Gender-Neutral Languages

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One interesting field of linguistics that overlaps with the empowerment of women is that of gender-specific language.

In many languages, different things are assigned a gender, i.e. some words are only grammatically correct when taken as female/male. Other words (especially job titles) are completely male – at the time they were made, the assumption was that no woman would ever hold the title.

English is a language that is relatively free of such grammatical constraints. It allows for much flexibility, and with men like Shakespeare having started the ravenous culture of neology that has taken the language by storm, it is easy to adjust words to every situation.

Take for example, the word “Chairman” or “Foreman”. This word is clearly used to designate a man in a position of power. But, what if a woman holds it? What do you say then? Do you stutter? No! You can just say “Chairwoman”, and it will be acceptable. But some people have gone on even further, and decided to eradicate the gender-specificity of the word – let’s just go with “Chairperson”, they said! And in a flash, a potential problem was disarmed.

The English language, being a fusion of Germanic and Latin languages should really have a lot of gender-specific words, but it became much less “purer” throughout its history and development through the Dark Ages and then the coarse language spoken by the serfs in medieval England. Towards the 16th century, as the English sphere of influence grew, it began to absorb many French words, changing its face again. As it grew even further and became widely recognized as a language that could unite people in all places, the English language started catering to its global audience and underwent several changes that made it more accessible to people from all places.

Due to its lack of stringent grammatical rules, English is now the most widely spoken language in the world and it appears that it will continue to be so for a very good number of decades in the future.

Feminists were the first to criticize the usage of so many gender-specific words on the basis that it created and upheld a state of gender bias, especially in children. When infants pick up words, they very often need visual aids to fully comprehend them, and if the word ends with woman/man, then they’ll simply picture a woman/man doing that particular job. Take “midwife”, for example. The very fact that the word has “wife” in it implies that no man should do the job. But that’s not true.

Some differences are even more subtle – they allow grammar to come into play.

Take the word “actor”, for example. For many long years, this word caused a lot of controversy in the world of film. Females starring in movies were called “actresses”, but this seemed rather demeaning to them and it was a fact that the more successful actresses were generally called “actors” by the media. Of course, so were men. In fact, it was an indication that female actors – or actresses – were not being taken very seriously at all. Thus, many of them refused to accept the term and until today, it is not uncommon to hear the popular phrase, “She’s a terrific actor”. It may be incorrect, but it is very often said and not just as a result of poor linguistic skills – it has been used by certain media to give women more credibility.

The most controversial word is the one we use the most – “man”.

Feminists from around the world have made a chorus of voices requesting that its use to refer to the entire race be abolished. The logic is that it portrays humanity – or mankind – as predominantly a male-dominated species.

Ironically, many people still say, “I love dogs” in reference to both dogs and bitches (although that may be down to the latter’s use as profanity). The central point is that feminists do not want history to only remember men’s achievements, or women’s achievements as a derivative of men’s. Thus, they request that historians and educators stop using words like “mankind” or “man” to describe the entire species. It has its merits as an argument, but it is unlikely to change anytime soon due to the lack of focus given to many feminist requests.

Another issue that many proponents of gender-neutral languages have is with the honorifics used when addressing a male and a female. For example, the title “Mr.” is completely ambiguous, and provides absolutely no identification of the man’s marital status. However, for women, we have the words “Mrs.” and “Ms.”, which are both completely unambiguous in their specification of the woman’s marital status. There is a clear disparity here as compared to men, and if it is an issue for women, it should be addressed.

The greatest thing about us, humans, is that we can very quickly move forward from old habits if we wish. Where once upon a time, most job titles did have gender-specific names, it is almost impossible to find them now. Positions do not highlight whether or not a man or woman is preferred, opening the doors to equal employment opportunities for men and women.

Still, completely gender-neutral languages might not be the answer. Laws should simply be passed as to how certain things should be addressed, especially on public forums. The beauty of tongues is in their variety, and making every language bland and politically correct would surely lose a lot of it.


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