Should language be more gender neutral?

12 min read
Should language be more gender neutral?
Artwork by Mantraste

Back in 1986, Whoopi Goldberg said in an interview for NBC: “An actress can only play a woman. I’m an actor – I can play anything.”

Fast forward to 2018, and most female actors call themselves actors, not actresses — just as Frances Mcdormand did at the Oscars last year when she asked all the female actors to stand up with her at her acceptance speech for, ironically enough, the Academy Award for Best Actress.

Gender-specific nouns in English are now often considered inappropriate or even sexist. Waiters and waitresses have now become servers. Stewards and stewardesses are now flight attendants. And policemen and policewomen are now just officers.

I find this particularly intriguing. Sure, language changes every day. New words are added to our dictionaries every year: frenemy, YOLO, bromance, clickbait, crowdfund, binge-watch, Brexit. However, those changes don’t seem to draw the same level of attention as the efforts to root out biases in the way we speak and make language gender neutral.

And it’s definitely not exclusive to the English language.

For instance, here in Portugal, where I’m from and where most of us at Unbabel are based, we’ve been having a similar discussion. Portuguese, like French, is a very gender marked language and has no neutral grammatical gender. Some people have tried to “ease the tensions” between genders by replacing the letter that makes a word feminine or masculine with X or @ (instead of the masculine plural form of the word “todos,” in English “everyone,” you would write “todxs” or “tod@s”). But, in spite of being less gender centered, it looks weird and sounds funny.

I’m a feminist myself, but I’m also a writer with OCD when it comes to language. So, after hearing a lot about this, I figured I couldn’t really make up my mind about the subject.

Does the language we speak promote sexist views? Should we consciously change it? And would a change in language improve women’s status in society? Is it worth the trouble?

The French scandal

On November 2017, France was caught in the middle of a heated debate over the future of its own language. A school textbook promoting a more inclusive version of French had been released, making purists fly off the handle.

The Académie Française, France’s ultimate language authority, issued a furious statement right after the book’s release. The document signed by the academy’s 40 members — only five of whom are women — described the gender neutral text as an “aberration” that puts the language in “mortal danger,” and concluded that “inclusive writing” has no place in the country’s grammar books.

But not everyone was happy with that statement or the Académie’s role over the years for that matter.

The Académie, which was founded in the 17th century with the goal of “regulating and purifying the French language,” champions a conservative linguistic approach. And yet according to Heather Burnett, a research scientist at the French Science Foundation, “none of their members are linguists or people who systematically study the French language.”

Regardless of their mostly intuitive knowledge of the French language, they did manage to change the conversation with that statement. They sparked outrage among feminists and political progressives, who defend that the gendered nature of language promotes sexism.

French is a tricky language when it comes to grammatical gender, which often has nothing to do with biological sex — a table isn’t feminine, no matter what the feminine article une, as in une table, might lead you to believe.

Indeed, in French, you have masculine and feminine pronouns, nouns, and adjectives. The gender discrepancy is especially noticeable when you use a noun in the plural. Why? Because in French the masculine form always prevails over the feminine, even if you’re referring to a mixed audience. As if there were only men in the room.

The relevant question here though is, does this structure in language promote sexism as some people suggest? And if we change the language does it trigger a change in society? Or is it the other way around?

Should language be more gender neutral?

Not all languages are the same

First we need to understand that every language is different. There’s no better person to explain why other than Helena Moniz, a linguist and researcher at the University of Lisbon.

The first thing Helena told me when we talked about this was that not all languages are the same, that languages evolve in different directions. “Languages derived from Latin lost their neutral grammatical gender a long time ago.”

So, it’s easy to see that languages progress through time. And when it comes to grammatical gender that’s really no different.

Romance languages, like French, Portuguese or Spanish, for instance, lost Latin’s neutral grammatical gender along the way. On the other hand, languages such as Finnish, have kept their neutral grammatical gender — the word “hän” in Finnish is gender-neutral and means both “she” and “he.” And English. Old English used to have three grammatical genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter.

But does this mean that, in countries and cultures where people speak more gender neutral languages, there’s more gender equality? Is there less gender discrimination in Finland than in France? Well, not necessarily.

The gender gap statistics are a bit of shock. As Saadia Zahidi, the Head of Education, Gender and Employment Initiatives at the Economic Forum, explains: “If the pace of change that has happened over the last 12 years continues to hold true in the future, it will take another 100 years to close the global gender gap.”

But, in spite of how long it might take us to get there, there are a few countries where the gender gap is narrower than others. One of them is actually Finland. If you look at the Global Gender Gap Report of 2017 you may notice that Finland is the third-most gender equal country in the world. Quite impressive. And yet France is number 11. And Portugal number 33.

However, countries like Turkey or Hungary, both countries with more gender neutral languages, are much further down on the list. Hungary is number 103 and Turkey? Well, Turkey is number 131 on a list made of 144 countries in total.

Does language promote sexist views?

So, maybe, changing language is not all it takes. But is it at all relevant? Or is it trivial?

The thing is, most of those who are pushing for a more gender-neutral language think that some language traits promote sexist views. But it’s not that simple, according to Heather Burnett from the French Science Foundation:

“I think that it’s important to distinguish between the language and its expressions, and then how the speakers choose to use it. So for example, in France, as in many other places in the world, there are people who hold sexist views, and surely the French language gives them ample ways for them to express those views. But for people who are interested in equality between men and women, French also provides ample ways for being gender inclusive. So I don’t think that language itself promotes sexist views.”

