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 23 2013: Words are POWERFUL things. They can inspire or they can hold us back. For too long, the words "He" and "She" have been used against the "She" persons. There is a place for them, but there is also a NEED for gender neutral words.

    have you seen the TED talk where a linguist discovered a correlation between savings rates in countries with a language that use a future tense and those countries with languages that don't have them. i.e. Some languages say "It will rain tomorrow" whereas others say "It rain tomorrow". Those persons speaking languages that do not include a future tense have far higher savings rates than those who use languages such as English.

    Words are powerful unto themselves. Words have meanings. If there is no word to convey meaning, then people are harmed. Such as women in situations where gender is meaningless but used as a weapon anyhow.
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      Mar 23 2013: It looks though many believe here that languages are results of our thoughts and not vice verse. I find it difficult to accept. Some argue that gender neutrality in a language is no measure of gender equality in the countries/societies where such languages are spoken. I have noticed that it was argued a conscious gender neutralization of languages is only a cosmetic dressing over the fissure across the gender lines.
      I think there is a lack of understanding regrading how a conscious gender neutralization works on a language. Such processes are not disruptive but incremental and works over huge spans of time, even centuries. I think such long and deep process cannot possibly be academic experiments but rather manifestation of societies' urge to shake free from gender discrimination. If English is not sufficiently gender neutral even today it might mean lack of true will by societies/countries to see women as equal where the language is spoken natively.
      I am not very fond of so called feminism which appears to seek special attention to women rather than true equality and I like women being different from men. I mean steward and stewardess are equal words - but what is the stress here? On stewardship or the gender of the person?

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