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: i have a sneaking feeling that you are right about your wife!
    the words 'actor' and 'actress' are equivalent terms, being called an actress doesn't mean that she is something less than an actor. having these 2 distinct nouns is gender equal!
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      Mar 19 2013: Thanks for reinforcing my suspicion. But what puzzles me is why there is no blogeress, consultantess or doctoress'. Feels like something has happened meanwhile.
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        Mar 19 2013: I'm with your wife on this one Pabitra, and I do not call myself a feminist. I always prefered calling myself "actor" rather than "actress" simply because the word actress, to me, seems to project the idea of a "fluff head"....a person who is not as serious about the profession. "Actor" feels more credible to me....just my own personal preference, and a few people have felt it necessary to correct me a few times... that's ok:>)

        It's kind of interesting, to notice here on TED at times, how people for whom English is not the first language use words. I don't really care one way or the other, as long as the words used are not offensive. Perhaps I should be Hungarian:>)
        • Mar 20 2013: i came to realise long ago that words are not offensive, but people can be. if no offense was meant, none should be taken, and it does no-one any service to get offended by someone's choice of words.
      • Mar 20 2013: pabitra the reasons are historical. i could go into a long lesson about the introduction and evolution of words in english, but suffice it to saythat english has many quirks, and those quirks don't imply sexism or gender-bias, though they can be useful for differentiation.
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          Mar 20 2013: Interesting point Ben. Words cannot be offensive on their own because they carry meanings in context. But they can be weapons of hurtful or hateful damage and it will be unfair if a language does not provide a balanced retaliation on the same count. I am not emphasizing on verbal abuse here just the huge preponderance of sexist contexts in any language in favor of a particular gender.
          It's somewhat like Gun control debate in the US.
      • Mar 20 2013: quite right, what matters is what was meant, not what was said. people can also veil extreme offense in very fine words.

        some people are also quick to jump on verbal abuse and attempt to ban it, which is greatly damaging to society as it stifles debate. let hateful people say whatever they want, and let them be rebutted by the more rational. the worst thing you can do is ban hateful speech because you also ensure that rebuttals are never voiced.
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      Mar 20 2013: Good point Ben....it serves no-one to get offended by someone's choice of words. I didn't word that very well:>(

      I agree with you that intent is important.
      • Mar 20 2013: i thought u worded it quite well! i got your point and i think you're right on with it. the way you interpret the word "actress" to mean fluff-head is up to you, not the speaker, and i think you do well to acknowledge that it's just your own personal feeling. so many people would just assume that another person must also mean to use the word actress in a negative way.
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          Mar 21 2013: Thanks Ben,
          I am ok with my wording regarding how I expressed my feeling about personal preference with the words actor/actress.

          Then I wrote..."I don't really care one way or the other, as long as the words used are not offensive".

          I'm glad you reminded me that words are not usually offensive, and the way we use them, our intent, and/or interpretation is important.

          I had an interesting experience recently with this idea. I'm cleaning out my book shelves and donating books to the library. Sometimes, before they go, I read them one more time, which I did with the Autobiography of Malcolm X...co-written with Alex Haley (1964), which is probably when I first read it.

          They both refer to themselves and others as "Negro", and the first time I saw that word, I cringed....I didn't stop cringing until way into the book. No matter how many times I logically told myself that they certainly have a right to use that word, and it's ok, it still rubbed me the wrong way. I finally got over it, but that was a good example to myself of word usage, meaning, and one aspect of how and why our language changes and evolves.
      • Mar 22 2013: hi again colleen. thanks for sharing your experience it's very interesting to hear that a single word can have such an effect, but that it can be overcome.

        it's just amazing to me how people can find the word 'negro' offensive, it's refers to an ancestry of southern africa, and carries no connotations of a person's being a slave, of lower intelligence or social standing, yet many people take offense to it as if it did. i get the argument about evolution of language, but i dispute the many people who use it to conclude that we can use words willy-nilly and give them any meaning we like. all that does it obfuscate communication, and if we continue on this path we won't be able to say anything because there will always be a person who takes offense to one of our words!

        to be honest if someone finds offense at being called an actress, which carries no negative connotation at all, they're just wrong and should get over it. airhead actress, bimbo actress etc they might have a point, but those words actually do carry derogatory meaning.
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          Mar 22 2013: Hi again Ben:>)
          Words, and how they are used, can indeed have a big impact.

          I am aware of the origin of the word Negro. I also know the origin of the word Niger, and I recently had a challenge with that word as well, while reading about Heinrich Barth's exploration of the Niger River in 1850 - 1855.....interesting book BTW...."A Labyrinth of Kingdoms", "10,000 miles through Islamic Africa", by Steve Kemper...based on the journals and memoirs of Barth.

          Those words, were used in disrespectful, belittling, demeaning ways for so long, they became distasteful to use. I think it was people of color, who pushed the movement to NOT use those words?

          To be clear....I was not offended when called "actress", I simply had my own preference of "actor" when refering to myself:>)
      • Mar 22 2013: hi again colleen! i must apologise i didn't mean that you didn't know what negro meant, but that many people seem to get the impression it is derogatory.

        i wonder if you've lead us to the answer right there... in the past people who were disrespectful, belittling, and demeaning to people of colour used the word negro, but does that make the word disrespectful? i wonder if many people are not mistakenly attributing the offense to the words used rather than the person using them, or is it simply an association? this awful person used this word therefore the word is awful?

        you were clear before :) i'm glad to be having this conversation with a person who is aware of the difference! i'm also glad you've brought up the point of books more than once. as a teacher it is deeply troubling to me that many great works are discarded by well-meaning but misguided school boards simply because one word is used rather than their preferred alternative.
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          Mar 23 2013: Hello Ben,
          No need to apologise....I think I understood what you were expressing.....it goes back to our original exchange.....it is not the word that is offensive, but rather how it is used and the intent?

          I don't believe the disrespectful use of the word "makes" it disrespectful. I DO believe there may be an association? Intent and how it is used. I think my challenge with these words reminds me of an association which still impacts my heart and mind.

          I agree...it is too bad that books are destroyed because some folks do not like something about the book. When we can read, and have books available to us, we can learn ANYTING.....which....in my humble opinion, is a pleasure:>)

          Awareness helps in all aspects of the life journey.....does it not?
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          Mar 23 2013: Interesting discourse.
          Words by themselves cannot be offensive because offensive is subjective. Meanings of words are not intrinsic to them they apply in context. Contexts have relationship to history of social development.
          We know that a donkey is a fine animal, no dumber than a dog, even more diligent and as loyal. Still nobody will like to be called either a donkey or dog. Here in India people speak English in strange ways. I heard my university cricket coach to politely ask student players: please put your balls on the table.
          A person minds being called an actress not because semantics but because her experiences of putting the word in disrespectful context many times.

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