Strength for Today and Bright Hope for Tomorrow

Volume 1: 5 September 2001
Editor: M. S. Thirumalai, Ph.D.
Associate Editor: B. Mallikarjun, Ph.D.


G. Sankaranarayanan, Ph.D.


A society is an organized group of persons functioning in the background of different socio-cultural environments. The socio-cultural environment includes customs, traditions, religious beliefs, tastes and preferences, social institutions, etc. All these have a bearing on the behavior of the people. As a product of social reality, language reflects the socio-cultural behavior of a community who speaks it. In other words, language reflects the thoughts, opinions, attitudes and culture of its users.

Differences within the language used are natural in all human societies and these linguistic differences are explained in sociolinguistics as variations, with reference to social variables such as class, age, ethnicity and sex/gender.

In the past few years, under the impact of feminist movements, a number of studies have appeared in the west, identifying gender as a major parameter for language variation. When we say "gender bias" in language, we mean the superior-inferior paradigm evolved due to the distinction in gender of the people. We search for their language correlates. The phrase "gender bias" is generally used to indicate the subordinate or inferior status of women in a society.

To understand clearly the gender-based language differences, one should know the social structure in which the (social) position of the male and female groups is designed. Khokle (1995) observes that human social organization began, to a large extent, as a matriarchal system, which, later on, gradually shifted to the male-dominated patriarchal system. If you study the old Tamil society as portrayed in the famous Sangam literature, you will immediately conclude that the Tamil society, like most other societies, was a strongly male-oriented culture, revealing the unquestionable super-ordinate position of the male.

Indian languages, both classical and current, exhibit certain markers that reveal the status accorded to women in the Indian society. Different people may interpret some of these markers differently, but the vocabulary nuances certainly show the status we accord to our women in our society.

There is no Indian language that could be treated as an exception in this regard. Sometimes the enthusiasts and the traditionalists may claim that the status of women in the by-gone ages was equal to that of men, or that the women had great educational opportunities and that they excelled in many fields. While it is true that there were several women poets, statesmen and intellectuals in the past, the status accorded to women as a group was indeed inferior to that of men. We all desire to prove that we had a golden age in the past during which every thing was all right and milk and honey flowed. But the present reality could not come about in a day nor was it a degradation of the past.

In this paper I propose to present some linguistic information from Tamil, a language that I know best (since it is my mother tongue!), and discuss how this linguistic material reflects the status of women in the Tamil society.As I said above, what I say here can be easily attested in every Indian language. So, do not think that the Tamil society ill-treats women worse than others. In reality, no Indian society is free from the overall features that I discuss in this paper.


While describing the respective duties of a mother and father, it is stated in one of the Sangam poems that the duty of a mother ends after giving birth to children and it is the father who makes them wise men. In another poem, it is stated that the (ideal) husband is devoted to his work and that, for him, his duty is as dear as his life, whereas for the wife, who is confined to her home, her sole life is her husband.

Tolkaappiyam, an ancient Tamil grammar, written perhaps 2000 years ago, imposes restrictions on the woman's speech. A man can speak anything to express his knowledge whereas a woman can speak only on a few subjects limited to her family circle. It is also understood from this grammar that learning (education), possession and demonstration of valor, earning fame, and giving charity are the sole privilege and goal of a man (and no such privilege to woman). Another celebrated Tamil work Tirukkural (tirukkuraL) also insists that learning (education) is for the male group only (Kural 67, 69 and 70). On the other hand, it narrates the duties of a housewife as follows: A woman should be chaste in character, true in devotion to her husband, regular in house-hold work, take care of her husband (who owns her) and give birth to good children (Kural 51). According to Tirukkural, an ideal woman is one who does not worship god but who, on rising, worships her husband. (Kural 55). In this way the ancient literatures clearly portray the power structure or the social position of the male and female of the society. The classical literatures in other Indian languages, both sacred and secular, are no exception to this general rule. There was certainly a male-oriented approach in all these records.


The gender role differences are important in our culture. When we see the role played by a man as depicted in the classical literature, he was a scholar in the educated assembly, he was a warrior in the battlefield, and he was a trader when he was involved in earning money. And he used to leave his home in connection with higher studies, military expedition and embassy. During this time of separation ("pirital"), the woman who is confined to her home, is patiently waiting ("iruttal") and lamenting ("irankal"). A woman's work was naturally confined to her home and family, while men lived in a larger world. In this culture, men were defined in terms of what they did in the world while women were defined in terms of the men with whom they were associated.


