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link 'o'the day, and subsequent rambling

from linguaphiles: an interesting survey on the use of gender-inclusive language.

Gender-inclusive language is an interesting and provocative topic, obviously. When I first became aware of it, it was through radical extensions of the concept, things like "womyn" and "waitron", that to me seemed simply ludicrous. People seemed to be claiming that we were all being subliminally trained to be sexist any time we used "man" as a gender-neutral term - like "mailman" or "mankind" - or even with terms like "manning the table" or "manpower".

I still think those examples are just plain silly. There are terms where gender bias shows, but it's not in the form of the word: I confess I still have a mental double-take when I hear a male referred to as a nurse, for example. Nurse=female is a cultural stereotype, though, not a linguistic one!

Now you could make a case for "nurse" being a sexist name; one of the root meanings of the word is the act of a mother giving her baby milk. However, it also means just giving care or comfort, as in nursing an injury. I don't do a double take if I hear about a male soldier 'nursing' his wounded leg, so obviously the word has superseded its origin in that context. And every time I see a male nurse, the cultural stereotype takes another hit. I just don't see nurses of either gender as often as I hear of a man nursing an injury, so it's taking longer.

There are slow, subtle changes that have happened in common usage since the gender-inclusive language trend began. The generic term for someone who waits tables is now "server". The head of a board or discussion will sometimes be "chair" rather than "chairman". I don't have a problem with these changes per se - "server" is a perfectly clear alternative, though I will still use "waiter" as a gender-neutral term, or "waitress" once I've seen that the particular server I'm referring to is female.

I guess part of the issue is this: is it inappropriate to reference a person's gender if that gender has no bearing on the situation? Like saying "I need to ask the waitress to get me another coke" when her gender is really not relevant to her coke-fetching abilities? A lot of people would say yes, and even have perfectly valid reasons to back it up.

And I'm not even going to touch pronouns. Gah.

Even if we removed all traces of arbitrary classification from the language, though, people would still think in those classifications (whether or not the classifications were paired with judgements). It's the way human brains work - we put things, and people, into categories. Is this person a rival, or a potential breeding partner? On an animal level, that's how our brains are functioning, and there's nothing good or bad about it - it's just the way it works. And removing the classifications from the language not only won't help, it could make things worse by camouflaging the issue altogether.

The best thing this entire debate has done is to make individual people think about what biases they may and may not have, and how those may be related to the words they choose. Unfortunately, as with any controversial issue, people on both sides diminish their argument to a cure-all formula. One set says "don't screw with the language", and the other says "fix the language and you fix the people". One won't even consider the underlying problem, and the other wants to slap a band-aid on and pretend it's fixed.

I should also add the caveat that I'm not claiming sexism isn't a problem. But the solution is not changing the way people talk - it's making them think. And the debate has made people (like me) think. But there never seems to be anyone advocating the middle road (which is, of course, largely due to sensationalist reporting and the cultural tendency to see everything in black and white, which is another post entirely).

Comments

( 17 comments — Leave a comment )
contentlove
Mar. 11th, 2004 11:00 am (UTC)
I spy a rolling donut
But the solution is not changing the way people talk - it's making them think.

I agree. But I would add that how we use language is effected by what we think, and what we think is effected by our use of language. They are mirrors.
delicatetbone
Mar. 11th, 2004 11:51 am (UTC)
Re: I spy a rolling donut
abso-freaking-lutely.

Something else to think about (not you specifically content, to the topic in general)...think about how people address various races as well.

Language is VITAL and such a mirror of how a society feels about its members. Which is why I think it is SO important to choose words carefully. I cringe now when I hear newscasters say "Postman" or "Mankind". If one wants to be specific and true with their language, one must use the correct words.

I have so much to say on this, but I will leave it at that -- by any chance have you read Mary Daly, who wrote the Web-sters wickedary? While she is an extreme example of someone who is trying to change launguage, she should certainly not be overlooked as a revolutionary in the effort.
w3woody
Mar. 11th, 2004 11:59 am (UTC)
Re: I spy a rolling donut
Language is VITAL and such a mirror of how a society feels about its members. Which is why I think it is SO important to choose words carefully. I cringe now when I hear newscasters say "Postman" or "Mankind". If one wants to be specific and true with their language, one must use the correct words.


But "postman" and "mankind" were the correct words prior to the movement to reinvent the English Language to remove perceived gender bias.

What makes them the incorrect words today, aside from hypersensitivity from the politically correct crowd?
delicatetbone
Mar. 11th, 2004 12:30 pm (UTC)
Re: I spy a rolling donut
Oh this is SO beyond being "politically correct" -- this is about understanding WHY we speak the way we do and why we wouldn't WANT to use those terms that do not include every human that they should.

