TED Conversations

Pabitra Mukhopadhyay


This conversation is closed.

He, she or s/he? Should languages be made gender neutral or be left on their own to preserve literary integrity?

My wife hates to be called an actress. She prefers ‘actor’ despite being reminded that semantically actor is not a gender neutral word. She maintains that words like author, actor, and doctor stress primarily on profession not gender.
I have a sneaking feeling she is feminist.
Feminists have long argued that sexist language can have real world consequences for gender relations and the relative status of men and women, and recent research suggests that grammatical gender can shape how people interpret the world around them along gender lines.
But language is as much a communication tool as literature. Some argue that steward and stewardess are distinct but equal terms and dropping one for another takes away the beauty of literary expression.
Interestingly there are a number of genderless languages, genderless in the less that these have no grammatical gender but have specific words to recognize gender. There are also natural gender languages which have evolved through a constant process on conscious neutralization of grammatical genders.
Things start to get serious when studies of Jennifer L. Prewitt-Freilino, T. Andrew Caswell and Emmi K. Laakso on the gendering of languages come to fore where after investigating 111 languages of the world their findings suggest that countries where gendered languages are spoken evidence less gender equality compared to countries with other grammatical gender systems. Furthermore, countries where natural gender languages are spoken demonstrate greater gender equality, which may be due to the ease of creating gender symmetric revisions to instances of sexist language.
Norway and Sweden show Global Gender Gap Indices of .82 and .81 (1 being ideally gender equal) and both these countries have natural gender languages. Yemen scores a GGG index of .46 with a gendered language.
Do you agree with this co-relation?


Closing Statement from Pabitra Mukhopadhyay

If language is supposed to be anything that reflects human consciousness, it needs to account for the discrimination towards women at one point or other. Societies may work consciously to change it towards gender neutrality or simply gender neutrality should impact it in meaningful ways. It may not be conclusive at this stage what changes what but this discussion leaves ample indications that it may not be wise just to ignore it.

Showing single comment thread. View the full conversation.

  • Mar 19 2013: Most of the languages prevalent in the world were evolved and developed many years ago. Sociological and cultural factors might have played an influential role in shaping these languages. As a result, we have a wide array of languages with diversity. Some have different verbs for different genders(e.g. Marathi/Hindi), some have different nouns/adjectives for different genders(Sanskrit), some are indifferent(Japanese).The beauty of languages lies in their differences and it should be retained.There must be a certain specific reason why these languages evolved this way. Unless the words are offensive or disrespectful, they should not be changed. So I think, it is not about language but attitude of society to perceive people on the basis of their gender. It's the question of gender inequality and not of the language.
    • thumb
      Mar 19 2013: Good point Amruta. May I give you two points of thought?
      1. Evolution is an ongoing process. So it is supposed to be working on languages today. It is not that languages evolved many years ago and then froze.
      2. Evolution normally does not carry forward junk. Which fails by evolution gets extinct. Why that should not be applicable for languages?
      • Mar 20 2013: Agree. Some languages become extinct because they are not flexible or too difficult to learn. Languages should evolve as per the changing times. But essence of languages -say, some basic grammar rules or some basic expressions/words should not completely be lost in this process. There must be some experts studying languages and changes occurred to them in different levels of evolution. So even if the language becomes extinct or not spoken by many any more,we can have knowledge of how a specific language was when in its original form.

        In the above "He, She or S/he context", I think, all languages should evolve in the way that users will have the option to use either gender related words or neutral words.
      • thumb
        Mar 21 2013: Pabitra and Amruta,
        You write Pabitra..."Evolution is an ongoing process. So it is supposed to be working on languages..."

        Does the process of evolution actually "work" on any particular element of evolution? Or do things simply evolve, as Amruta suggests...."Languages should evolve as per the changing times".

        I agree with you Pabitra, that the process of evolution probably does not "carry forward junk", and, "which fails by evolution gets extinct". Don't you think that automatically happens with words and language use?

        Like, you know like, we have new words becoming like dominant, like all the time, like you know???

        I'm noticing that students coming to the U.S from other countries, are picking up the filler word "like", as a normal part of English!
        • thumb
          Mar 21 2013: Colleen, evolution can be seen both ways. When the focus is on the system and it's state and we look for a reason why it changed, evolution comes as a process; distinct from the system. But when we focus on the change the system can be said to be evolving. I'd prefer the first view simply because in that view system and environments are recognized as separate entities and we become careful as part of the system, civilization in this case, how we interact with it.
          When language is a system it's changes are attributed to the environments and it's evolution can preferably seen as a force acting on it, changing it bit by bit, by trial and error, keeping the 'useful' and rejecting the 'useless'.
          Things get complicated, however, when both the system and the environment start to modify each other. We call evolution 'natural' when the influence is from environment to the system so when both elements start modifying each other, the evolution cannot be called natural.
          Amruta argues in favor of retention of diversity whereas in reality we are seeing homogenization of cultures. I have a feeling languages are changing subtly towards homogenization. The core of my debate wants to examine if the conscious neutralization of genders in languages will interfere with the natural evolution of language. I mean should we change language to facilitate a social gender enlightenment or rather leave language on its own and expect social gender enlightenment to work on language, which is a normal or natural way how languages evolve.
          Sumana minds being called an actress on account of her certain experience in social context which she possibly dislikes. But if there is enough social enlightenment along gender lines may be Sumana's great grand daughter will not mind being called an actress. If by then we have neutralized the language along gender lines she will be left with neutral words like blogger, consultant, doctor and actor.
          Will you consider that a loss or good riddance?
      • thumb
        Mar 22 2013: I am aware of evolution Pabitra, and I agree that it is a process. I believe, and it seems to be thought of, as a natural process.....as you insightfully say...it changes bit by bit...trial and error...keeping the useful and rejecting the useless.....I totally agree.

        I do not perceive Amruta arguing in favor of retention of diversity. In fact, Amruta clearly states..."Languages should evolve as per the changing times", which seems to be the same thing you are suggesting?

        Your question, as stated...."Should languages be made gender neutral or be left on their own to preserve literary integrity?", and your question above..."should we change language to facilitate a social gender enlightenment..." suggests to me the idea that the language is manipulated to "make" something happen....maybe awareness of equality?

        When we try to "maike" something happen, rather than allowing something to take a natural course, it doesn't seem like evolution, because I do not perceive natural evolution as being manipulated. Besides that, I am a very practical person and cannot imagine the time and energy it would take to change ALL languages!!!!! That seems VERY overwhelming!
      • thumb
        Mar 22 2013: Pabitra, my dear one, are we talking about language? Or climate change?

        I think/feel if a country chooses to change their language, that is fine. The last time I checked, I didn't have much influence with the world leaders, so if that is their choice....so be it.

        You asked..."
        " Should languages be made gender neutral or be left on their own to preserve literary integrity?"

        I believe that if a country wants to change their language, it is a choice they make, and I respect their choice. I believe my language is evolving, and if someone, somewhere is intent on changing the language, I will adapt:>)

Showing single comment thread. View the full conversation.