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.

  • Mar 23 2013: This is a massive question that becomes increasingly difficult to answer the more we try to understand what it actually asks.

    Is it possible it's more a culturally conditioned issue than a condition of gendered language? Does language influence culture or did culture influence language? It would take a very cleverly designed study to parse the distinction, I'm thinking a retrospective cross cultural meta analysis of the etiology of modern languages for several countries with disparate gender equalities. The control would have to be from a language which developed in a country where there has been equality from the beginning. A huge undertaking.
    • thumb

      . . 100+

      • 0
      Mar 26 2013: This study "a retrospective cross cultural meta analysis of the etiology of modern languages for several countries with disparate gender equalities." is an EXCELLENT idea Andrew. Is there a country where there has been equality from the beginning?
      • Mar 26 2013: Carolyn Mcauley (posted below this reply) may be able to lend directions.
        • thumb

          . . 100+

          • 0
          Mar 27 2013: Interesting - marked for further study -Thanks Andrew :-)

          "There is already a people who are gender neutral regarding words...they are in Zaire, Africa: Mbuti tribe ....The Mbuti tribe only have one word for elder,peer and child." This next part shows they are really smart: " They advocate competition as unacceptable as it isolates the winner and saddens the losers "

          5 Languages spoken in Zaire: French, Lingala · Kongo, Swahili · Tshiluba

          A sample of the language is:
          Bantu bonsu badi baledibwa badikadile ne badi ne makokeshi amwe. Badi ne lungenyi lwa bumuntu ne kondo ka moyo, badi ne bwa kwenzelangana malu mu buwetu.

          " All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood. "

          Beautiful !!
      • Mar 27 2013: I chuckled when I read "Brotherhood" and can only assume their gender neutral word for that interpersonal relationsip doesn't directly translate to English, though camaraderie might work :P
        • thumb

          . . 100+

          • 0
          Mar 28 2013: You are right!! That is funny :-) ....It seems English is the one needing to be upgraded....it'll take time but we can fix it. What word can we use to improve our language?

          " All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of _______________ - (Insert your better / best word?)

          I do like camaraderie...

Showing single comment thread. View the full conversation.