I remember cringing the first time I saw a gender-neutral language sheet, but as I educated myself and saw how much words mean, I realized that I cannot use gendered words in a non-gendered situation. It is incorrect for me to do so.

Exclusivity is fine when exclusivity is intended, but when it is not, it is not an effective substitute.
jnanacandra
Mar. 11th, 2004 01:03 pm (UTC)
Re: I spy a rolling donut
But "man" has a double meaning - it can act either as a male identifier, or as a gender-neutral one. "Mankind" *does* include every human, because in that context it's gender-neutral.

Now it can be ambiguous which one it means in a particular context, but, like "nurse", it has evolved over time. I've never encountered anyone in my lifetime who would not be amazed at the thought that they were excluding women by using the term "mankind".

Understanding why we speak the way we do is extremely important, but what way is "right" is a matter of interpretation, and I believe it reflects the existing society more than changes it.

w3woody
Mar. 11th, 2004 01:58 pm (UTC)
Re: I spy a rolling donut
I remember cringing the first time I saw a gender-neutral language sheet, but as I educated myself and saw how much words mean, I realized that I cannot use gendered words in a non-gendered situation. It is incorrect for me to do so.
If you cringed the first time you saw a gender-neutral language sheet, and you had to educate yourself as to what the words mean, and you had to "realize" thatn you cannot use gendered words--isn't this a big red flag that (a) your usage is not common usage, and (b) your usage may not be "correct" usage (in that it is grammatically correct, not "correct" by your own personal standards)?

Frankly I don't care if you want to use gender-neutral terms, though if I read something printed by someone where woman is spelled 'womyn' "in order to get the man out of a woman" (as if those advocating this have the problem of men being inside of them anyways)--I'm going to take my handy red pen and circle it.

And too many linguistic liberties (such as "sie" and "hir" or whatever nonesense people are inventing to bypass gender specific pronouns), and I'm going to stop reading.

Communications breaks down when too many people read the more extreme stuff and stop reading, thinking "this guy is either a nutcase or is having epileptic fits in front of a keyboard."
ladybranwyn
Mar. 11th, 2004 08:08 pm (UTC)
Re: I spy a rolling donut
Well, I was pretty much agreeable to what you were saying, until I happened across this.

"as if those advocating this have the problem of men being inside of them anyways"

I'm too annoyed at the moment that you had to ruin a perfectly good point by adding that crap.
w3woody
Mar. 11th, 2004 11:41 am (UTC)
I guess part of the issue is this: is it inappropriate to reference a person's gender if that gender has no bearing on the situation? Like saying "I need to ask the waitress to get me another coke" when her gender is really not relevant to her coke-fetching abilities? A lot of people would say yes, and even have perfectly valid reasons to back it up.
The logical extension of this idea, that refering to the gender of the waitress as irrelevant to the task at hand is to say:

"I need to ask it to get me another coke." After all, if we're separating the object of this comment from the task at hand, the task could equally be accomplished by a conveyer belt.

Of course this is rude.

Me, my feeling on this is that language is a natural extension of one of our primary biological urges--and that is of story telling. When you say "I'm going to ask the waitress for another coke"--the sentence itself is unnecessary, as saying it doesn't bring you a coke. Instead, we make comments like this as part of our social desire to comment on our situation--which is a form of story telling.

And when telling stories, the ability to be more inclusive and descriptive helps.


As to the general topic at hand, I find it ironic that people are up in arms because the language we speak uses the masculine form as the gender neutral form--and evolved that way out of defering to women as special. It bothers me that the various forms that have evolved in defering to women are now being treated as repressive to women--as men, we're (as a gender, in the society at large) damned if we do, and damned if we don't.

I'm also reminded of the town which tried to introduce the word "heaven-o" to replace "hello" as a greeting--because some nutcase was offended that when people greet each other, they speak the word "hell". Nevermind the fact that "hello" is in part a banishing of "hell"--and that, by extension, he was trying to convince the town to banish heaven as a greeting... :-)
gamahucheur
Mar. 11th, 2004 12:21 pm (UTC)
At Reed College, some vigilante(s) had altered the signs on many or all of the restrooms for women, to make them read “WOMYN”, and someone else had elegantly responded by altering the signs on restrooms for men, to make them read “MYN”.

I like the practice that we now see in academic economics — it almost certainly originates elsewhere, but it is in economics that I was exposed to it — every other hypothetical person is male, unless there's some solid reason for not switching gender. In other words, the first hypothetical person gets female pronouns, the second gets male pronouns, the third gets female pronouns, &c. Not only does it reduce gender-bias; in the most typical case of two hypothetical persons, it allows one to avoid ambiguity without lengthier expressions.

In the 70s there was a push for a genderless personal pronoun. Of course this ran into a problem of interia, but there were also some avoidable problems: at least two different candidate pronouns (with different declination) were presented by feminists; at least one of these candidates appeared to be willfully feminine, as if to throw the bias in the other way rather than to eliminate it; and the new words were linguistic kludges, constructed by people with no feel or respect for philology.

