Strength for Today and Bright Hope for Tomorrow

Volume 3 : 1 January 2003

Editor:     M. S. Thirumalai, Ph.D.
Associate Editors:     B. Mallikarjun, Ph.D.
         Sam Mohanlal, Ph.D.
         B. A. Sharada, Ph.D.




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Copyright © 2001
M. S. Thirumalai


Basanti Devi, Ph.D.


The aim of this paper is to investigate the bias against women inherent in a society, using language as the variable. It also tries to explore society's attitude towards women, with evidence from Indian languages.

There is not an iota of doubt that a woman's place in society is marginal and that it is seen not as complementary but as secondary to that of man. A woman does not have identity as an individual per se. She is seen only in relation to man, i.e. daughter, wife, mother, or even as a prostitute or a mistress. Barring a very few matriarchal and matrilineal societies, women throughout the globe are perceived as second-class citizens, with inferior, or no intellectual abilities at all. Literature, from time immemorial, has depicted women as physical entities with beauty and, in its crudest form, as sex objects. It is a matter of serious concern that even in the twenty-first century, women do not find a place in literature for their intellectual capabilities despite the fact that woman's brain has the same potential for cognitive growth as man.


A very powerful evidence for gender discrimination in a given society comes from the language of that society. Each language abounds in expressions which are indicative of society's differential treatment of women. As Lakoff (1975) has put it, "if it is indeed true that our feelings about the world color our expression of our thoughts, then we can use our linguistic behavior as a diagnostic of our hidden feelings about thoughts." Perhaps, an analogy can be drawn with psychoanalysis where one can interpret our overt actions and perceptions in accordance with our covert desires. In the same way linguistic data can be interpreted as manifestations of hidden attitudes towards women.


Linguistically gender discrimination finds expressions in two forms, namely, in the language restricted in use to women, and language descriptive of women alone.

Language used by women is often markedly different from that of men and the difference is perceived at lexical, syntactic, intonational, and other suprasegmental features. Evidence comes from color terms. It is widely acknowledged that women make far more precise discriminations in naming colors than do men. Words like beige, acrue, aquamarine, and lavender are easily found in a women's vocabulary, but absent from that of most men. Women generally use weaker expletives, like goodness, oh dear, but men usually prefer stronger ones like shit, damn it, etc.

As far as syntax is concerned, it is found that women have preference for tag questions. A tag in its usage is midway between an outright statement and a yes-no question: it is less assertive than the former but more confident than the latter. A tag question like Delhi is the capital of India, isn't it? is found more commonly in women's language. A person makes a statement when he or she is confident of his or her knowledge. A person asks a question when he or she lacks knowledge on some point. A tag question is asked when one stakes a claim, but lacks full confidence in the truth of that claim. Tag questions are good examples which reflect women's underlying sense of lack of confidence and assertiveness due to their marginal position in society.


The aim of this paper, however, is not to discuss language used by women. On the contrary, this paper makes an attempt to study the language that is descriptive of women and to interpret the underlying bias against them.

In English, the expression "henpecked husband" is used in a derogatory sense to demean a husband who is controlled by his wife. The parallel word of hen is cock, but the very fact that English does not have a parallel expression like *cockpecked wife indicates a sexist bias. In other words, society expects the wife to be controlled by her husband, and not vice-versa.

English also has a word cuckold that is used to refer to a man whose wife has been unfaithful to him, but it does not have a word to refer to a woman whose husband has been unfaithful to her. It simply implies that there is societal approval for man's philandering habits.

It is also noticed that some parallel words - one applying to masculine beings, the other to feminine beings are not parallel in their range of use and connotation. For example, the words master and mistress, were, in all probability, simple male-female equivalents, analogous to bull : cow, cock : hen, and drake : duck. However, these two words have acquired new divergent connotative meanings. In the course of time they almost lost their primary meanings and are often used for their connotative meanings.

  1. Mr Kumar is a Master of Arts.
  2. *Ms. Rita is a Mistress of Arts.
  3. He is a master of Karate.
  4. *She is a mistress of Karate.
  5. *Mr. Kumar declined to be her master and returned to his wife.
  6. Ms. Rita declined to be his mistress and returned to her husband.

The word master now, generally refers to a man who has acquired some consummate ability in some field that has no gender connotation. But the distribution of the word mistress is restricted to its sexual sense of paramour.

Similar evidence comes from the words bachelor and spinster, the denotative meanings of which are parallel to bull and cow. But their connotative meanings differ to a great extent. Spinster has more negative attributes than bachelor has:

7. Juliet is waiting for the most eligible bachelor.
8. *John is waiting for the most eligible spinster.

Sentence 8 is incorrect because a spinster is, by implication, is "an unmarried woman and especially the one past the common age for marrying" or "a woman who seems unlikely to marry," according to Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary. The distinction is clearer in the following sentences.

