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 I don't do a double take if I hear about a male soldier 'nursing' his wounded leg, so obviously the word has superseded its origin in that context.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

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.

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