Category Archives: S

Steampunk, Science, and Sociolinguistics: a Steampunk Feminist Perspective

Sociolinguistics is the study of the positive and negative effects of society on language, while the sociology of language is the reverse, and focuses on language’s effect on society.

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As a writer, I am in love with language. But, as a woman, language isn’t necessarily my best friend. The English language is gendered, skewed to favour the male of the species. The easiest way to illustrate this is how the significance of the word ‘pro’ changes when it refers to a man or a woman. If a man is called a pro, you expect him to be a professional sportsman like a golf pro. If a woman is called a pro, the expectation is that she is a prostitute. A female golf professional is a lady golf pro, not just a golf pro. Welcome to the wonderful world of sociolinguistics!

As you can see from the example, the male pro is considered the ‘norm’ and needs no gender adjective. In most cases, a sports pro will be assumed to be a man. This is one of the problems facing women in science. If someone is a physicist, it is assumed that the individual is a man, because a woman would be a ‘lady’ physicist. Gendered language is all about labels.

Look at the sociolinguistic phenomenon of Mansplaining, a portmanteau of man and explaining; this is when a man automatically assumes a woman knows less than him and he has to set her straight. This is a phenomenon that I have often come across in my life, and yet I rarely see it expressed in books. My least favourite real life example, a non-zoologist tried to explain to me that insects have no sense of pain and so can’t feel it when you ram a hook through then to use them as fish bait. Then he called me squeamish. Mansplaining can only occur in a Patriarchal culture, when some men automatically assume they are the smarter than most (if not all) women. Such men tend to communicate differently with other men than they do with women, while, as a general rule, women tend to communicate the same with both men and women.

Mansplaining isn’t a modern behaviour, of this I am certain. You can bet your life that the average Victorian man spent a great deal of time explaining things to the little woman (note the adjective). After all, this was an era when people thought a woman might go mad if her brain was overheated with mathematics or science … like what Mary Somerville’s father thought might happen to Mary. Women weren’t allowed to vote, because they could only understand domestic concerns. This is the kind of thinking that didn’t allow women to matriculate at universities. Women were weak in mind and body – too bad they were the ones that had to go through labour and then raise the children.

So, as a Steampunk writer, I always try NOT to assume that Professor Smith is a man. I have a mechanical engineer who are also a mother of six, and a midwife who is a man. I try to recognise gendered language and work against it. Just because I set my narrative in Victorian times, I am living in an era that recognises that women and men can be anyone they want to be, and my prose should reflect that. This means that I won’t have just the men making scientific discoveries, nor will I have only women dominating the sciences.

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