TED Conversations

Pabitra Mukhopadhyay

TEDCRED 50+

This conversation is closed. Start a new conversation
or join one »

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?

+5
Share:

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.

Showing single comment thread. View the full conversation.

  • thumb
    Mar 23 2013: I always thought men treated their ships as “her” due to the fact that it connected them to the idea of a “her” and that it engendered a sense of worth, treat her like your mother or wife and you would look after her more. Yes, english is transformative, old english is some what strange to hear. How would one introduce their daughter to someone? What would replace he or she? I asked my youngest niece what she thought and i hope it gets her to think on it or years from now she looks back and asks herself “ Did that freaky uncle of mine know something” Ah, the future, what does it bring?
    • thumb
      Mar 23 2013: I shall be keen to know what your niece thinks. I came to know that 'e' is being proposed to replace 'he' or 'she'.
      See, Ken, I have this dilemma. I know that English and most languages have gender asymmetry. For a society free from gender bias that kind of language should change, arguably.
      But I like the language for it's literary beauty which I may miss if the language is changed.

Showing single comment thread. View the full conversation.