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message 1: by Robert (new)

Robert Stonebarger | 5 comments Adam, the study of language is a tough one. However, some words in many languages need to have the "feminine" monikers while other words do not because those words are considered interchangeable within the realm of gender. Look at it from this perspective. Singular and plural words. The plural of of is oxen, The plural of sheep is sheep and the plural of box is boxes. How something is worded or spelled when it comes to gender depends more on grammar rather than trying to single out one group or another. It has to do with phraseology.


message 2: by Bunny (last edited Jun 12, 2016 07:13PM) (new)

Bunny The reason that the plural of ox is oxen, and the plural of box is boxes is that Ox is a very old Germanic word which was part of English before it actually was English, back when en was a plural marker as in children, women, brethren. The plural marker en still survives in German as for example auge, augen (eye, eyes). It died out in English. Box came into late Old English from Latin, and took the plural marker s, which still remains in use in English.

Which is all to say, grammar isn't neutral or arbitrary, it has a history and reflects that history. The reason that some words need a feminine suffix is that they are or were gendered masculine, so in the absence of a feminizing suffix the assumption is that the word refers to a male person. This is why parent doesn't need a feminine suffix, because parent has never been a gendered word. Whereas actor still sometimes takes a suffix because for several centuries women were not permitted to act.

Words drop their female suffix if they stop being gendered. A few words have gone in the other direction, where people have tried to create a "male" version of a normally gendered female word, like "manny" (male nanny) and "murse" (male nurse) but those aren't really taking hold because the general trend in English right now is to move away from gendered nouns rather than adding more.

BTW there was an MIddle English word captenesse which meant female captain. It dropped out of the language.


message 3: by Jillian (last edited Jun 13, 2016 04:24AM) (new)

Jillian | 26 comments To add to what bunny said, grammar, or language in general, does not only reflect history and culture, but as a medium for us to communicate through, it also happens to shape the thoughts we're trying to express, it restricts us in a way and influences what people we're talking to hear, which may turn out not to be the thought we were originally trying to put into apt wording.

Language is such a powerful thing. It shouldn't be underestimated. I can't remember where it was, but I once read about a theory that says whith each new language we're speaking, we adopt a new kind of personality, like, our character traits change when we switch to another language and personally, speaking for myself, I can say that I indeed use very different wording in different languages, I lay stress on different words because that's part of every language and the entire sound of my speaking changes drastically. Years ago a girl told me she really liked my voice when speaking English and I thought about it a lot, ending up realising that speaking another language does indeed change the sound of my voice, along with my body language, for that matter.
I find myself rambling here quite a lot, I'm sorry.

The point I was trying to bring across is that language is a much too powerful medium for us to afford underestimating it when seeking the root of gender bias.


message 4: by Sherrie (new)

Sherrie | 184 comments Adam, do you think changing these words would change anything in society? If we made a movement to de-gender all our workplace titles, for example...would that help anything?

I think it's much more likely that society as a whole would say that feminism must not be necessary because we're just looking for issues to get fired up about. And they'd be right, in my opinion.


message 5: by Jillian (new)

Jillian | 26 comments I think what we need is a change of mindset to "actor" and "actress" being two different words for the very same thing. An actress used to be an actor with a vagina, nowadays it's an actor who identifies as female regardless of biological sex, the next step would be "actor" and "actress" being looked at as synonyms. For me they are pretty much synonymous already. I like using the word "actress" because it appeals to me personally. However, in my opinion, if I am an actress, that makes me no less of an actor.

PS. Making differently gendered forms of the same profession synonyms certainly includes paying them equally. And there you go. Problem solved.


message 6: by Jillian (new)

Jillian | 26 comments PPS. There are men (people who identify as male) and still refer to themselves as "drama queen" or other gendered terms that don't quite seem to fit the gender they identify with and same goes for women. I see our society moving towards binary gender being nothing but a faint memory and that's how I think we should look at any gendered words in general. I see gender as a very useless construction of human society that is no longer needed. Gender (as well as sexuality, for that matter) should always be considered fluid.


message 7: by Apoorva (new)

Apoorva Bhatnagar | 22 comments The most important change which is needed and I personally believe it is coming is CHANGE IN MENTAL SET UP.
Change in vocabularies are secondary in my opinion.


message 8: by Bunny (last edited Jun 13, 2016 10:38AM) (new)

Bunny Emma wrote: "I think if a change in 'mental set-up' occurs, the change in vocabulary will follow. So as people view women and males in the same job as equal, then the titles with "ness" may drop off. (However, I know little about how language evolves over time so I could be wrong) ..."

