in the survey were designed to obtain a view of how language use varies between men and women, in particular the use of Ms, marital name change, gender pronouns and politeness of different address terms in reference to both genders.However, for the purposes of this study, analysis would be focussed on two of the questions, the use of Ms and gender pronouns.
The results from the other questions provide data for future research. Miss, Mrs or Ms The participants were required to choose which term they would use (Miss, Mrs or Ms) when addressing a female of different age categories without knowing her marital status. The different categories were child, teenage girl, woman 18-45 and woman 45+.
Fill in the sentenceThe participants were required to fill in a sentence with one word to complete the meaning of the sentence. The participants were required to use their preferred gender pronouns associated with different occupational nouns and agent nouns. Occupational nouns denote different trades or occupations whereas agent nouns classify groups of people (Pauwels 2001). An example of a sentence is The student will collect _____ assignment by 5pm. A participant could typically fill in the blank with his, her, his/her or singular their. Results and DiscussionThe results obtained from the question regarding the use of Miss, Mrs or Ms to address a female without knowing her marital status is provided in Table 1. Graph 1 also provides a view of Ms usage percentage across the participants. All participants, both women and men used Miss to address a female child.
Only 2 women and 1 man would use Ms to address a teenage girl. Almost half (40%) of the female participants would use Ms to address a woman between the ages of 18 to 45 whereas only 23% of the male participants would use Ms to address the women in that age bracket.The difference may be due to a woman’s awareness of this issue being ‘experiential’ (Pauwels & Winter, 2003). A woman is more likely to come across linguistic discrimination in her past or current situation.
Conversely, a man’s awareness of this issue would come second-hand from a woman in his life or being taught in work, university or school (Pauwels & Winter, 2003). The response for using the title Ms for a woman above the age of 45 is even stronger amongst female participants. It accounts for 67% while men only 46%. The other proportion of men would use the title Mrs instead.This could be due to the cultural pressure in Malaysia for women to get married by a certain age. It is thought that a ‘good’ woman should be married by a certain age and would most likely be married by the age of 45.
The population census in Malaysia (2010) showed that there were more unmarried men than unmarried women (The Star, 2012). On the contrary, citing ‘experiential’ reasons for awareness, women may think that age does not correlate to marital status and hence would prefer to use Ms so as not to offend. On average, women would use Ms more than men.