I don’t know if you noticed, but there’s a war going on. A war of words — about words. The debate is taking place on many fronts, in many languages — from Miami to Mecca and Beirut to Berlin. In the press, at universities, in politics, at work, online and in the bedroom, speakers of Arabic, French, Spanish, and German (to name just a few), are campaigning for a linguistic revolution. Nowadays, referring to female colleagues as “girls” is taboo, and likewise, the use of “guys” for a mixed-gender group is on shaky ground. So what’s everyone so upset about? Is gender-neutral language really so important?
Consider this: In Three Guineas, Virginia Woolf advocates education and economic emancipation for women. She notes that: “Like other educated men’s daughters Sophia Jex-Blake was what is called ‘a lady.’ It was the lady who could not earn money; therefore the lady must be killed.” For a “lady” to earn money was severely frowned upon in Edwardian society. “Ladies” didn’t work.
What’s obvious to us today is that women of the time were held back by patriarchal prejudices deeply rooted in language. But those times are over, right? Wrong. Western universities and professions are now open to women, and most women are no longer dependent on the goodwill of male relatives. But recent revelations about pay inequality and widespread abuse of women in the workplace highlight the deeply entrenched inequalities in our society… and language!
In terms of adjectives, we hear an authoritative man described as “strong-willed” (positive), whereas a woman is “bossy” (negative). And vice versa, if a woman has access to her emotions she is “sensitive” or “intuitive” (positive), but a man is “weak-minded” (negative). When you begin to look in detail, this sort of everyday sexism is everywhere. Research shows that boys are discouraged from — even ridiculed for — using language that is considered feminine. Furthermore, groups of girls exhibit linguistic innovation at a much younger age than boys, possibly due to such gender-specific socialization. So it appears there’s a definite link between language use and traditional gender roles.
I can already hear the broflakes in the room complaining, but please boys, pipe down. If you’re resistant to breaking with the language of our “forefathers” (see what I mean?), just take a chill pill. Why? Because despite our shortfalls, English speakers do have an advantage when it comes to gender-neutral language — we’ve been using it for hundreds of years! Let’s take a quick spin through the options, old and new.
Gendered Nouns, Pronouns, Adjectives
Take a moment to sympathize with those whose native tongues are dominated by gendered nouns, pronouns and even verbs. Germans, for example, are having a hard time working out how or even if it would be possible to neutralize their three-gendered noun system. Needless to say, it would do the world a favor to ditch der, die, das (the masculine, the feminine, the neutral) in favor of de, which is the solution the dialect Niederdeutsch uses (with a few exceptions).
Thankfully, English is light on grammatical gender. Ships, which have been female in English since at least 1375, are now being steered toward “it” — even on BBC Radio 4’s classic maritime broadcast The Shipping Forecast. The adjective “blonde/blond” still has two forms, but this is one of the few exceptions, demonstrating that English speakers may have it a little bit easier.
The Unsung Hero: ‘They’
“They,” the singular pronoun par excellence, has been in common use since the 14th century, along with its derivatives. You’ll find they, them, their, theirs, and themselves liberally littered throughout the works of great authors including Geoffrey Chaucer, Jane Austen, and Lord Byron. It wasn’t until the 18th Century that “they” as a singular pronoun came into disrepute, due to the misguided machinations of grammarians, who insisted (entirely illogically) that English grammar should mirror that of Latin.
This use of “they” was discouraged in the schoolroom for over a century, although it continued to be used defiantly by the more enlightened writers among us. In fact, “they” never went out of use in common speech and its fluidity is being widely touted again today. But word to the wise! Be careful not to mismatch your pronouns. When using “they” in the singular, you should use plural antecedents: “They are very talented,” not “They is very talented.”
Titles And Professions
If you’re thinking that titles are already gender-neutral in contemporary society, think again. Take the seemingly innocent phrase “man and wife,” for example. Linguist Robin Lakoff remarks that the groom is: “a ‘man,’ before the ceremony, and a ‘man’ he still is (one hopes) at its conclusion. But the bride went into the ceremony a ‘woman,’ not defined by any other person, at least linguistically: she leaves it a ‘wife,’ defined in terms of the ‘man,’ her husband.”
Even worse, pairs of titles such as “master” and “mistress” don’t convey the same idea at all. The male form here conveys mastery over a subject, skill or people. The female form, however, implies that a woman’s power is attained through use of her “feminine charms.” And what about “bachelor” and “spinster”? Well, the former suggests sexual freedom and the latter celibacy.
There are some bright spots, however. “Actor” tends to be used in place of “actress” these days, and “flight attendant” is preferred to “stewardess” (or, worse, “trolley dolly”). We now increasingly see titles that once ended in –man, –ress, and –ette falling out of use in favor of gender-neutral variants. This acknowledges the fact that it’s not just men who fight fires, conduct business, deliver post, etc. Women do the same jobs, and they do them equally well. In this way, language is slowly changing to reflect the (not so) new realities of society.
In terms of honorifics, “Ms.” is a well-known option for women who wish to not be defined in terms of their marital status. But did you know that “Mx.” is a gender-neutral title, used in Britain as an alternative to Mr., Mrs. or Ms.?
Language As Society’s Mirror
Until now, human history has been written by men. Language is power, and when we use terms such as “mankind” or “the achievements of man,” what we’re doing is confirming the subconscious bias that men are intellectually, physically and morally superior to women. By using such terms, we exclude women and non-binary individuals from history.
Some people may argue that these concerns are unimportant, but it is important to be aware of the debate. When you consider that language is the primary filter through which we perceive the world, it’s obvious that it affects how we relate to and make judgements about one another. Part of any attempt to create a society in which all people have equal opportunities and freedoms is to use language that no longer excludes certain groups or creates unconscious bias.
Today’s society is more openly diverse than ever. Women’s liberation and increased visibility for LGBTQ+ individuals has opened our eyes to the insufficiency of our inherited language to describe the full spectrum of human life. Our attention has been drawn to the dismaying fact that social inequality is mirrored and perpetuated in our everyday speech.
So the answer to the question “Is gender-neutral language really so important?” is a resounding “Yes!” — because although you may think it doesn’t affect you, it actually affects everybody, in insidious and often invisible ways. As Virginia Woolf summarizes in Three Guineas: “… we [women] can best help you to prevent war not by repeating your words and following your methods but by finding new words and creating new methods […] to assert ‘the rights of all — all men and women.’”