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"Women in the history of linguistics—from marginalization to recognition" by Wendy Ayres-Bennett and Helena Sanson, co-editors of "Women in the History of Linguistics" published by Oxford University Press

Women in the history of linguistics—from marginalization to recognition

Women’s History Month raises issues of erasure and marginalization, authority and power which, sadly, are still relevant for women today. Much can be learnt from the experience of women in the past. We find inspiring stories of women who overcame prejudice and constraints of all kinds and who sometimes managed to gain recognition from their peers, only to be excluded from the history of their discipline. 

In the field of linguistics, this marginalization relates to some extent to what is today considered part of linguistics and the current valuing above all of theoretical work. Words matter: a broader definition of linguistics allows women across the centuries to be included in this scholarly field. Given the cultural and practical limitations imposed on their access to education across all cultures, we need to look outside more institutionalized and traditional frameworks to discover the contributions made by women to the study of language structure and function.

“Words matter: a broader definition of linguistics allows women across the centuries to be included in this scholarly field.”

Classic histories of linguistics, very rarely, if ever, include women scholars. We set about uncovering the contribution of women linguists—from European and non-European traditions— and their ideas and writings to give them the recognition they deserve. A group of equally motivated and determined scholars joined us in our quest. We looked for names, works and ideas, especially in those liminal spaces not reached by official historiography, that is, outside institutions, universities, and academies in more private and domesticated spaces. We decided to challenge categories and concepts devised for male-dominated accounts and expands our field of enquiry: we turned our attention not only to pioneers and exceptional women, but also to those non-exceptional women who nevertheless quietly moved forward our knowledge of languages, their description, analysis, codification and acquisition. Painstaking research in archives and libraries, looking at manuscripts and printed sources, gradually unearthed rich, fascinating, and often unexpected evidence of women’s contribution. 

For the earlier periods, it was difficult to find women who published grammars or dictionaries, but they did exist. Marguerite Buffet in seventeenth-century France wrote a volume of observations on the good usage of French specifically aimed at women (Nouvelles observations sur la langue françoise, 1668). Similarly, in 1740, Johanna Corleva published a Dutch translation of Port-Royal’s celebrated general and rational grammar. In Portugal, in 1786, Francisca de Chantal Álvares produced a compendium of Portuguese grammar for female pupils in convent schools, the Breve Compendio da Gramatica Portugueza para uso das Meninas que se educaõ no Mosteiro da Vizitaçaõ de Lisboa, at a time when the majority of women did not have access to formal education. Further afield, women missionaries were also active in the field. Gertrud von Massenbach joined the Sudan Pioneer Mission in 1909, as a teacher of mathematics in Aswan, in Nubian territory. Her linguistic interests led her to publish a dictionary with a grammatical introduction of Kunûzi Nubian (Wörterbuch des nubischen Kunûzi-Dialektes mit einer grammatischen Einleitung, 1933) and a collection of Nubian texts (Nubische Texte im Dialekt der Kunuzi und der Dongolawi, 1962).

“We need to look outside more institutionalized and traditional frameworks to discover the contributions made by women to the study of language.”

But there is much more. Women were, for instance, the intended audience or dedicatees of some of the earlier vernacular grammars in Europe. The Gramática de la lengua castellana (1492) by Antonio de Nebrija, the very first printed grammar of a vernacular language in Europe, was commissioned by Queen Isabella I of Castile and, according to Juan de Valdés, was meant to be of benefit, “para las damas de la sereníssima doña Isabel” (“for the ladies-in-waiting of Her Very Serene Highness Queen Isabel”). Women were translators, language teachers, collectors of data on endangered languages, and creators of new scripts. In Jiangyong county (Jiāngyǒng xiàn) of Hunan (Húnán) province in China, a rural territory surrounded by mountains, the nǚshū script (“female script/writing”) was used and transmitted among village women for at least one and a half centuries: a variant of the Chinese script, it represents a significant example of Chinese women’s contribution to character invention and development. 

Women also assisted male members of their families, or male colleagues, in their work as linguists. Lucy Catherine Lloyd (1834-1914), the sister-in-law of the German linguist Wilhelm Bleek, was his most important collaborator. Together they created the nineteenth-century archive of ǀXam and !Kung texts (today called the Digital Bleek and Lloyd), an invaluable resource for linguists working on Khoisan languages. Cinie Louw followed her husband Andrew Louw to South Rhodesia (today Zimbabwe) to work on the Morgenster Mission, learning the local language, Karanga, a Shona dialect, and becoming a fluent speaker. Their 1919 translation of the Bible into Karanga was a joint effort, preceded in 1915, by an important manual of the Chikaranga Language. 

Other women’s linguistic work has been neglected or overshadowed, the men with whom they collaborated reaping the benefit of their efforts. The young Chiri Yukie (1903–1922) helped codify the oral tradition of the Ainu people of Hokkaido in northern Japan. Thanks to her bilingual and bicultural knowledge she was able to collect a wide range of oral performances, preserving them for posterity and making them accessible by translating them into Japanese. Her invaluable work ultimately ended up promoting, instead, the career of a prominent male academic who was awarded the Imperial prize for his work on the Indigenous language. 

“Women’s personal and professional life cannot be separated in a way that has been possible for male scholars across the centuries.”

What came to light, piece by piece, through reading their personal stories, was the challenges women had to face in male-dominated academia. Women’s personal and professional life cannot be separated in a way that has been possible for male scholars across the centuries. Theirs are often tales of perseverance and determination. Take the example of Mary Haas, a stalwart of twentieth-century American Indian Linguistics and a central figure in the Boas-Sapir tradition, which laid the foundation for current language documentation practices. Haas found her marriage in 1931 to Morris Swadesh limited her opportunities both within linguistics and with respect to employment generally. Given the scarcity of academic appointments, she considered getting a teaching certificate to teach in public schools in Oklahoma to support herself and her fieldwork on Native American languages. However, as a married woman she was unlikely to get hired in a public school. Undeterred, she wrote to Swadesh asking for a divorce so that she might be able to support herself. Swadesh agreed. Their divorce was meant to allow Haas to pursue more avenues of employment, although her plans were ultimately interrupted by World War II. 

Uncovering such stories proved complicated, but extremely rewarding. And the more we found, the more we have become convinced that there is still so much more to discover.

Read a free chapter from Women in the History of Linguistics on Oxford Academic.

Featured image from the cover of Women in the History of Linguistics by Wendy Ayres-Bennett and Helena Sanson.

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