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 18 2013: in a way we already have gone from he/she to e. . time to capitalize on the E, for U, as I . . . put them all on a basic capital letter . . . (as in drop the yo from yoU
    I find it interesting that in Holland, we have he/hij. She/zij. they/zij, she is /zij zij. and they zijn.
    in other words, 'She' and 'is' are the same words. while the pleural is femine as well.
    I do not know if any of the other languages have a similar.. I would think it would put a whole different slant on life.
    they also have jij or je for you. wij, for we and gij. . the genderless term, and of Capitalized for God. . .
    • Mar 18 2013: In Swedish we now have not only han (he), hon (she) but also hen as a pronoun for both.
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      Mar 19 2013: 'e' is a new think I learnt here. I am wondering how my poetry will feel with all 'he' and 'she' replaced with 'e'.
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        Mar 28 2013: there's always poetic license., no?
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          Mar 28 2013: Poetry is one great artistic expression of the humans, but art embodies aesthetics and appreciation which are always influenced by enlightenment and changing social orders. So the license should not be taken as a practical determinant of gender identities.
          I mean, 'she' as it comes in poetry most often deals with emotionality of feminine genders whereas it does hardly matter if the medical surgery undergone by someone comes from the hands of a female or male.

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