What do we want? Gender Neutral Terms! Why do we want them? Because we’re easily offended!

What’s the big deal about using gendered language anyway? It seems a lot more people are suddenly throwing a temper tantrum over certain words which are deemed to be gender specific, when users often mean it ambiguously and not personally. In an age where Politically Correct (PC) language – lexis used to avoid offense – is on the rise, we are becoming more actively conscious of the language we use daily. But is this strive is bit too pedantic when there are actual first world problems to deal with?

Most of the time individuals use gendered language without batting an eyelid, from waiter to waitress, bachelor to bachelorette, we all use one or the other to show the gender of the person we’re referring to. This seems natural, but what about the words which are used as an adjective for both genders but usually have a stereotype of one gender attached – do we always assume that an air hostess is female? Well yes because the dictionary states that an air hostess is female, it’s not unknown that a flight attendant can also be male, they are simply default assumptions. We’ve been conditioned into picturing a female when hearing this marked term (a term where gender is foregrounded) and there is nothing wrong with that as long as we know that it’s not only females in that career. Personally, I believe it shouldn’t matter that there is a gender-specific term in addition to a gender-neutral term because nine times out of ten a person is more likely to use the gender-neutral term anyway.

Also ‘flight attendant I like the way you dress’ is nowhere near as catchy as ‘air hostess’, just saying.

Researched has proved that language can show an imbalance power and often refers to men as the more powerful collective, therefore reinforcing a male view. In the book Man Made Language, scholar Dale Spender argues that language is biased against women as language embodies the patriarchal order, where traditionally men had more power than women. For example, words like “CEO” and “entrepreneur” automatically have male connotations attached since males climb the career ladder faster because the male is considered the norm and females are considered the ‘other’. Such views are also supported by the Dominance Theory discussed by Zimmerman and West who found male speech and language is more dominant due to the traditional ‘rules’ governing human behaviour. So, putting this into perspective, the English Language cannot ever technically be completely gender neutral. Simply because as humans we have been governed into using gender-specific language because it’s what we have learned since birth.

Although it is understandable that women may feel disadvantaged in some instances not only due to the many more male marked terms, but also due to the lexical asymmetry between the so called female equivalent. Perhaps the real issue is not making all language gender-neutral but the lexical asymmetry which has developed over time. This occurs when there is an imbalance between the meaning of two seemingly matching words such as “witch” and “wizard.” These two words should mean the same thing, a person who has magical powers. However, the meaning of each word has become disproportioned; meaning a witch is now a woman with magical powers but evil intentions, and a wizard is a male with magical powers who is there to aid and assist. If both words have the same meaning then why does the female version have negative connotations and the male ‘equivalent’ have positive connotations? Because language has embodied the patriarchal order. If we fix the lexical asymmetry, then I believe the war for making all language gender neutral will end.

The real cause for gender neutral language should begin with words with lean towards the masculine side of the spectrum mainly due to one word. The dreaded man. Often words which are deemed ‘gender-neutral’ contain the noun “man” in them. Manpower. Mankind. Even the noun that describes our species contains the word man, but when someone says human, we don’t automatically picture a world full of males. It seems that some words are more ‘gender neutral’ than we think, despite them not seeming to be equal.

As a female I wholeheartedly can say that most of the controversy towards gendered language is pointless, most of these terms like “mankind” and “guys” (depending on the context) is referring to a collective group of people where the gender is irrelevant as the term describing them all. When used in this context language cannot have such an impact that can be viewed as sexist or belittling women.

Oh man, I really believe we’re using too much manpower and looking too far into this don’t you guys? I bet that 99% of people who read that sentence did not think “oh my goodness I feel personally victimised because she called me a ‘guy’ and I’m offended because you’re reinforcing sexism and lexical asymmetry!” That didn’t happen because that’s ridiculous and I don’t believe simple words such as “man” and “guys” can really provide that much power. If you’re offended by ‘sexist’ words like “mankind” and “humanity” then perhaps you should consider why you are letting the English Language have such control over your emotions, I’d hate to see you find out that languages like French actually gender their nouns. What a scandal, just don’t be surprised if you see la table in a pair of stockings.

Gendered language has been around forever, and no one has cared; in different languages, there are certain conjunctions used to determine the gender of the word. For example, in Spanish the conjunction “la” or “ellas” is feminine and “el” or “ellos” is masculine because there is no gender-neutral pronoun for ‘they’ when referring to a group of people. This ultimately suggests there is a need for gender-specific language for language to actually exist and make sense when translated.

Even if by some bizarre turn of events all language does become gender neutral, could it possibly turn and lean towards one specific gender again? I mean the big debate now is whether language currently embodies the power that males have due to the patriarchal order, but surely if women replace all language with gender-neutral terms it will all be swayed towards the feminine side of ‘neutral’. So, we must tread carefully because can all language really be made gender neutral?

I personally don’t think so.


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