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Theory-Guided Research: How Sexist Is Our Language?

Masculine words such as he and man have been used generically in English for centuries to refer to individuals of either sex. In contrast, when comparable words such as she or woman are used, the listener knows that the person being referred to is female. But how generic are those masculine words? Are listeners equally likely to think of a woman as a man when they hear “he”? Or do they do a quick semantic shuffle and mentally note that the word could also refer to females?

The question is an interesting one, but the answer has been difficult to obtain. It’s hard to observe quick semantic shuffles, especially when these are mental. In this case, theory suggests a way to get some answers. Sik Hung Ng (1990) used the concepts of proactive inhibition and release from proactive inhibition, concepts derived from a theory of learning and memory, to determine how words are linguistically coded in memory.

We know that words are coded both for their specific meaning and for category membership. Thus the word poodle would be coded in terms of the animal’s specific characteristics (for example, curly hair, intelligence, pointed snout), but also in terms of the category “dog.” This is true for man as well. “Man” would be coded in terms of specific characteristics (such as adult, human) and also in terms of the category “male.” But are words such as he and man assimilated just as easily into the feminine category as the masculine one? Linguistically speaking, that is, are they truly generic?

The concept of proactive inhibition suggests a way of finding out. Proactive inhibition refers to interference caused by prior learning when remembering new material. The interference is greatest when the old and new material are similar. In other words, one’s ability to learn something new is inversely related to how much similar material one has previously learned. Proactive inhibition tells us that memory for a new word will not be as good if one has already memorized other words from the same category (that is, if the new word shares the same linguistic category) than if the word is different from others one has memorized (belongs to a different linguistic category). Release from proactive inhibition occurs when the new word is from a different category; the release takes the form of better memory for the distinctive than the similar item. These twin concepts provide a means for discovering the linguistic category of any word. If the linguistic code for his and man is truly a masculine one, these words will not be remembered as easily following a list of other masculine word (proactive inhibition) as after a list of feminine ones (release from proactive inhibition).

Adolescents were randomly assigned to one of two conditions in which they listened to pairs of feminine words (queen/Linda, nun/Mary, girl/Iris, mom/Ruth) or masculine ones (king/Ivan, son/Lewis, boy/Ross, dad/Mike). After each list, they heard two additional pairs (man/Robin and his/Chris). Unlike the names in the masculine or feminine list, both Robin and Chris are unisex names. Will man and his be as easy to remember after the list of masculine pairs as after the feminine? If so, these words are genuinely generic.

Theory tells us that we first need to check for a buildup of proactive inhibition over the initial list of pairs—that is, to look for poorer recall of the last words than the first ones. As expected, this occurred. Next, we need to determine whether proactive inhibition continued for the generic words when they followed the masculine list, and whether release from proactive inhibition occurred following the feminine list. Both of these occurred as well.

These findings tell us that the words man and his are coded as masculine words in memory and are not truly generic. The author notes that if they are generic, then their usage in sentences such as the following should not appear incongruous: “Throughout most of history, men have always breast-fed their babies.” But sentences such as these do jar and prompt a rereading to discover what is amiss.

The problem adolescents face is not one of having to make sense of incongruities such as the preceding example. The more serious problem occurs when they experience no incongruity—when language so structures experience that half of humankind can be excluded.



S. H. Ng. (1990). Androcentric coding of man and his in memory by language users. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 26: 455–464.