(Some experts manques have since punted to using “they” as a genderless, singular pronoun, and produced a lot of nonsense in an attempt to vindicate this use. But killing number isn't a very good way of eliminating the ill effects of gender.)
paulrhume
Mar. 11th, 2004 01:25 pm (UTC)
The use of "they" as a pronoun which can be singular or plural looks to be catching on, though. German survives it:
Sie - second person formal, ie. You (versus du)
sie - third person plural, ie. they
sie - third person feminine, ie. she

When I was writing game rules, I wrote in the alternating gender form (usually paragraph to paragraph, or section to section). Mind you, until someone comes with proof-reading software that can flip the gender for you, forget about counting this scrupulously. Going back to a chapter to insert text could actually mean more he's than she's, or vice versa. I know West End required it, I believe FASA used it, and I think I used it for Steve Jackson but forget if it was on the stylesheet at that time. It isn't difficult to write and I don't recall that it was difficult to read.

gamahucheur
Mar. 11th, 2004 02:20 pm (UTC)
German has survived a great deal, but much of it is not something to which one should willfully subject a language or its speakers, unless the intention is to punish.

As you perhaps already know, “thou” was the English second-person singular informal pronoun, filling much the same rôle as is played by German “du”. I've not investigated it, but it seems to me that the identity in the second person of the formal form with the plural may be an expression of the same principal as underlies the “royal ‘we’”.
isomeme
Mar. 11th, 2004 04:11 pm (UTC)
Actually, "nurse" being female is a linguistic stereotype, too. Consider the use of the word as a verb and you'll see the connection.
jnanacandra
Mar. 11th, 2004 10:44 pm (UTC)
Yes - I mentioned that (3rd paragraph). It has superseded its gender-specific origin, though, as I expect the noun form will in time.
eub
Mar. 12th, 2004 12:25 am (UTC)
A step further back, "nurse" is from nūtrīre, to feed, foster, cherish, so at that stage too it had non-gender-specific applications (which we got as "nourish" and "nurture"). Anyone know before that?
shaska
Mar. 12th, 2004 11:28 am (UTC)
IMO
I guess part of the issue is this: is it inappropriate to reference a person's gender if that gender has no bearing on the situation? Like saying "I need to ask the waitress to get me another coke" when her gender is really not relevant to her coke-fetching abilities? A lot of people would say yes, and even have perfectly valid reasons to back it up.

I don't think it's inappropriate at all. For some reason, it seems that in these current times, anything that specifies gender is often attributed to a battle between the sexes somehow. Terms though like Ma'am, Sir, Miss, Mister.. these were originally terms used to indicate politeness and culture where directly addressing a person by name was impossible (as among strangers) or too confrontative (as is pointing at a person). In an environment where a person is working, the gender-addressing extends to their working title as well. Here in the US, I think the problem often stems from lack of teaching of etiquette and manners, and a common tendency to not want to show respect for others.

Personally, I don't find much beauty in the English language. I think I heard somewhere that english is a language that evolved to express economics and legalities, while the Latin languages are the romance languages--languages made for expression of the soul.
eub
Mar. 12th, 2004 01:25 pm (UTC)
Re: IMO
Personally, I don't find much beauty in the English language. I think I heard somewhere that english is a language that evolved to express economics and legalities, while the Latin languages are the romance languages--languages made for expression of the soul.

My faith is that the English language is huge enough to hold some beauty for everyone, under some key. Maybe she'll surprise you.

Speaking only within English, it's interesting that "economics" and "legalities" are from Latin, and "soul" is an older Teutonic word. I wonder whether the gestalt of a Romance language -- I don't speak one, sadly -- is less intellectual-abstract than the feel of the Latinate part of English.
shaska
Mar. 12th, 2004 09:06 pm (UTC)
Re: IMO
Economics is actually from Greek - "ec-onomy". But true, 'legal' is French. I was not aware of "soul" being Teutonic, but it sparks my interest. 8)

As for intellectual abstraction, I would like to imagine that it is less abstract if I am understanding you correctly. For some, while the intellect can express the depth of a subject, it can also be quite dry. It is the art of analogy which is lacking. Art is also taught not to be as appreciated in this country as it is in Europe.

But the english language itself.. Ex: Love, dove, above, glove... and that's about it! If you ever listen to the direct translations of poetry and lyrics in Latin, you may find it is deeply moving! The artistic expression in these languages is much easier since as there is an unlimited number of words that rhyme as compared to those in english. It's very hard to experience the profoundness of its capacity for beautiful expression unless you have someone directly translate it for you along with experiencing the feeling it will evoke in the mind of a person who's speaks it fluently.
( 17 comments — Leave a comment )

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