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Marked nouns: a hit at gender equality?

On this week’s edition of “That’s What They Say,” host Rina Miller and Professor of English at the University of Michigan Anne Curzan discuss the irksome “ess” added to the end of nouns to indicate a female in words like authoress, actress and governess.

These “ess” words are ubiquitous in the English language. But do we really need them? And does the distinction in fact diminish the word’s meaning? This practice in linguistics is called markedness.

Markedness is about an asymmetry in, for example, a pair of words where one is a more neutral term - the dominant term, and one is marked somehow - it’s specialized,” says Anne Curzan.

Examples include authoress versus the unmarked author, or actor versus actress. In these examples, there’s arguably no difference between the marked and neutral term beside the "ess" added to indicate the noun is female. However, as Curzan explains, history has had a pejoration of the marked word due to sexism in the past.

“As a historian of the language I’m struck by these asymmetrical pairs…where the female term undergoes pejoration, or the acquisition of negative, lower status meanings. And it’s impossible to disentangle that from a history of sexism."

According to Curzan, “early on, a governor and a governess both governed. But over time, a governess, she governed children, and then she became the teacher of children and no longer had the stature of a governor.”

-Austin Davis, Michigan Radio Newsroom

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