So you think language and gender is a new topic? Historical fiction reminds us it is otherwise.

Dictionaries across the ages

How does gender impact on language or language on gender? Is it just to do with the gender of nouns? English learners of other languages have been known to remark in amazement that nouns have genders… well actually English does, too – it has masculine, feminine, and neuter genders as well as metaphorical genders. For those of us for whom English is our first language we may know and certainly use them implicitly, yet may well be unaware of their existence explicitly; but let’s not disappear down that particular rabbit hole. For some time public discourse has focused on gender neutral pronouns, and the range of responses this topic has provoked speaks not to the controversial nature of the topic, but rather to the importance of language and the way it shapes our communications, our perspectives and the way we lead our lives. Debates about any particular aspect of language development and usage, however, can tend to obscure the fact that language is alive and constantly developing. When it comes to language and gender, this topic may have taken on a new direction but the impact of language on gender and vice-versa is far from new, as Pip Williams’ The Dictionary of Lost Words, (Vintage Publishing), a work of historical fiction I came across a few weeks ago not only reminds us, but articulates so well.

The Dictionary of Lost Words is set around the historical events of the Oxford English Dictionary’s compilation and the absence of the word ‘bondmaid’ from the first edition. For a review of Williams’ novel, one of Australia’s bestselling books of 2020, I suggest the following: https://lithub.com/a-secret-feminist-history-of-the-oxford-english-dictionary/ . The story is narrated from the perspective of the character Esme, whom the reader accompanies on her journey from innocent childhood to the realities of adulthood deftly illustrating the way language impacts on her life both overtly through the world of lexicography and covertly through the way language shapes the lives that we lead, our communications and our perceptions.

Key throughout the novel is the theme of exclusion – from the words excluded from the dictionary, from official language, through to the way in which women were largely excluded not just in terms of workplace parity and equality of political participation (the suffragist movement is another key theme throughout the novel) but through the very language of their birth. The approaches used to determine which words were included in the dictionary and which excluded were fascinating to me as a researcher and academic – for their logic and rigorous cross-referencing – but also for the way in which the approach was fundamentally flawed. It only included words with written referents, spoken language, regional and local vernacular were not included – deemed neither measurable, nor, no doubt worthy. The words that were included were largely the words of men – and yet, as Williams’ novel makes clear, the words of men, the written word, were in many ways insufficient in capturing the wealth, complexity and variety of the English language at that time but what they did reflect was the gendered, class-ridden division of UK society. Some might say there’s been little change in the intervening decades. That might be a bit of a generalization, I admit, but the influence of language – of language gain and language loss – covert and overt – remains pertinent.

As I read The Dictionary of Lost Words I reflected on my own language usage – not just English but German, and occasionally French, too. I’ve always seen language learning as a benefit – the more I know, the better, not only in terms of the words I can use, the communication I can have but also the more I can enjoy – from company to culture. At work all official communications are bilingual – English/Welsh. I can’t yet speak Welsh but I enjoy the chance of picking up words here and there as I read. Yet, my attitude to languages is far from the mainstream. The lazy excuse that seemingly allows Brits just not to bother with language learning because ‘as a nation we’re bad at languages’, is a myth. Cognitively speaking we’re no less capable than people born in any other country. However, societally we aren’t geared up to promote language learning and therefore it is only those that persevere, who are in a position to invest time, effort and resources, that gain. For everyone else, they are, quite literally, lost of for words. In this respect, the narrowness in attitudes towards languages has changed little since the time in which the novel was set.

Interestingly, and although I’ve flagged the general malaise towards language learning in Britain, strange attitudes to languages are not limited to these shores. There are, for example, curious attitudes towards bilingualism that traverse borders. Recently, I was reading an article on language integration and speed (of language acquisition) policies, using Austria as a case study. One of the things that jumped out at me was the prevailing notion – that the author rightly criticized – of bilingualism being perceived as a deficit. Logically, how can being able to do more of something be a deficit? Let us think of this from a lexical point of view for a moment. Consulting my battered old 1996 copy of the Oxford Compact English dictionary, I can see that a deficit is described primarily in reference to economics as 1. ‘the amount by which a thing (esp. a sum of money) is too small’; 2. an excess of liabilities over assets [from Latin, literally ‘it is wanting’]. If we turn to the Merriam-Webster dictionary the definition is expanded and includes ‘deficiency in amount or quality’ and ‘a lack or impairment in an ability or functional capacity’ (see full range of definitions here: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/deficit ). By none of these definitions could bilingualism be seen as a deficit. That perception is entirely socio-political.