9. John is a regular bachelor.
10. *Juliet is a regular spinster.

The metaphorical connotations of bachelor generally suggest sexual as well as other freedoms. On the contrary, the word spinster is suggestive of puritanism and celibacy. It also suggests eccentricity, rigidity, etc. as exemplified in the following sentence.

11. My landlady is a spinster, so you can well imagine my plight.


In her book, "Language and Women's place" Robin Lakoff argues that this kind of disparities in use of parallel words can be explained by women's position in society, that women are given their identities in society by virtue of their relationship with men, not vice versa.

Indian languages may not have exact equivalents of these words but nonetheless gender discrimination is reflected at various levels. Of these levels, this paper will concentrate on proverbs, idioms, and swear words that reflect society's bias and differential treatment of women.


Bias against women is rooted in Sanskrit proverbs, the mother of most of the modern Indian languages. It says that rivers, animals with paws, animals with horns, and women cannot be trusted.

In Hindi there is a proverb which translates something like this "drums, animals, uncultured men, Shudras, and women deserve to be beaten". The origin of this adage is in Ramcharit Manas of Goswami Tulsidas. A new drum may not be pleasant to the ears. Beating in the beginning renders the drum pleasant. Domestication of animals requires training that demands caning. The Shudras, the last among the four categories of castes in the Hindu caste system, are perceived as unintelligent people. Upper caste people traditionally treated them like slaves. They all need disciplining, the proverb says. The underlying meaning of this proverb is that all these are objects of man's use and hence must be seasoned to obtain optimum utility. This simply implies that a woman is not perceived as a separate identity independent of men but as man's possession.

There is a Bengali proverb which translates like this 'A lucky man's wife dies and an unlucky man's cow dies". This proverb is heard more commonly in Bangladesh. The Bangladeshi feminist writer Taslima Nasreen has discussed this proverb in one of her essays in her much acclaimed book Selected Columns. If a man's wife dies he can easily get married again. He will gain not only a new wife but also dowry at no cost whereas he cannot dream of getting a cow free of cost!

There is another proverb in Bengali which means "rearing a woman is same as rearing a hen in a Muslim's house". Here the Muslim community is specified because rearing of hen was, at one time, associated with the Muslims. Hens are reared not for fun but for function. Once that function of laying eggs is over, the hen is of no use. The function of women is equated with that of hen's, i.e., bearing children for men. Thus, women are of use to men as much as hens are.

In Kannada there is a proverb 'hengsara buddhi monokal kelege. The literal meaning of this proverb is 'a woman's intellect lies below the knee". It implies that a woman is poor in her intellectual abilities. Hence a woman cannot be taken seriously in the important concerns of life.

Another proverb in Kannada means that a woman is like a tumour in the family. By implication it means that woman is the root of all conflicts and problems in a family.

Another saying, 'what does a woman know?' is again a comment on women's intellect. A woman's existence centres around her body and not on her intellectual ability. Thus, by implication, a woman's participation is ruled out from serious concerns of life.

Now let us examine a few proverbs from Assamese, a language spoken in the eastern most Indian state of Assam. The status of women in Assamese society is not as low as in many other states. Violence against women is not known. Unlike in other states they enjoy certain privileges and the society is free from the dowry menace. But this society is also essentially a male dominated society and language reflects bias against women is many ways.

The proverb 'katari sikun xile tirota sikun kile' literally means "stone keeps a knife in good form and beating keeps a woman in good form". If a knife becomes blunt, stone is required to sharpen it to make it useful. In the same way a woman can be made more useful and efficient if she is beaten.

The proverb 'ziorik zame nileu nia, zowaye nileu niya' which literally means 'whether a daughter is taken away by Yama ( the Hindu god of Death) or by son-in-law means the same.'. A woman's life is at the mercy of her husband. Once a girl gets married she is not a part of her natal family and is almost non-existent for all practical purposes. This simply implies that a girl has no entity of her own and her fate is decided by her husband. This is suggestive of helpless and passive life of women.

There is yet another proverb in Assamese which does not directly refer to women. But, nonetheless, its meaning is often extended to women. It is an extremely derogatory one. 'kukur sikun girihotor zoh' means, "If a dog is healthy and attractive it reflects on the master," i.e., the master has looked after the dog well. By implication the master is well off and hence is capable of taking proper care of a dog. It is often extended to mean that if a woman is healthy, attractive, and well decorated (with gold, etc.) it is to the credit of her husband. In other words, a man's wealth and social status is reflected in the persona of his wife. This again confirms the well-established view that a woman has no entity of her own - she is only an extension of her husband.

