The Gender-neutral Language

Language shapes our world


Since we work on daily basis in an international environment we often discuss about our cultures and languages differences. We noticed that a lot of languages have some common problem related with using gender in everyday speaking. If words and expressions that mean that women or men are lower are constantly used, that supposing of feeling of inferiority tends to become part of our worldview.

For example the most common issue in languages is the inclusion women in masculine gender. In Italian you can use the word “ragazze” to say girls and “ragazzi” to call boys or gender mix group of people. If one guy comes to the group of girls, you have to say “ragazzi”. In some languages in contexts where a person has unspecified or unknown gender, traditionally use masculine gender. For example in French: Vos amis sont arrivés — ils étaient en avance (“Your friends have arrived – they were early”). Here the masculine plural pronoun ils is used rather than the feminine elles, unless it is known that all the friends in question are female (in which case the noun would also change to amies and the past participle would change to arrivées).

In English man and mankind means both gender but it can also exclude woman gender. And sometimes this truly generic uses of the word man would be incorrect and funny as an example the sentence “Some men are female.” So it should to use people, humanity or humankind.

Another peculiar property is that some names of professions in different languages have no female version (for example, most nouns relating with army and constructing) and it has outcome because it influences perception. Fire chiefs have argued that when the public use the term “fireman” instead of “firefighter”, it reinforces the popular image that firefighting is only a job for men, and thus makes it difficult for them to recruit women. But sometimes woman’s name of professions has dismissive tone than man’s one. For example “secretary” is one of them in Spanish. A secretaria is an assistant for her boss or a typist, usually female, while a secretario is a high-rank position (as in secretario of political party), usually held by males. In other cases the woman’s version of profession (with a feminine suffix) means not working woman but the wife of man of this kind of profession. For instance there are oфицер (means officer) and офицерша (officer’s wife) in Russian. There is not only about professions but also about some activities and hobbies which considered as male. For example there is not common to use woman’s version of fisher. In English Fisherwoman may seem unusually, but that’s just because we’re not used to it yet.

Nowadays there is a growing awareness that language shapes our thinking. The gender-neutral language (language that avoids referring specifically to the male or female gender) gradually appears and comes into use. There are new words and grammatical turns. For example, “everyone is putting a smile on THEIR face” (instead of HIS face).

There are a lot of different opinions about these linguistic changes related with gender. Some people think that using of gender-specific language often reflects an unequal state of society. They rely on researches that confirm that the words children hear affect their perceptions of the gender-appropriateness of certain careers. But other people think that a lot of neologisms are so ugly to use it everyday life. The third group of people agrees to use gender-neutral language, but they do question the effectiveness of gender-neutral language in overcoming sexism.

What do you think about it? Is it important to change language and create new words to identify women in the professions, because it will help for the self-determination of women and the achievement of gender equality? Or it does not matter and it is a deformation of the native language?


Ksenia – Sisterality Italy

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