A new book explores the effects of our male-biased languages

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 (Image: Pixabay CC0)
(Image: Pixabay CC0)

Opinions on inclusive language are strong but often uninformed. Co-authored by Pascal Gygax of the University of Fribourg, the book Does the brain think in masculine? offers an easily accessible scientific update on the links between language and gender-related social constructions. It argues that language can - and should - evolve through its practice.

Language strongly influences the way we see the world, think and act. It also reflects social constructions of gender, including the centrality of men in society, androcentrism. Every time we express ourselves, we transmit and reinforce in spite of ourselves the stereotypes about the place of women and men in society. But we can become aware of this and make the choice to practice a less exclusive language. These theses are at the heart of the book Le cerveau pense-t-il au masculin? co-authored by Pascal Gygax, director of the psycholinguistics and applied social psychology team in the Department of Psychology at the University of Fribourg.

Language reflects the biases of our society
The book shows how androcentrism is reflected in language and how it feeds it. Based on scientific studies, it analyzes the consequences of the dual role taken by the masculine: on the one hand it can refer to the male gender, on the other hand it can take on a generic meaning meant to include women. The book explains the difficulties of interpretation that this ambiguity poses to us and discusses its social consequences.

Although grammar assigns a generic meaning to the masculine form, psycholinguistic studies, conducted by Pascal Gygax and his colleagues over the past 15 years, agree that we do not interpret it in this way. The idea that the masculine form could take on a neutral value is simply incompatible with the way our brain works," explains the researcher. ’When we read a term in the masculine form, we don’t really see the women who are meant to be signified. This has important consequences for all of society, for example on career choices. Girls grow up in an environment in which the overwhelming majority of professions are described in the masculine, a form that excludes them. Studies show that they feel less concerned and less confident in their ability to have a successful career than if a double fork is used, such as ’politician’.

Pascal Gygax and his co-authors Sandrine Zufferey and Ute Gabriel remind us how to avoid propagating the biases induced by the language by using non-exclusive formulations. It is a question of ’demasculinizing’ the language, a term that reminds us that the French currently used is the product of waves of masculinization. Numerous professions declined in the feminine - such as ’professeuse’, ’autrice’ or ’médecine’, - have thus disappeared, notably following the decisions of the Académie française. The rule of systematic agreement in the masculine (’les garçons et les filles se sont assis’) was only really imposed in the 18th century, replacing more flexible forms such as theThe rule of systematic agreement in the masculine (’les garçons et les filles se sont promenées’) was only really imposed in the XVIIIth century, replacing more flexible forms such as the agreement of proximity (’les garçons et les filles se sont promenées’), of majority (’les écolières et les enseignants sont sorties’) or of importance (’les femmes et le chien se sont promenées’).

Discussing the evolution of the language
Languages are constantly evolving", recalls Pascal Gygax. And these evolutions take place not so much through the rules laid down by official bodies as through usage. This is particularly true in English, where the use of the pronoun ’they’ to signify a person whose gender is unknown has become popular again, or in Sweden, where a children’s book has launched the use of the neutral pronoun ’hen’. It’s up to us to decide how we communicate," says the psycholinguist.

The book is published by Le Robert in the collection ’Temps de parole’, which has just been launched to analyze the evolution of the language and the debates that it provokes. They called on the specialist from the University of Fribourg, one of the few psycholinguists who studies French from a psychological perspective. One of the objectives of the book is to bring factual scientific arguments into this sometimes heated debate," explains Pascal Gygax. This will help to lead informed discussions on the evolution of the language.

  • Does the brain think in masculine terms? by Pascal Gygax, Sandrine Zufferey and Ute Gabriel, published by Le Robert, May 2021.
  • Pascal Gygax is head of the psycholinguistics and applied social psychology team at the University of Fribourg. Sandrine Zufferey is a professor of French linguistics at the University of Bern. Ute Gabriel is a professor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, where she teaches social psychology.