Effect of Language on Discriminative Behaviour

date: Dec 14, 2017

Language is powerful, and it evolves time by time. One example is English, where it has a continuing evolution on its grammar, vocabulary and expressions from its origin in 550CE as Proto-Germanic to Modern English nowadays. For example, word “husbandman”, an English word that came from Greek in 1300s, is a Middle English vocabulary that means “farmer”. (hus-bō̆nd-man, n.d.) However, people no longer use it now, because people use this word for describing a husband as a farmer in 1300s as most husbands at the time had a job as a farmer. Nowadays, “husband” do a lot more jobs other than farming, which eventually prevents using it. Similarly, discriminatory vocabulary was born as the social environment changed. If we eliminate these discriminatory terms from our languages, society will become less racist, sexist and less discriminatory, as the language speakers only think in the categories that the language provides. This will be asserted by demonstrating how linguistic determinism around the world impact on culture and by showing how the ethnocentrism and gender-fair language impact on people.

One key point to support that elimination of discriminatory language helps creating a less discriminatory society is the impact of the linguistic relativism in culture. Benjamin Lee Whorf raised a hypothesis by researching Hopi and English, where Hopi have a huge difference comparing to English in terms of vocabulary (unparalleled word definition) and grammar (Hopi is timeless). This research discovered that the possible information loss or distortion between language translation due to culture difference. (Whorf, 1956) The hypothesis is called Sapir–Whorf Hypothesis, which language relativism is the weak form and generally accepted nowadays. Another example is Han characters in Japanese(Kanji) and Chinese(Hanzi), since they showed culture similarity and difference. For instance, “交通” shared same meaning in both languages, but for some like “結構” have different meanings, where in Japanese it means “well” but in Chinese it means “structure”. According to a research by Coulmas Florian, the meanings of Kanji start to diverge at the time of Meiji Period, there Japan experienced a rapid modernization while China is still ruled by emperor, which caused the change on language meanings and usages. In such way, the thoughts between Japanese start to diverge. (Coulmas, 1991) All of them showed that that linguistic relativism made it possible to change people’s thought and action by changing the language itself.

The impact and solution of ethnocentrism is the other key point to support the discriminatory language elimination helps creating a more respectful society. Ethnocentrism is basically the general bias towards a group of people with certain properties, such as job, gender, race or nation. One example of ethnocentrism of language is gender stereotypes. For instance, a person would assume a policeman as male and a nurse as female by default, because “automatic sex categorization” from people’s expectation defined the duties, perspectives and preferred people group of job should be and eventually effect people’s belief on vocabulary itself, so that people will make such assumption. (Ridgeway, 2001) Nowadays, to make the language more neutral, the idea of Gender-Fair Language(GFL) is created by American Psychological Association, to make people’s daily vocabulary more genderless, and it is promoted in several languages which are mostly used in America and Europe. (American Psychological Association, 1975) According to a report done for USA National Institutes of Health, the use of GFL shows a vibrant reduction on gender stereotyping and discrimination in 15 years: public awareness for GFL has raised as the increasing discussion on GFL and gender-balanced representations of mentality in Swedish, German and America showed an emerging trend. (Sczesny, Formanowicz & Moser, 2016) Such change shows that changing the vocabulary we use by guidelines, regulations and education do help us from discriminate or stereotype less without noticing.

Besides the powerfulness of the language, language can be also dynamic, in such way, discriminatory terms will still be born after their elimination using ways like Gender-Neutral Language in a alternative way. However, I believe this will not be a concern. Firstly, the culture impact from language relativism is the major aspects that defines our thoughts. Language itself is dynamic, when a larger group of people starts to implement the new language, people will be eventually affected by the general language speaking environment. This process is slow, but when people changed their thoughts and beliefs, a new culture will be created based on the old culture and the language will enter a new era. For Example, the modernization of China and Culture changed China’s written and spoken language to the Chinese we speak nowadays. Secondly, actions of trying to create neutral speaking environment can effectively reduce ethnocentrism. Although language is dynamic and can recover its vocabulary, procedures such GFL, the example given previously, do showed people have generally changed their attitudes towards ethnocentrism. This means the ethnocentrism in language is not dynamic, it is almost linear, even the actions like GFL only accelerate the process a little, according to the report, (Sczesny, Formanowicz & Moser, 2016) it still proves that there are possible solutions of creating neutral speaking environment has the impact on solving the ethnocentrism problem.

Discriminatory actions can be can be reduced by eliminate discriminatory terms with help of continuing language determinism and elimination of ethnocentrism as shown by several researchers. In real life, the elimination of discriminatory terms is long and slow process with barriers, and its result are also going to show up gradually and unsteadily, but researches on elimination of the discriminatory terms like Gender-Fair Language are continuing, for creating a more equal environment for everyone.


  1. American Psychological Association. (1975). Guidelines for nonsexist use of language. American Psychologist, 30(6), 682-684. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/h0076869
  2. Coulmas, F. (1991). The Future of Chinese characters. In R. Cooper & B. Spolsky, The Influence of Language on Culture and Thought (pp. 227-243). Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
  3. hus-bō̆nd-man. (n.d.). University of Michigan Middle English Dictionary. Retrieved from http://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/m/mec/med-idx?type=id&id=MED21555
  4. Ridgeway, C. (2001). Gender, Status, and Leadership. Journal Of Social Issues, 57(4), 637-655. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/0022-4537.00233
  5. Sczesny, S., Formanowicz, M., & Moser, F. (2016). Can Gender-Fair Language Reduce Gender Stereotyping and Discrimination?. Frontiers In Psychology, 7. http://dx.doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00025
  6. Whorf, B. Lee. (1956). Language, thought, and reality: selected writings. Cambridge: Technology Press of Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


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