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 27 2013: The only place gender language actually has a role is in the doctor's office. Outside of that, it's a leftover mechanism from an archaic part of the mind - one that can only group things into a few simple containers.

    Gender itself is really just a mix of personality traits that are linked to the reproductive role of that organism. The problem with us is that, in relations to gender, is that we always attempt to stuff 7 billion people into just two of them, even though the variety of 'genders' increases every day.

    Variety is hard/scary to deal with, so it's much easier to place everyone into two 'roles' and expect them to act accordingly. Are you a big, muscular woman? Are you a short, skinny male? Do you act according to what your culture dictates for your sex? Does your sexuality match the preferred norm? It doesn't matter who or what you actually are, because at the end you're still just 'he' or 'she', and those two terms invoke certain connotations that are 'expected' to be acknowledged and conformed to, or in the case of a reader of the terms, invoke a certain image.

    That is the real debate. Conformity and codependency to a term that's used to describe oneself, even though the definition of it might hardly be 'you' in reality. You also see great amounts of anger when males are females are considered with more equal terms, usually from the male population.

    Why does it matter whether I know the sex of the person delivering my mail? The only thing in your body that cares is the sexual reproductive parts of it. That's the part of human beings that actually wants gender language to remain in place.

    The languages that assign genders to items illustrates this all that well. They have set connotations/expectations for males/females and assign those attributes to items that they feel mimic them. Why? Because that's the only way in which they can (currently) think - with stereotypes.

    Replace the word "gender" with "personality" and you start to see how silly it

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