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 25 2013: I suggest we should have gender neutral words in English for huMAN, perSON, he or she, unless talking about a male or FeMALE.

    But leave existing literature as it is.

    Language is powerful in how it limits or empowers us and the influences the way we think.

    It may be a factor in the Nordic countries, or did the Language reflect a preexisting bias? But I suggest there is more to it than just language.

    I note New Zealand was also one of the first countries to give women the vote, and English is the dominant language.
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      Mar 26 2013: Ob, I don't think the gender balance in NZ has anything to do with English rather it is the result of the underlying Maori culture and language.
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        Mar 26 2013: Hi PM,

        With respect I suggest underlying Maori culture had very little to do with the movement in NZ to get the vote for women.

        Maori culture was not that influential 100+ years ago. It probably has minimal impact on those of European decent even today.

        Interesting that Maori language has gender neutral pronouns.

        I note the bible reinforces wo Man - women made from men in genesis 2. But not in genesis one when is says they were created at the same time.
    • Mar 26 2013: I propose humin and perple.

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