Another Kannada proverb 'mu:ru jade nu:ru juttu' means that three women alone can make the noise of hundred men. By implication, men are wise and laconic and women are foolish and talkative.

These kinds of proverbs are found in almost all the Indian languages in different forms. Some of them are mentioned below.

A Marathi proverb says that daal (lentils) is good when pounded and a girl under pressure.

Another Marathi proverb says 'there is no difference between the mouth of a girl/woman and the mouth of a gutter.

A Malayalam proverb says that one who heeds to the advice of a woman lands in the street.

The following Punjabi proverbs reflect the attitude that women are insignificant creatures and do not deserve to be taken seriously. They are as follows:

There is no difference between a buffalo urinating and a woman weeping.
If the wife dies, it is a blow on the ankle, if the husband dies it is a blow on the head.


Society's bias against women is reflected not only in the proverbs but also in the idiomatic expressions of that society's language.

Ardhangini is one common word used euphemistically in many Indian languages, which is originally a Sanskrit word. This means that woman forms one half of a man. But the deep underlying meaning is that a woman is not looked upon as a complete individual but as a part of man. She has no identity of her own except through her husband.

The idiom hengsubuddhi literally means 'female intelligence' in Kannada. Ironically, even a man can be said to have hengsubuddhi if he is not sharp enough and lacks foresight. It clearly points towards society's perception of women as intellectually inferior beings.

In Kannada there is another idiom adige kelsa which literally means work pertaining to cooking. But this is often used to refer to work that is considered trivial or meaningless. Cooking has traditionally been a woman's job and therefore, it is marginal to the serious concerns of life. When a man feels that he is doing something insignificant he says with contempt that he is doing adige kelsa.

Assamese has an idiom mekhela dhoa. Mekhela means woman's skirt and dhoa means washing. For a man the worst possible job is this. Cynicism at a man who is unable to do any significant work is expressed by saying that he is wasting his time by washing wife's skirt. Nothing can be more humiliating for a man than washing a woman's skirt even if it belongs to his own wife.


Linguistic evidence of society's bias against women comes from swear words too. The English swear words bastard, son of a bitch, etc., refer to the character of a woman or to be more precise, woman's sexuality.

The Hindi word haramjada means that person's father is doubtful and indirectly it refers to the mother's character.

In Kannada there are swear words which directly refer to the mother and have connotation of sex. They can be translated as 1. Prostitute's son, 2. Widow's son, and 3. the son of a woman whose head is shaven. Items 2 and 3 mean the same thing except that 3 is in circumlocution. By tradition, a woman's head is shaven after the husband's death in certain communities. Such a woman' son, by implication, has to be illegitimate. Thus, these swear words in Kannada have vulgar sexual overtones of mother's private life.

This is reflected in a different way in Assamese. No swear word refers to the mother's character or sexuality. In Assamese society, father is responsible for a man's ill behavior - not the mother. However, if a girl's behavior is not as expected then the blame goes to the mother. There are several proverbs to support this position. It is quite amusing to note that in Assamese it is not "son of a bitch" but "son of a dog". There are several swear words which have reference to the father. Other stronger swear words refer to diseases but none has reference to the mother.

The swear words of many Indian languages refer to woman's alleged tendency towards sexual promiscuity.


An analysis of the proverbs, idioms, and swear words reveal that there is a clear-cut pattern of gender bias in society, and that this bias against women may be listed as under:

  • Women are inferior beings with little or no intellectual ability.
  • Women deserve to be kept under control by any means
  • Women are marginal to the serious concerns of life, and hence should not be taken seriously.
  • It is essentially a man's world, and women play only a second fiddle.
  • Women are not entities by themselves, but are objects of men's possessions.

In the light of the statement made by Robin Lakoff quoted earlier, it can be concluded that, by analyzing overt linguistic behavior, one can have an insight into the covert social psychology of a particular linguistic group. The examples cited in this paper are illustrative, and by no means exhaustive. Nonetheless, they are clearly symptomatic of the underlying social psychopathology of discrimination and cruelty against women in Indian societies.


Key, Mary Ritchie (1975). Male/Female Language. The Scarecrow Press, New Jersey.

Lakoff, Robin (1975). Language and Woman's Place. Harper and Row, New York.

Nasreen, Tasleema(1992). Selected Columns. Ananda Publishers, Ltd., Kolkatta.

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Basanti Devi, Ph.D.
All India Institute of Speech and Hearing
Mysore 570006, India