TED Conversations

Pabitra Mukhopadhyay


This conversation is closed.

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.

Showing single comment thread. View the full conversation.

  • thumb
    Mar 31 2013: This debate is not about English language's gender bias but about gender bias of languages as a whole and about the propriety of conscious neutralization of that bias in the context of linguistic integrity. But since we cannot discuss all languages in detail and English is the language of communication here, most discussions are veering around it, which I don't find unnatural.
    We see men and women as different and distinct. That is a biological truth. Socially, however, seeing such difference/distinction runs the risk of discrimination towards one, and I contend women. Sexist language is one expression of that risk. For English, sociolinguistically, there are clear expressions of discrimination towards women in as much as the language statistically exhibits more references of women as inferior to men than contrary.
    I would have been happy if I could see 'sexual distinction' in English as simplistically as Paul Lillebo did. Unfortunately, I see it right from the morphology of the language. Morpheme prefixes and suffixes such as -ess or -ette are used to derive feminine genders of words which enjoy the right to own the context with masculine bias. This reinforces my belief that linguistic expression of English language attests the biologically unfounded belief : women came from men or derived from men.
    Interestingly such derived feminine gendered words, by rule, do not imply just a difference and therefore equality. Semantically, the gendered pair words Master - Mistress, Governor - Governess, Call boy - Call girl are not of equal social meaning. I hope one will not dispute the degeneration of social class and importance of the feminine gender in each case.
    Even Man and Woman are not equal in meaning. I bid you to check the dictionaries to confirm the higher, broader and more powerful connotations of the word 'Man' compared to 'Woman'. If this is not bias, I don't know what is.
    • thumb
      Apr 1 2013: Labeling my contribution as "simplistic" certainly simplifies the task of evaluation for our fellow debaters. Strange, for one whose claimed mission is to rid our syntax of biased semantic labels.

      About your presumably non-simplistic recitation above, you say that the fact that the terms "Man and Woman are not equal in meaning," with "more powerful connotations of the word Man," shows conclusively that this is a result of bias. ("If this is not bias, I don't know what is.") But you haven't at all proved that these differences are the result of bias, only that they are different. The reason could perhaps be bias, but it could as well be experience and assessment. What investigations have you done to show that the uses of the words, over thousands of years, are not based on experience rather than simply bias?
      • thumb
        Apr 2 2013: Dear Paul,
        I am sorry if you didn't like my assessment of your argument as 'simplistic'. I would humbly draw your attention to the fact that here in TED there is provision for such assessment by anybody by way of clicking 'Thumbs up (Well argued!)', so I have not breached any any code of conduct, I suppose. I respect your contribution but like every one retain the right to assess it too. Kindly do not take it as anything personal.
        I am also sorry that you express your inability to elucidate the biological basis of your assertion, despite declaring your authority as a biologist. I am not one but love the subject and consider myself a student of it.
        As regards my investigation, I am also limited by character limitation here. But for you and anyone interested I propose an easy enough test. Take four authentic dictionaries like Merriam-Webster, Oxford, Cambridge and Macmillan; look up 'Man', count the contextual meanings (definitions) including idioms and note. Do the same exercise for 'Woman'. Compare.
        I find it very difficult to accept 'man' as representing human race on the basis of experience.

Showing single comment thread. View the full conversation.