In traditional societies, specific traits are assigned to men and women. These cultures set up rigid social norms for the sexes. Any violation of these norms will be viewed seriously. A comparison of the qualities ascribed to both the sexes in Tamil will reveal actual values put on males and females in society. arivu 'knowledge', niRai 'strength of mind, determination', oorppu 'firmness decision' and kaTaippiTi 'confidence' are ascribed to males. naaNam 'shyness' maTam 'ignorance,' accam 'timidity' and payirppu'. 'delicacy' are the qualities ascribed to females. In other words, man is entitled to get wisdom and strength whereas woman lacks wisdom (hence foolish) and strength (hence weak), thus indicating the superior and inferior status of men and women respectively.

There are several terms used to denote woman. Of these, the terms pi:Tay. maTantai and maTava:r also have the meaning 'foolish person'. On the other hand, the term denoting man is a:N, which is related to the term a:Nmai, which means valor, boldness, etc. The word kaRpu meaning 'chastity' is associated only with women. Another praiseworthy quality attributed to woman is poRumai 'patience', that is to bear with the faulty behavior of a husband. The equivalent term for sati in Tamil is uTankaTTai e:Ru and this practice was there in early Tamil society. All these illustrations indicate the inferior status attributed to woman by the society. The terms manai, manaivi, illaaL, etc, associate a wife with the house. On the other hand, the term kaNavan 'husband' literally means, 'he who is like an eye to his wife'.


In any society in which the male plays a superior role and commands greater respect, it is quite natural for the members of the society to put high value on male child. aastikku pillai 'to look after the property, a son is necessary,' koLLi vaikka oru piLLai 'a male child is needed, to lit the funeral pyre of the parents,' and ca:N piLLai a:na:lum a:NpiLLai allava: 'even though a boy is small in size he is greater as he is a male' are some of the Tamil proverbs which indicate the great value attached to a male child. On the other hand, the unwanted female child is referred to as poTTai kuTTi, a phrase that is associated with the young one of an animal.

In a family the woman's suggestions are considered faulty and thus ignored. The proverbs peNputti pin putti, putti 'women realize quite late' and tayyal col ke:Le:l 'Don't listen to a woman's advice' illustrate this point.

As her suggestions are not taken into account, a woman observes silence in many matters including her decisions regarding own marriage. Marriage is the most important social transition in a woman's life. Cultural expectations allow the boy, but not the girl, to express an opinion on the match before betrothal takes place. Her silence continues even at her wedding. A bride should be beautiful, but a bride should also be submissive and silent.

A man who listens to his wife will be referred to badly as poTTayyan or peNTa:TTi da:san 'hen-pecked husband' va:yilla: puucci 'an insect having no mouth'.


As Vasanthakumari (1991) points out, language is mixed with expressions that reflect the status of a woman as a commodity. Consider the following phrases denoting the action of performing the marriage of a girl. kaTTi koTu 'tie and give' (in marriage) or kaTTi vai 'tie (the knot) both refer to the process of giving a girl in marriage. Consider also the following expressions: ta:li kaTTu (tie the knot, by the bridegroom), peN eTu (take a girl for marriage), kannika: da:nam (giving away a virgin girl in marriage).


Tradition does not allow a woman to remarry or break the marriage but allows a husband to abandon his wife. But she is accused for the break up of her marriage. If a woman lives separately from her husband, she is labeled va:la:veTTi, a very derogatory term that literally means "a woman who sits idle without rendering seasonal services". The usage of the term malaTi 'sterile woman' also indicates that woman is blamed for everything. The matter of description of human qualities is based, for instance, on this double standard. A bold man is courageous (vi:ran) but a bold woman is aggressive (aTanka: piTa:ri).

A woman can be discarded by her husband easily as he is koNTavan 'the one who owned her.' Consider the following terms in this regard. taLLi vai or otukki vai "to abandon (her)" literally means, "to push aside." kai viTu means, "to abandon (her)." Literally it means, "to drop (from hand)." ce:rttuk koL means, "to take (her) back."