Its not an either or thing. Language changes over time as the speakers of the language need words for new things and new situations, as they interact with speakers of other languages and pick up ideas and habits from them, as influential language users like writers use words or phrasings that people like and repeat, as regional or group speak becomes more widespread or less so.

For one very simple example, the word Muggle is now a part of English because one very influential writer invented it. This kind of thing goes on constantly. Language and how it changes is a thing that really fascinates me. Its almost like a living thing, probably because it is used by living people ;-)

Getting back to this particular discussion, so it goes both ways. The language changes to be less sexist as the society of the people speaking it becomes less sexist. But also choosing to speak in less sexist ways is one of the many ways to push that change forward. If you get too far out ahead you sound weird to other people, but if you resist change too much then you sound weird too.

Listen to really old movies some time, the way people talk in those movies sounds very odd now. Or if you go back further then you almost can't understand it at all, or even further and its not the same language any more.


message 9: by Bunny (last edited Jun 13, 2016 12:26PM) (new)

Bunny I think it's already happening. Nobody says doctoress or engineeress or senatoress. Actually I just looked it up and there was in fact a word in Victorian era England, doctress. But it has become archaic and is no longer in use.

I think one of the ways that happens most effectively is when people who hold those professions say no thank you I would prefer to be referred to as a doctor. And then the rest of us back that person up.


message 10: by Ana, Our Shared Shelf Moderator (new)

Ana PF | 746 comments Mod
Well, and there's also the fact that the -ness suffix is also used for creating nouns, right? So that would also be sort of troublesome, I guess. At least it does sound kind of ambiguous / messy to me with some of the examples brought up here.

I often feel conflicted when it comes to the use of language and its change towards a more inclusive, non-sexist model. I am obviously interested in this topic, both as a woman and as a linguist myself...in fact, you don't even need to be a woman, just a reasonably aware, curious human bean. :) Then again, precisely because I am a linguist (translation!) I will readily admit that some of the latest non-sexist language suggestions have had me clutching my pearls because they sound terrible to my ears. I think it is way less used in English because you people have it easier to get away with this sort of changes but in Spanish, for example, we have the word 'todos' for 'all', changeable to 'todas' in the event that you are referring an all-females group. Well, some people like to use 'todxs' now, the 'x' being there for both men and women (well, and all other genders out there)...and I just cannot bring myself to even stop to dislike it. Just, ugly and weird. I do admit, however, that language is still soundly sexist and non-inclusive - I just wish we could find other ways to address this.


message 11: by Bunny (last edited Jun 15, 2016 06:19PM) (new)

Bunny Very cool that you are a linguist! I find language fascinating and really enjoy reading and learning about it, but its more a hobby for me. Or maybe I just come at it from a different direction, because my degree is in literature and philosophy.

I just realized something reading over the last few posts, actually the feminizing suffix isn't ness its ess.

Ness is a suffix that makes an adjective into an abstract noun. So - tall, adjective. Tallness, abstract noun.


message 12: by Tim (new)

Tim Haven't really read any of the other comments, so sorry if I'm repeating others here, but the word "stewardess" has lately been replaced with "flight attendant", which is a gender neutral word. I know most people still use the word "stewardess" in a conversation, but when you're in a plane, the pilot always uses the gender neutral word, which I suppose is a start. As for actor and actress, I can sometimes understand why you'd make the distinction.

