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 30 2013: Three aspects of language where sexual distinctions appear:
    1. Professions: As Pabitra said, "stewardess" is an example. German and French commonly use such gender designations. In English this is less common ("teacher" for both sexes), and many of these distinctions have disappeared. The suffix "-man" is a problem for some, though others take it simply as an "agent" designator without a gender implication. The usual replacement suffix, "-person" leads to some clumsier words, e.g., chairperson, fireperson, policeperson and foreperson. Many have turned to just "chair" or to "fire fighter" and "police officer," though "foreman" seems to be holding its own, as do "airman" and "seaman" in the Air Force and Navy. (Jokes are made about needing to switch to "woperson" and "huperson.") By the way, most hostesses and actresses don't seem interested in any change.

    2. Gendering of nouns: English doesn't use this, though most European languages do. Norwegian has 2 grammatical genders (common and neuter), but these have no relation to sexes of the objects spoken of. Thus man, woman, boy, girl, etc. are all treated the same grammatically. (Remnants of a feminine gender that existed earlier are still found in colloquial speech.) I see no hope of Germany, France, Italy, Spain, etc. ridding their nouns of gender any time soon.

    3. Perhaps the most productive target for those who are anxious to degenderize language lies in our pronouns. In English, for example, if we want to say, "When a person has a fever, __ feels bad." it has been common to fill in the blank with "he." This was long accepted as meaning "he or she," but is less accepted today. Replacements involve "he/she" or switching to plural and writing "they." The problem is easily solved by creating a new inclusive pronoun for this case.
    ( I'm running out of space so I invite you to check my note about this, written nine years ago, on my web site Blue Ridge Journal: http://www.blueridgejournal.com/brj-genderlang.htm )

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