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 I don't do a double take if I hear about a male soldier 'nursing' his wounded leg, so obviously the word has superseded its origin in that context.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


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Heather Keith Freeman
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