Since a husband is everything for a woman, status of a widow is the worst condition a woman can be placed in. A widow is referred to as vitavai, which does not have a male counterpart term. The other terms such as aRutali, ta:li aRuttavaL, moTTaicci, and munTai are very contemptuous and derogatory both in their literal and implied senses.


Many of the terms referring to the females are derived from the corresponding terms for the males, and this seems to be taken as the norm, not only for linguistic derivation but also for meaning derivation. However, for some terms there are no corresponding terms that would indicate the females. Consider the following examples:

aRinan 'scholar'
ca:nRo:n 'scholar/reputable men of good conduct, etc.'
vaittiyan 'doctor'
a:ca:n 'teacher'
amaiccan 'minister'

There are no female counterparts for these other terms.

Though certain professional terms have male honorific forms, these do not have the corresponding female honorific forms. For example, naTikan means '(male) actor,' naTikar (male honorific) 'actor,' and naTikai means 'actress.' Some other words that behave in this very manner are: talaivan '(male) leader,' talaivar 'male leader (honorific)' and talaivi 'female teacher'. There is no corresponding term for the female honorific leader. Since the honorific form is used to indicate the plural number, there is a provision to mix the female and male persons and use a plural number for the multitude. One may be tempted to say the forms listed as masculine honorific forms are common gender forms. Yet, in actual use, these often assume male reference.


When India became a Republic, many changes in the social set up of women had been initiated. The intention of the Constitution of India is to give equal rights to women. In the public domain, women are allowed to practice all the professions men practice. However, language has not changed much the attitude of the society. Perhaps language is a good reflection how the society views women, despite constitutional provisions to the contrary. Previously many occupational terms such as doctor, police, etc., readily evoked the image of a man rather than that of a woman. By adding certain feminine forms like amma: 'mother' and peN, woman' to these professional terms, new feminine forms have been developed. For example, da:kTar amma: 'lady doctor,' and peNka:valar 'police woman.'

Similar vocabulary differences on the basis of gender bias exist in other Indian languages. These differences are the result of the differences in the position and the status of the two genders in a given society. When these conditions change, the differences are bound to modify.


The inferior status of a woman is further revealed in the non-reciprocal usage of the forms of address. A husband generally addresses his wife by name or he uses a non-honorific address pronoun, namely, ni: 'you'. In many cases, a wife avoids addressing her husband directly using this pronoun. Instead she uses a question form tagged with a respect pronoun ennanka " 'what, with respect pronoun.' "e:nga" 'why, with respect pronoun'." In certain other instances she addresses him as son's father: go:kul appa: 'Gokul's father.' Sometimes, non-respect address terms (vocatives with less or non-honorific terms) like e:y, and aTiye: are used by the husbands to call their wives.

While a husband uses a non-honorific or less honorific reference pronoun 'ava' she' to refer his wife, she refers to him by a honorific pronoun ava˝ga 'he, with respect'. As non-naming denotes respect in many cases, she follows this pattern of address as well as reference.

Assuming a superior status in the society, a man commands his wife by using non-honorific singular imperatives like va: 'come', and po: 'go.' However, a woman uses the tag questions as substitutes for commands and this is considered to be a polite way of requesting a person to do a thing. maruntu va:nkittu vari:kala: ? 'Would you please buy medicine?'

The above discussed linguistic differences in woman and man's speech is interpreted as a reflection of men's dominance and women's subordination. Though a few changes in the status of woman are apparent now the old practices still persist. The nature of gender differences in Indian languages, clearly reflect the social and cultural factors prevalent in India. "If there is one message that echoes forth from the recently held international women conference in Beijing, it is that human rights are woman's rights and woman's rights are human rights". If this message is properly understood many of the gender discriminations will disappear.

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  1. Khokle, V.S. 1995. "Gender and Marathi," paper presented at the National Seminar/workshop on Language and Gender in Indian Languages, Baroda.
  2. Tirukkural. (English translation). 1989 Asian Educational Service, New Delhi.
  3. Vasanthakumari, T. 1991 "Language of women," IJDL.

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G.Sankaranarayanan, Ph.D.
Central Institute of Indian Languages
Mysore 570006
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