In spite of all this, as Heather Burnett puts it, changing language is not trivial at all.

“What’s clear is that the particular language that you use communicates information, and by changing language, even slightly, you’re gonna slightly change the information you communicate. And we also have reason to believe that very slight changes in information can affect non-linguistic aspects of the world.”

A good example to prove this is job ads.

There have been many studies of the English language that have shown that, if you write a job ad using a masculine pronoun or use more words associated with male stereotypes, you’ll actually receive fewer applications from women.

Should language be more gender neutral?

How does language become more gender neutral?

For these reasons, taking a closer look at how we speak and write, and at how we communicate in general, will do no harm. But what happens when the language you speak does not allow you to be gender neutral or more inclusive? How can you change language? Should that change be imposed on others?

To answer these questions we probably need to look at how language changes over time.

I mentioned this before but English, or at least Old English, used to have grammatical genders. And, somewhere between the 13th and 14th century, the grammatical system changed.

So, why did English lose its grammatical genders? Did it have anything to do with gender equality? Well, probably not.

According to Anne Curzan, Professor of English, Linguistics, and Education at the University of Michigan, and author of a book called “Gender shifts in the history of English,” there are a lot of factors that made English lose its grammatical genders, but there’s one that is slightly more important, and that is language contact.

So, during the Middle Ages, English had contact with other languages, such as Old Norse, which had different grammatical structures, and these languages may have contributed to the loss of grammatical gender.

This is a great example of how we can have subtle changes in language, that occur gradually over time without most of us even realizing it. And those changes are usually very successful.

The intriguing part, though, is when we consciously impose changes on language. When someone, or a group of people, tells you how you should speak, how you should write, and how you should communicate in your own language. That, according to Anne Curzan from the University of Michigan is very, very hard to do:

“Most of the time conscious language change is very hard to enact. We as speakers do not tend to follow rules that we are told to follow. So if you tell us to stop using one word or to use it differently, we have a lot of trouble paying attention.”  

But this doesn’t mean it hasn’t ever happened before. It’s improbable, yes, but not impossible. And Anne Curzan gives a really good example of a conscious language change in English that goes all the way back to the women’s liberation movement in the 1970s.

The 60s and 70s saw the emergence of second wave feminism in the US which brought many women to the streets in protest demanding equal rights. Like journalist and feminist Gloria Steinem, feminist author and activist Betty Friedan, Sandra Hayden, Mary King, and many others.

However, what’s interesting is that this social movement also demanded a change in language related to the use of “generic he,” as Anne Curzan explains:

“In English, we were told for a couple hundred years that we were supposed to use ‘he’ to talk about a generic person. This started in the late 18th century and went through the 1980s, where we were told that is was grammatically ‘correct’ to say for example, ‘a teacher should learn his students’ names.’ And in the 1970s many feminists pointed out that it was sexist to act as though the generic person was masculine, and that the pronoun ‘he’ does not encompass everyone. So there was a conscious effort to change that construction.”

The result was that in the following 30 years, the general advice was to use “he/she” to be more inclusive. And what is really shocking is that it worked. Why? Because it was integrated in a social movement. You had a call for a language change that aligned with really important social changes.

Should we push for a more gender neutral language?

This kept me thinking that gender neutral language is not really just about women. As Helena Moniz told me, not everyone’s comfortable if you make language just more inclusive for women and ignore everybody else: “A lot of people may not feel comfortable with the binary system and every human being should feel comfortable with who they are.”

And that is why some English speakers are pushing for the use of “singular they” as a gender neutral pronoun and letting people choose their own personal pronoun.

For instance, at the University of Michigan, where Anne Curzan is a professor, students get to choose their personal pronoun when registering for classes.

But this is not a new thing. As Anne Curzan explains, “speakers have been using ‘singular they’ for hundreds of years, as a generic gender neutral pronoun.” However, in the last few years, there has been a real push to include “singular they” as a gender neutral pronoun for those who don’t fit in the binary system.

And in the end, it’s really all about respect: “As far as I’m concerned, respecting people’s pronouns is part of respecting people. And if someone says, ‘this is my pronoun and my pronoun is they,’ then it is respectful to use someone’s pronoun.”

The problem, however, is that when we debate language we’re almost always debating more than language. And in fact, discussing grammatical gender is really the perfect storm as it combines our language anxieties with our social gender anxieties, which probably explains why this topic draws so much attention.

Some people might say that changing language is trivial. But as Anne Curzan puts it:

“Nobody is saying we should just change language, you should also give women equal pay, and give everyone equal access to opportunities. But couldn’t we change language to be more inclusive as part of the same effort? And what we do know is that if you change the way people speak, you change what other people hear. And so if, in English, we’re using ‘singular they,’ which includes everyone, and I talk about the next future president of the United States and what they might do, well that opens the door that anybody gets to be the next president of the United States. It doesn’t put any bias in there that I expect this person to always be a man. So it changes what people hear. Does that change the world? I mean, at some level, sure, because it changes what people hear.” 

Ultimately, language reflects who we are. We can see the world in black and white, or we can learn to live with everything in between.

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