If you're directing a play and looking for cast members, you'll most likely look for people of specific genders because of the characters they're meant to represent. So if you're putting up an ad or poster, "Actress wanted" sounds in my opinion better than "female actor wanted"; it just feels a little transphobic, for some reason. If, however, a woman is in a conversation and she says "I'm an actor" then that's perfectly understandable too, because the people you're speaking to already know that you're female. Of course, there are other, less defendable, examples but I just wanted to add my two cents on these two terms.


message 13: by Paula (new)

Paula S (paula_s) | 29 comments One additional aspect of this is that for some titles (and some languages) the female form was used for the wife. The doctor's wife would be the 'doctoress', the professor's wife would be the 'professoress', etc. in the same way that the Duke's wife is a Duchess through marriage.
When women eventually were allowed to have a professional title of their own they would use the 'male' title, since that was the real one. In these cases the female form has more or less disappeared now that wives don't use their husband's titles anymore.


message 14: by Tim (new)

Tim That's great to know. Thank you Paula :D

Kodak, I think "cabin crew" is used to refer to the whole team of "flight attendants". I'm guessing so anyway; I haven't flown in little over a year but it doesn't really make sense to me that an individual is refered to as a "crew". I think you can say "[someone] is cabin crew" though, without an article before it, so it's used as a kind of adjective, like how they say in the military "[someone] is x-th batallion"


message 15: by Tim (new)

Tim I suppose it is then


message 16: by Michael (new)

Michael Ståhl | 12 comments The biggest problem I see with these words is that they assume men are the norm. Because why else would you have to apply a different ending to a word to conjure the meaning of it referring to a woman?

That might seem as a small problem, but male/men being the norm without us even reflecting on it is a large problem in our society.

Just take such a thing as medicine, for long it was only tested on men and then sold without anyone actually knowing what effect it would have on women taking it.


message 17: by Tim (new)

Tim Michael wrote: "The biggest problem I see with these words is that they assume men are the norm. Because why else would you have to apply a different ending to a word to conjure the meaning of it referring to a wo..."

Well, some of these words assume the person is female, like stewardess, gouverness, nanny, etc. And I'll be so bold as to say that the only reason the word "secretary" is gender neutral is the fact that the term came about during the renaissance, during which administrative work (like banking and bookkeeping) was pretty much alwats done by men, because they paid well. However, in my language (which is Dutch), we have a male and female varient of it (secretaris-secretaresse). So gender neutral language is always variable from one language to the other, although more often than not the word is derived from another language, usually either French or English at least in my language where we have a lot of neologisms, like "stewardess" because we don't have a different word for it.


message 18: by Susan (new)

Susan | 13 comments Michael wrote: "The biggest problem I see with these words is that they assume men are the norm. Because why else would you have to apply a different ending to a word to conjure the meaning of it referring to a wo..."

Precisely my take on this whole conversation as well Michael.

And a secondary issue is the duality/flexibility for women but not men. I find it a bit unfair to the men that actresses can call themselves actors or actresses, while the men are stuck with actor...so while society moves forward with feminism in mind, I think it prudent to watch which toes get stepped on so we don't find ourselves in need for a "maculinism" movement.


message 19: by Bunny (last edited Jun 17, 2016 09:51AM) (new)

Bunny Tim wrote: "Well, some of these words assume the person is female, like stewardess, gouverness, nanny, etc. ..."

That's incorrect. The word stewardess is a feminizing of the word steward. The word governess is a feminizing of the word governor. That goes to Michael's point that the basic word is assumed to apply to a male person, so the word has to be changed if it applies to a female person.

Nanny is a job mostly performed by women, but as I pointed out up thread, there were some attempts to make a "male" version of that word but they didn't take hold because English is going in the other direction, moving toward having one gender neutral word instead of having male/female variants.

Michael's point stands, that when the basic version of a word is assumed to refer to men and then the word has to be changed if it refers to women, that carries an underlying assumption with it that men are the norm. I do think this is a case of the language reflecting the culture rather than the culture being shaped by the language. And as our culture is changing our language is changing to reflect that.

I think we also have to consider that the idea is not to just flip the scenario and make all the words feminine instead. The point is to make them gender neutral so they can refer to anyone, male, female, non binary. Break down the gender stereotyping not keep it but put women on top.

In fact in a larger sense that's really what I believe feminism should do. Break down the gender stereotypes all together. Not create a new world of gender stereotypes where women get to win and men get to be the underdogs.


message 20: by Tim (last edited Jun 17, 2016 12:40PM) (new)

Tim Bunny wrote: "Tim wrote: "Well, some of these words assume the person is female, like stewardess, gouverness, nanny, etc. ..."

