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Should language be more gender-neutral?

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 gender-neutral version of French had been released, making purists fly off the handle.

The Académie Française, France’s ultimate authority on the French language, issued a furious statement right after the book’s release. The document signed by the academy’s 40 members — only 5 of whom are women — described 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.

If the academy’s goal with this statement was to reach some kind of détente they completely missed the mark. The document sparked even more outrage among the dissident and feminist crowd, who defend that the gendered nature of language promotes sexism. They look at a gender-neutral version of French as a way to generally improve women’s status and to push for a more inclusive society.

But, despite the good intentions, this new version adds a lot of complexity to the language. In French, you have masculine and feminine pronouns, nouns and adjectives, and it can be confusing. Let me give you a quick example:

He is a director (masculine) = Il est director
She is a director (feminine) = Elle est directrice
They are directors (masculine) = Ils sont directeurs
They are directors (feminine) = Elles sont directrices

The difference between feminine and masculine at the end of the above nouns is very obvious. However, the gender discrepancy is even more predominant when you use the noun’s plural form: the masculine always prevails over the feminine, even if you’re referring to a mixed audience (just as if there were only men in the group).

Not to mention that certain nouns in French, including some professions, only have the masculine version. For example, the male minister is ‘le ministre’, and the female minister is ‘la ministre’.

The problem, though, is how to fix it. The recent proposal, which the released school textbook recommended, was to add a grammatical tool by having a “median-period” at the end of masculine nouns, followed by the feminine ending. This would allow you to indicate both gendered versions of every noun (like directeur·trice·s, which you would then read as “male directors and female directors”).

But, would this change improve women’s status in society? Is it worth the trouble?

I’m a feminist myself but, I’m also a writer with kind of an obsessive-compulsive disorder when it comes to language. After reading about this in the news and talking to a few friends, I figured I couldn’t really make up my mind around the subject.

In Portugal, where I come from, we have the exact same problem as in France. Portuguese is a very gender-marked language and we have no neutral grammatical gender. Some people have tried to “ease the tensions” between genders by replacing the letter which 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-centred, it looks weird and sounds funny.

So, I decided to do some research and try to understand if changes in language have the power to shape societies and if pushing for a more gender-neutral language makes sense.

Latin, and the lost neutral gender

It’s clear that some languages are more gender-neutral than others. But, those which derive from Latin are particularly gender-centred and this goes all the way back to classical antiquity.

Helena Moniz, who is a senior linguist researcher at Unbabel, explained that “different languages evolve in different directions” and “Languages derived from Latin lost their neutral grammatical gender a long time ago, even if it was most frequently used for objects” and not for people.

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". But, does this mean that in Finland there is more gender equality than in France, or in Portugal? Has this anything to do with language?

Can language improve women’s status in society?

Most of those who are pushing for a more gender-neutral language think that these language traits promote sexist views and put women at a disadvantage. But, does language have the power to shape our way of thinking?

Well, some linguists seem to think so. There was a popular theory in the 1940’s by Benjamin Lee Whorf that claimed that people see the world differently because of differences in their language. However, this is extremely difficult to prove and most linguists have moved away from it.

Dr. Betty Birner, professor of linguistics and cognitive science at Northern Illinois University, sees this as “a chicken-and-egg question: are you unable to think about things you don't have words for, or do you lack words for them because you don't think about them?”. The problem is that there is more to this than just language and thought, there is culture.

“Your culture – the traditions, lifestyle, habits, and so on that you pick up from the people you live and interact with – shapes the way you think, and also shapes the way you talk,” explained Dr. Birner. So, it’s not necessarily true that a gender marked language will promote sexism because there are many other factors involved.

However, if you look at the Global Gender Gap Report of 2017 you may notice that Finland is the 3rd most gender equal country in the world, and that France is number 11, Spain number 24, and Portugal number 33. It might just be a coincidence that countries with more gender-neutral languages rank higher in terms of gender equality but, it’s definitely an interesting point.

The truth is, every linguist I spoke to said the same thing over and over again: this is not just about linguistics — culture plays huge role in shaping our thoughts.

Just to give you an example, a lot of nouns which had only the masculine version started to develop the feminine one at a certain point in time. In the case of France, as this article in The Atlantic explains, during World War I, all the men went to war and women had to fill in for their jobs. This included “traditionally male-dominated positions like chimney sweep or factory worker”, and because now they were being carried out by women there was a need to develop the feminine version.

In Portuguese, there was also a curious example that made it to the news a few years ago. With the election of Dilma Rousseff as the President of Brazil, people started using the word “presidenta” (her and her supporters own preference), instead of the masculine version “presidente”.

According to Helena Moniz, “in the beginning, people thought it was weird to say ‘presidenta’ but, only because Dilma was the first female president to get elected in Brazil – the word didn’t exist because there was no need to create the female version before.”

So, should we push for a gender neutral language?

When you have languages, such as Portuguese or French, that are heavily gender-marked it’s practically impossible to create a version where both genders are equally treated. First, because most of the proposed alternatives can only be written and not spoken (how exactly am I supposed to read ‘tod@s’?). Second, because these languages use masculine and feminine when referring to objects as well, not just people, it’s become much more engrained in the language’s structure.

Changing the structure of a language is extremely difficult and even minor changes cause a lot of aversion. As Helena told me: “language deals with emotions, with who you are as an individual, and that’s why so many people are often against change. But reinforcing a binary system rather than personalising our language and messages to the receiver isn’t the way forward either.”

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.