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 20 2013: In response to a bunch of the comments in this thread, I think this is worth considering: Our languages shape our identities and how we perceive the world, so our labels are extremely important. I always write "their"/"they" and my more progressive professors (several of them have very postmodern-derived approaches, which is wonderful) take no issue with it, because languages are continually growing. Not everyone identifies as "male" or "female" so these terms exclude people who do not shove themselves into either of the two linguistically available boxes, nor are all who identify as "female" identical. It is a lot like saying "black" and "white" when these terms mean noting essential as no two people who fall under the category "white" have identical skin colouring, and that "grey area" between albino and ebony encompasses just about everyone. Basically, to use language to assert that difference is important maintains the social significance of difference, and therefore sexism and racism and every other bigotry are permitted to persist. I would certainly not advocate for changing it in books already written though, because our history shapes who we are, it's nothing to be ashamed of unless we don't grow from it.

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