Gender neutrality in language

Gender neutrality in language

Ever since women's lib movements began, first in the US followed by Europe and the conservative world, champions of their cause have had a feeling...

Ever since women's lib movements began, first in the US followed by Europe and the conservative world, champions of their cause have had a feeling that the English language is gender-biased. Not without reason. Look at hundreds of words that have a distinctive manly touch or stress, giving the male an air of superiority whenever he speaks or writes. The words themselves speak of male gender superiority. For example, the word mankind, which until it became humankind, had given the meaning that the world was inhabited by men only!

Who said, this is, after all, man's world, both in letter and spirit of the language, written and spoken mostly in he-language, not she-language? Most of the wordsmiths, lexicographers and linguists were all men when the English language was evolving. British literary giants like Shakespeare, Milton and Chaucer who were said to have added thousands of words to the vocabulary were all men, and when they coined new words the Alpha male personality must have played a strong role. Whatever it may be, English as well as many modern European languages have strings of words that are perceived as gender-biased and efforts are under way to correct the injustice done to the fair sex on the language front.

It is not an easy task, given the entrenched interests of male species in seeing themselves in a dominant position, even in ordinary expressions and denotations. However, in the battle of sexes for gender-impartial language, the traditional three genders are joined by new ones who were neither known nor publicly acknowledged a few decades ago. Bundling all of them into two or three categories and describing them in the old terminology framed centuries ago is not only unjust but also anachronistic.

In any case, the newly emerged genders keep themselves away from male-female controversies by assuming their own identities or having them tagged. Their campaigns focus on identity, unlike women's lib movements of yesteryear, and recognition by God-created genders that they too have the right to live the way they want and demand equality with others.

Language, at least for now, is not the issue since the physical description goes beyond the accepted norms of he/she. They are in a minority but the majority is hell bent upon changing the vocabulary, for women's sake. The thumb rule is any word with man in the forefront has to be neutered. For some people, 'he' and 'she' are limiting terms as the transgender people say 'man' or 'woman' doesn't describe who they are. A few prefer gender-neutral pronouns, like "ze" for he and she, and "hir" (pronounced here) for his and her. Others like to refer to themselves in written form as s/he to denote both their male and female sides.

A major initiative in this respect has been taken by the Washington State Government. Recently, it has signed into law six years of efforts by some lawmakers and activists to make State laws gender-neutral by replacing all the words with 'man' prefixes and suffixes. For instance, fisherman is set to become 'fisher' (should not be confused with fishes) and 'freshman' first-year student (Americans know how to make English high-sounding adding more letters).

Here are some more: Signalman? No, women too can operate; so it is signal operator. Penmanship: Hardly anybody uses pens (the old style ones from which the word was derived) in the age of ballpoint pens. So, it is handwriting (easy on the tongue without 'man' sandwiched between pen and ship). But there are other words that defy gender-change demand like manhole (have they not thought about sewage window?), airmen and seamen (why not air/sea persons?).

Sometime ago, biblical publishers and scholars announced a gender-neutral new New International Version, the first overall update of the modern translation since 1984. A look at the original text compared to the gender-neutral version reveals: Psalm 8:4NIV: What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him? Revised: What are mere mortals that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them? 1 Corinthians 15:21NIV: For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. Revised: For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a human being.

One wonders whether efforts to make words gender-neutral are going so far as to change the structure of vocabulary. It is more discernible in the English language than in any other, though Sweden is credited with being the global leader in pioneering policies on gender neutrality. Traditional gender roles in maternity leave and in setting school curriculum standards are always played down to demonstrate the country's gender equality policy.

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