That case study made me also think back to my days as a gig-economy girl for a teaching agency. In between finishing my PhD and gaining my first academic post I worked as a cover supervisor, being sent into various schools in my region on an ad hoc basis. At the last school I was placed in, I was given the task of tutoring two Polish girls in English language. They were a delight to teach – engaged, willing to learn, always smiling. As I spotted them around the school though, it was obvious that they were excluded by their peers, particularly the younger of the two, because of their language and their abilities to communicate; I’ve no doubt that some perceived them as less intelligent because of their limited communications in English. Yet this was entirely wrong – morally, educationally, cognitively. The loss wasn’t the two Polish sisters’ but the rest of the school. The girls’ perceived value was measured, by their peers at least, by their ability to communicate in another language to that of their birth. Yet standards of fluency are no measure here of either cognitive ability or – more pertinently – of a person’s value. The measurement of inclusivity, of value, of worthiness of inclusion is entirely skewed. The loss was entirely on the side of the girls’ peers, and indicative of broader societal attitudes towards language and language learning which we could describe as the delusion of monoglottal superiority. The two Polish girls gained more – language ability, experience, but also cognitive function; studies have shown the cognitive benefits of learning other languages: https://www.thebritishacademy.ac.uk/blog/cognitive-benefits-learning-language-two-minutes/. Yet in many ways that idea of measuring success, ability, value in relation to fluency also mirrors the narrowness of the methodology behind the dictionary’s composition, as portrayed in Williams’ novel. When it comes to language and our understanding of its value what we include is indicative not of the wealth of language but, as The Dictionary of Lost Words deftly illustrates, of loss, of deficit, of narrowness, an indicator of the limits of our language and of our society.

As I read the novel, and thought more about language, inclusion, exclusion and the role of gender in this process, I was again transported back to the classroom – the virtual one this time, thinking about the second year lecture series I delivered, and the topic of gender and translation. Specifically, I thought about my students’ dawning revelation of the broader, overarching ways in which gender affects language and thus translation. Asking them in what ways they thought language and gender intersected, they focused initially on genders of nouns – all well and good. We then looked at feminist theories of translation. However, what affected them perhaps the most was the task I set them, to consider their own use of language and the way it is shaped. I tasked them with recording the everyday language they used and reflecting on how it was gendered, and the ways in which gendered language in turn impacted on how we see the world around us through our own use of language. It was only then that the topic truly resonated and made us all think more about the language we use, how that paints a picture of ourselves and the world in which we live and contribute to. It is never neutral, but the language we use does matter and gender is central to that. So some may scoff at gendered language, at gender pronouns in particular – but that says far more about the individual and the society they are in and contribute to than it does about the gender pronouns and their usage.

There is a further language point that warmed my heart as I read The Dictionary of Lost Words, and which I’ll use to conclude this blog post on a positive note. As Esme’s character grows up she learns some Esperanto. What at first seems to be a subversive act of fun – words spoken in a language other than English in the very room where the Oxford English Dictionary is being compiled, later becomes something transformative and curative; language becomes a key to helping to deal with First World War trauma. As the conflict rages throughout the novel, Esme begins visiting recuperating soldiers – initially at the behest of her husband, and later as a comfort, as something to focus on after he is killed in the conflict. One of the soldiers she visits is so traumatized by his experiences on the Western Front that he is unable to communicate. Moreover certain words in English, ones associated with war and battle, cause him extreme distress. Esme uses Esperanto as a means of trying to communicate – teaching him what individual words mean, and it begins to have an effect as the language is untainted, it is other to the language of the conflict. Arguably it is also a source of solace for Esme as she mourns her husband. This use of Esperanto then leads Esme to a new role and a new life away from Oxford and the dictionary. Whether language as therapy was used to treat traumatized soldiers I’m not sure (and if anyone knows, please drop me a line, I’d be keen to know more) but that idea of language as escape, as therapy appeals to me because it underpins my experience of language as an enabler, a bringer of opportunities overt and covert. That is perhaps the message I take away from this book – that although language is shaped, can be narrow and narrowing, and yes gender is a key part of that – and always has been – the more diverse the language range we engage with, the greater our lives become because words really do matter.

Thanks for reading!

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