That's incorrect. The word stewardess is a feminizing of the word steward. The word..."


Yes, I looked it up and I turned out to be wrong about stewardess, my bad. As for "gouverness", I meant the profession of the tutor of a child in a private household (not to be confused with nanny, which is a slightly different thing altogether). There exists the word "governor", but it refers to a form of office, i.e. a position of political power, whereas gouverness is something completely different. Is the female variant used within political contexts? I don't think so. Not right now anyway

As for Michael's point, I forgot to mention, I agree with it, but by making some professors* inherently female (like nanny) we see the exact same effect. Again, my bad :)

*EDIT: professions


message 21: by Bunny (last edited Jun 17, 2016 01:18PM) (new)

Bunny From the Oxford dictionary entry on governess;

Origin: Middle English (originally governeress, denoting a female ruler): from Old French governeresse, feminine of governeour 'governor', from Latin gubernator, from gubunare"

The word in both m and f forms originally meant someone who supervises or governs. Over time the two words separated with governor coming to mean someone who supervises or governs a large institution or area and governess coming to mean someone who supervises and teaches children in a private home. The words have now separated in meaning so far that the female leader of a state is a governor and governess has almost died out except in historical novels. But they started as two forms of the same word in the Middle Ages and then drifted apart.

And really the history of governess kind of demonstrates the point! The male form of the word continued to mean ruler or supervisor and the female form changed its meaning drifting down and down until it means someone who is basically a high status servant. You can see that same thing happened to a slightly lesser extent with steward.


message 22: by Tim (new)

Tim Bunny wrote: "From the Oxford dictionary entry on governess;

Origin: Middle English (originally governeress, denoting a female ruler): from Old French governeresse, feminine of governeour 'governor', from Latin..."


Fair point, but I'd argue that the distinction between governor and gouverness (strange how the "ou" isn't applied equally in both words) is much vaster than you're to making it out to be. After all, what is governing one or two children, compared to governing an entire region, especially if the person governing said children lives within said region? Point being: despite both being authority figures, there still is a huge gap between them. I think it was on the one hand a classic example of gender roles, implying that women can only be an authority in raising children; on the other hand, I also think the name was meant to give women the illusion that they could also be authority figures, when the only authority that actually mattered at the time was the aristocracy which was predominantly male (we're talking Victorian era of course). Essentially I'd consider it a tactic to keep women quiet, and I'll admit it's quite genius; appealing to women whilst pandering men at the same time. Of course, this is all just semantics, but I feel like you're kind of falling for it even now. That said, I'm glad it's died out.


message 23: by Bunny (last edited Jun 17, 2016 02:21PM) (new)

Bunny I'm sorry I think you misunderstood the point I was making. I was not saying that the two words mean the same or similar things now. I am saying that 800 years ago they were the same word. Masculine governor, feminine governess, meaning ruler or supervisor. "Richard is the governor of Calais." "Eleanor is the governess of Aquitaine." Masculine and feminine words with the same meaning.

In the period between 1100 and 1900 the two words separated from each other with the male form keeping its original meaning and the female form coming to mean something less. Then beginning around 1900 the female form of the word began to die out and the masculine form to be applied to both genders.

I suspect this pattern (which is not unique to this one word) is in part due to a decline in the status of women in Europe beginning in the late middle ages and continuing through the early part of the Industrial Revolution.

I'm not "falling for" anything I am explaining the history of what happened.


message 24: by Tim (new)

Tim Bunny wrote: "I'm sorry I think you misunderstood the point I was making. I was not saying that the two words mean the same or similar things now. I am saying that 800 years ago they were the same word. Masculin..."

Oh, I didn't know women were allowed to hold any form of office or title except for ones that came with birthright or marriage (queen, duchess, etc.) The more you know :d

Nonetheless, I think it does show that words becoming gender neutral can take a very long time, notwithstanding that the 1100-1900 period was largely patriarchal. The good ol' Industrial Revolution though... I swear, more often than not I wish it never happened.


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