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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?

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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 18 2013: Removing gender differentiation in language and in the society are two completely different things.
    While there has been some evidence to show that the mother tongue one speaks may influence some of the cognitive processes in the mind (I suggest and recommend reading Guy Deutscher's book "Through the Language Glass" for a thoroughly insightful analysis of this phenomenon), it remains limited only to certain areas of the human experience, and logical reasoning is certainly not one of them.
    Admittedly, the linguistic system may influence one's associations about objects and people, but it is only one of the factors to determine the general social position of a person or a group of people. Historic development, contemporary social trends, influence of religion, etc. all work their way into our perception and judgment.
    So, to sum up, I do recognize that language can in fact influence how we think about people, but even if it were possible to instantly switch to a universal gender-neutral linguistic system, it would most likely still not solve any of the burning issues that sparked this discussion in the first place.
    • Mar 19 2013: is removing gender differentiation in society desirable? to me it's quite clear that men and women are different - equal, but different - and i see no problem with acknowledging this obvious fact in language or anything else. what's wrong with referring to a woman as she? it's the female equivalent term to 'he', and denotes no inferiority.
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      Mar 19 2013: "Removing gender differentiation in language and in the society are two completely different things." I am not sure. I shall try to get the book. Meanwhile can you please explain why you think so?
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        Mar 19 2013: It is known that if a language does not have a word for a certain phenomenon, it does not mean that its speakers cannot comprehend it. For example, there are languages with only two words for color (roughly corresponding to "light" and "dark"), and yet, its speakers are perfectly capable of distinguishing all the colors of the visible spectrum.
        In the same way, if we removed the male/female differentiation from language, and invented gender-neutral pronouns and, for the sake of the argument, names for professions, it would still not make people any less aware of the factual reality that people do, in fact, come in more than one gender and that we are all able to perceive and understand this.
        So my argument is that making changes in language alone wouldn't do much good in obtaining more equality for the genders in the society. Deep social changes, and changes in the mindsets of people, are necessary if we want any concrete improvement. It is not the words that are the problem, it is the associations that are connected with them. When we stop dominantly associating the word "actress" with appearance, and "actor" with actual talent, then we'll be on a good path toward equality.
        • Mar 20 2013: just an fyi i think in support of your argument, here in japan there are 2 personal pronouns, 'san' which is female or for either gender, and 'kun' which is for males only, yet there are no men complaining that the word 'kun' is discriminatory, and it has been argued that gender inequality is much larger in japan (personally i disgree, but that's another story).
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          Mar 20 2013: "So my argument is that making changes in language alone wouldn't do much good in obtaining more equality for the genders in the society. Deep social changes, and changes in the mindsets of people, are necessary if we want any concrete improvement. It is not the words that are the problem, it is the associations that are connected with them. When we stop dominantly associating the word "actress" with appearance, and "actor" with actual talent, then we'll be on a good path toward equality. "
          I am examining how language can affect deep social changes in the mindsets of people in the first place. My wife's or Colleen's views are indicative of their respective experiences how they have confronted the words like 'actress' in their lives. I think there is an insight to gained from that.
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        Mar 20 2013: If seeing how language can (or cannot?) influence the mind is what you're going for, I really do recommend Guy Deutscher's book like I said above, it was very eye-opening for me.

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