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 26 2013: Don't confuse sexism with being able to differentiate between genders. To say that using the word 'actor' for both male and female genders eliminates the bias between sexes makes little sense, because grammatically the differences are simply used to differentiate between the two. Some people have decided to be biased against 'actresses' but is that to make us remove the word completely so they can't be biased against actresses anymore?

    If your first language is a gender indifferent language you may never truly understand a language which differentiates between genders, but it has very little (if anything) to do with sexism and gender bias. But as an english speaking person, to refer to an economy as "she" is very uncomfortable, of course. It is definitely not the same in gender differentiating languages
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      Mar 27 2013: I have least confusion there. I think sexism is noting but stressing the anatomical difference between male and female with subtle or explicit intent of statement of superiority of one over other or ridicule, belittlement and dominance of one over other. Gender is a linguistic response about the difference. I have been led to believe that grammatical gender of a language can shape how people interpret the world around them along gender lines. It seems a logical enough corollary to me that such a tool can be used to be overtly sexist in expression.

      The meaning of words seem to take on special significance in contexts. So it appears very plausible for me in a society that truly does not see the equality of genders can use gendered words to achieve sexist expressions. If I am not very wrong 'bitch' in English is semantically way more charged than a meaning 'female dog'.

      I don't think people just decide get biased about a word like 'actress' (particularly one who follows the profession of acting) but they rather get wary of such references on account of more uses of that word in contexts which are demeaning, disrespectful or casual than otherwise.

      I am not a professional linguist. But I think there is no such language as gender indifferent. There are languages which are grammatically gendered or there are languages that have no grammatical gender at all. The grammatically genderless languages are likely to have lesser discriminating contexts along anatomical differences between male and female.

      It looks logically possible to me that the societies that for centuries are trying to bridge the gender gaps on social indices must have tell-tale effects on the language for conscious gender neutralization. At least, such societies are less likely to accept sexism with any degree of fondness.

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