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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 I don't do a double take if I hear about a male soldier 'nursing' his wounded leg, so obviously the word has superseded its origin in that context.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).


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.
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.

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."
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.


firesea: self-portrait
Heather Keith Freeman
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