Gender. It’s a hot topic. In today’s inclusive world, using gender-neutral language has become increasingly common, but boy has it caused some debate! Some people are confused about what gender-neutral language is, and others wonder why they should change the way they talk.
In this post, we’ll explore how gender is entrenched in the English language and why we tend to be resistant to neutrality. We’ll also look at how we’ve been using gender-neutral terms all along, without even realizing it!
What Is Gendered Language?
For a language without grammatical gender, English loves gendering words. Names for many professions and roles have a male and female variant. Consider these: waiter/waitress, steward/stewardess, actor/actress. Often, the female variant was added later, when women started entering the workforce.
While this might seem inclusive, women were resistant to having a feminine-specific version of their job title. Why couldn’t they just be called waiters? Today, the push for neutral language is beginning to erase feminine versions of titles. “Actor,” for example, is now considered the correct way to refer to someone who acts — regardless of their gender. There are other alternatives, too, like “cabin crew” for air stewards and stewardesses.
However, gendering words doesn’t stop at job titles. What about “man-made”? Or “mankind”? The word “man” has been synonymous with the word “humanity” for centuries. This has led to many words that use “man” by default. There’s even a verb form, as in “to man the phones.”
Naturally, this makes finding a neutral alternative more difficult. It may sound like a patriarchal conspiracy theory, but centuries of masculine-dominant language has been baked into the way we speak. At best, this means masculine words are considered neutral and default. At worst, they’re considered superior.
What is Gender-Neutral Language?
Unlike gendered language, gender-neutral language applies to anyone. If you use neutral language, gender needn’t even be a factor! This starts unpicking all that patriarchal baking!
Things get trickier, though, when we come to pronouns. Gender is a huge factor when we talk about people. To save ourselves repeating people’s names, we switch to pronouns. Enter (you guessed it!) gender. “He” and “she” are separate, but what if you prefer to be neutral? Older texts sometimes use “he” as a neutral pronoun, but that’s not correct anymore. Today, people increasingly opt for “they.” This is logical, since we tend to say it anyway if we don’t know the gender of someone we’re talking about. Some people argue that “they” is grammatically incorrect, but we’ll get back to that later.
Why Do We Find Gender-Neutral Language Difficult?
Gender is a huge part of life. It affects everything: how we speak to each other, how we see each other, even how we see ourselves. From the moment we’re born, we’re assigned a gender. This can be really tough to break out of, especially in the language we use.
Moving towards gender-neutral language requires conscious thought and effort. In a way, it involves unlearning what we’ve learned. For the minority who live outside social norms, this is somewhat easier. These folks are defined by what they aren’t, and therefore tend to see things others don’t. For example, a straight person often doesn’t know they’re straight until they know what it is to be gay. Once they do, then they know what they’re not!
Likewise, “male” and “female” are seen as opposites. They’re defined as one thing because they’re not the other. This spirals outwards until all aspects of life are sucked into the whirlpool of gender association. For the majority, living comfortably within gender norms, even acknowledging that there are norms can be challenging. For many, the gender-whirlpool is just reality!
In short, gendered language is our unconscious default. Whatever our background or upbringing, using different language means thinking before we speak… which is difficult. We have to break away from what we’re accustomed to doing and saying. This learning (or unlearning) process isn’t something everyone is ready to engage with. You may have heard people say something like: “Why can’t we just say the words we always use?”
Then there’s the emotional aspect. In general, we don’t like being challenged. If done wrongly, it can make us feel stupid. Asking someone to use non-gendered language can also be seen as policing their speech. And let’s face it — nobody likes being told what to say. If you start explaining to someone that gender-neutral language is more inclusive, it might be seen as an accusation: “What, you’re saying I’m not inclusive?” Things can easily spiral out of control.
Finally, many people believe in genders beyond the male and female binary, while others don’t. Needless to say, it’s a thorny topic. But (plot twist!) what if we told you that you’ve been using gender-neutral language all this time, without even knowing it?
How Do We Use Gender-Neutral Language?
Realize it or not, it’s actually far easier to use non-gendered words in English than you might have thought. We often do it without thinking! “Folks,” “people,” “guests” — these are all non-gendered group nouns. Meanwhile, “person,” “friend” and “colleague” are all non-gendered singular nouns. Some casual forms of address, like the plural “guys” or the singular “dude” may have started out masculine but are now used in a gender-neutral way. Go gender-neutral evolution!
As for pronouns, “they” has been the source of much debate in recent years. However, we often use “they” unconsciously to refer to someone whose gender is unclear. And there’s a very good reason for that — singular “they” has been part of English for centuries. Who knew?
Let’s journey back to the middle ages… Around 1200 CE, thei was imported into Middle English from the Old Norse word þeir. Historical texts from this time tell us that “they” was used as a gender-neutral singular pronoun. Perhaps more surprisingly though, it was in use right up to 1795, when some particularly irate grammarians tried to declare this usage incorrect. Seems they got their way!
Truth is, grammar is a funny thing. Most of the time, grammatical rules spring up through natural use of language, shifting with the times. But then, sometimes, people try to impose prescriptive rules on language, to control the way it is used. This is exactly what happened to the singular “they.” When it was declared incorrect, this was mostly to impose a male/female divide on pronoun usage. Remember that patriarchal conspiracy theory? Kinda in play here.
Interestingly, the singular “they” actually predates the singular “you” by about 300 years. Originally “thee” and “thou” were used as singular pronouns, while “you” was plural. In time, “thee” and “thou” became less popular, slowly replaced by the all-purpose “you.” Then, in the 1600s, some folk objected to the use of singular “you,” using many of the same arguments people today use against the singular “they.” Seems we just don’t like changing how we speak!
Language Changes… And Sometimes It Stays The Same
Language is always shifting, which is exactly why we love it. After all, what is language if not a tool for communication? And to communicate effectively, language must evolve. Whether we like it or not, today’s society is evolving to use less-gendered terms. Luckily, as we’ve seen, English already offers us lots of ways to make the change. So instead of fighting it, we say rise to the challenge. Because if the rules are all made up anyway, what the heck? Bring on the gender-neutral revolution!