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: If I may add.
    It will be rather silly to argue that we depend on languages to understand the difference between male and female - biological evolution takes over much before the linguistic expression can start to mean anything to us. I think higher primates understand the difference quite functionally in the survival race. Its seems to me that femininity and masculinity are contrived ideas of societies that result from gendered words and their usage.
    Virtues are traditionally attached to femininity and masculinity such that tenderness, beauty, grace, kindness are attached to one and roughness, power, speed and intellect to another. Our whole literature attested this difference for centuries. Why that has to be like this for ever, I wonder.
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      Mar 30 2013: I'm afraid masculinity and femininity are not "contrived ideas of society..." Humans are an animal species, derived from anthropoid stock. Let's look at our closest relatives to see whether masculine and feminine features are "contrived ideas." We see in the great apes great innate differences between the sexes, not just physically but in their behavior and their roles. Unquestionably the early humanoids had similar differences between the sexes, and they have persisted to the present, not by any means "contrived."
      The inborn differences in behavior result partly from the genetic program of hormone production during a lifetime, which functions to assure reproduction and care of the young. If we decide to try to change the natural behavior patterns, fine, but let's start by acknowledging that that is what we are doing. Denying the natural differences between the sexes is a silly starting point.
      (If we want to be real sure, we can look further at the behavior of other higher animals, and see whether any differences between the sexes are natural or cultural. Look at birds and their mating and nesting behavior. Look at deer. And does a bull behave like a cow? A rooster like a hen? And are these cultural?)
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        Mar 30 2013: I wish I could agree with you.
        Human societies have no parallel in the animal world. There are some rudimentary social behavior in some animals but nothing comparable in the scale and depth as that of human societies. So any biological logic can hardly extend up to human social traits and let us see language as one of those traits.
        I have maintained that gender and sex are not equal descriptions of reality. I'd argue that concepts of masculinity and femininity are not appropriate descriptions of sexes or genders either. These are way deeper than behavior and biological differences. For example when we say 'be a man' we do not necessarily doubt his anatomy.
        We show a bias ascribing qualities like tenderness, beauty, shyness, modesty, lack of aggressiveness and power to femininity and roughness, courage, outspokenness, brazenness, aggression and brute power to masculinity. This bias is reflected in our languages and attested by our literature. There is no biological basis to this bias. So I think the ideas are contrived.
        Do you behave like me? If not, do we need different genders?
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          Mar 30 2013: "There is no biological basis to this bias." I wonder how you have determined that?
          With education in anthropology and evolutionary biology one recognizes that human societies have very deep parallels with the animal world. The genetic imprint of our distant ancestors, long before the rise of the human species, is still actively operating in our DNA. One cannot deny this, though one can be unaware of it.

          As to "biases," no one who has experience with life really believes that men are not often tender, shy, retiring, afraid, or introverted, or that women are not often aggressive, rough, crude, and lusting for power. There is clearly not an either-or distribution of such features between the sexes. This is known to everyone. But so is the existence of certain sexual ideals, which of course not everyone shares. The publishers of "women's magazines" and "men's magazines" have pretty well figured out what sells. You might take a look at some of these for a clue about majoritarian sexual-selection ideals. You'll find a remarkable consistency about the male ideal in the women's magazines, and vice versa. Here again, biology rules. It's the same thing as the female bird selecting her mate on the basis of ideal male sexual characteristics - often species-specific desirable colors or form of the plumage. In mammals, male power and ability to protect the female and the young have been common selection criteria, as they still are in humans. (No surprise here.) Sexual ideals and selection have been key factors in the evolutionary development of the higher animal species, including Homo sapiens. We are not as free of our genetic lineage as you might think. Check out a course in evolutionary human biology; it's fascinating.
          Paul L.
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        Mar 30 2013: Please make your stand clear. Do you contend that the ideas that go with femininity and masculinity are direct outcomes of biological differences? Do you also contend that language and literature do not have stereotypes of feminine and masculine for any contexts other than biological difference? It is necessary to have that clarified because my high school biology taught me that in the animal world, there is nothing such as feminine or masculine, just male and female.
        I don't think there is any animal other than humans who use female beauty, fragility, desirability and male power, smartness and aggression as statements in contexts different from biological evolution. Check the media and advertisements, if literature is too huge a reference.
        Additionally, since you are a biologist, kindly enlighten me with the examples of species (other than humans) who select sexual partners on the basis of color of hair, a given body shape (different from genitalia), intelligence and emotional make up.
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          Apr 1 2013: Sorry I can't give you a biology course here, Pabitra. I said it above, but I'll say it again: Many animals use their species' standard of appearance (beauty) or fitness or performance or power, etc., to choose a mate. So do humans. If you're trying to change that, I'm afraid it's a lost cause.

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