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: G'day Pabitra

    I think you’re as a big a worry as me somehow, you would fit in fine obviously & don't worry about the beauties chasing you just worry about the bronze Aussie blokes after your misses. :)

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      Mar 20 2013: That's a distinct possibility Mathew. However, I have enough worries of that kind here :)
      After head banging for 20 years together, I honestly wonder why she put up with me this long. May be women feel safe with men of lesser caliber than theirs. Or may be she just loves me.
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        Mar 20 2013: Haha.....I'm in the same boat as I keep saying to my misses why do you put up with it maybe you should find yourself a newer model!!
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          Mar 21 2013: I would advise your misses to stick to old, safer and trusted model as long it is functional ;)
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      Mar 23 2013: "For who can always act? but he,
      To whom a thousand memories call,
      Not being less but more than all
      The gentleness he seemed to be,
      But seemed the thing he was, and join'd
      Each office of the social hour
      To noble manners, as the flower
      And native growth of noble mind;
      And thus he bore without abuse
      The grand old name of Gentleman."


      Without good role models during developmental years (ages 10-18), reaching that degree of dignified chivalry is a struggle. Then at adulthood and marriage, young men have to wing it. So it would be helpful when fine gentlemen , like Matthew and Pabitra, would write books, to reach out to them and be that healthy figure for the young men of the world to emulate.
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        Mar 23 2013: G'day Juliette

        Quite a nice & exact poem but it certainly doesn't refer to me for the main reason I couldn't put myself in my uncles shoes who was a true gentleman.

        Maturity is a funny word to use because I wouldn't say that I was mature as I can be quite a nutter at times however not usually to the bounds of carless immaturity. I’m afraid most blokes are or seem to be self-centred especially when they get with their mates & once mixed with immaturity this combination can become quite unbecoming but if we also add in a little macho-ness we have a cocktail of self-deprivation in one’s mannerism, (Bohemianism).

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          Mar 23 2013: Hi Mathew,

          Maybe you can write about your uncle!! I am sure anyone who has a long standing 'living' marriage qualifies to contribute to the mentoring of our youth. We have a joke here about six-degrees of Kevin. Amongst other things, it means that we are six people removed from knowing Kevin; a gentleman ;-)lol.

          I totally agree with you, it is best to steer clear of that cocktail all together. In the end of the day, it won't do anyone any good. Actually, it won't do anyone any good at any time of the day!!

          Meanwhile we need another column now for new definitions for words like " maturity "...will include responsible, thoughtful, kind, honorable, fun, fair, flexible & right amounts of nuttiness!! lol.

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