TED Conversations

Pabitra Mukhopadhyay


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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.

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    Mar 19 2013: Pabitra, I guess that the question here is , have we become overly politically correct. The answer to that would be different for each person you ask. If we are writing instructions for a pilot of an airplane and use the term "he will .." does that mean that a female flying the plane should not perform the task? No that would be silly.

    If we went to every book and changed, where approperiate, all he / she to read s/he ... would all of the sexist people in the world be happy? No. There are a equal amount of males and females that want it all their way. For years we have read "he" as the person doing the task.

    To change the terms in a guide to Pregnancy to ... "s/he will be allowed to nurse the baby at the first opportunity"
    seems a little silly.

    Use the correct term when possable but to go nuts with this serves no real purpose and will not stop either the men or women who are sexist.

    If in a speech I use the term he or the term she in a sentence and you concentrate only on that ... what have you missed. Even though I gave you the answer for eternal youth .... you are only concerned with the male chauvinist pig at the microphone who hates women. A equal argument could be given for a female speaker.

    It is easy to find fault ... see only one side ..... emerge yourself in hate. I don't recommend it.
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      Mar 19 2013: I got your point Bob. But many women and I ( I am not a woman, at least the last time I checked) feel that God is male and have an attitude towards females.
      I understand that any language has contexts and context determines the applicability of gender assertions. I also understand that a language cannot be gender neutralized overnight or entirely. My question is whether such an attempt is wise, ethical or aesthetic and if the countries that have naturalized their languages for genders are progressing towards a freer and more gender equality.

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