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Why Gender-Neutral Language Matters

GlobaLexicon Blog Post Gender

Last Sunday was International Women’s Day, a day in which we take action for equality. In honour of this, we at GlobaLexicon are exploring gender-neutral language, and why it matters.

Language can influence the way we think

Is it possible that our language influences the way we see the world? There are some studies that show the language we speak can, in fact, shape the way we think, such as the study led by Lera Boroditsky at Stanford University, in which she looks at how the languages we speak affect our thoughts. Some studies even show that our personality can change depending on the language we speak, meaning a person that speaks multiple languages can have different personalities, each depending on the language that that person is speaking at the time (study lead by Nairan Ramírez-Esparza at the University of Connecticut).

Language reflects and influences attitudes. At the same time, our language, the way we speak, the way in which we interact with each other and what we think is influenced to a great extent by our culture and the society in which we live. However, we still see examples of certain words and expressions that reflect a society that is behind the times, contrasting with today’s.

So, just as society progresses and changes, the way we speak should also adapt to be in line with the present.

English – a language behind the times?

The English language has features, like others such as Spanish or French, that as previously mentioned reflect an archaic society in which women did not have the same rights as men and were not allowed to work in certain professions.

Below we have listed a few examples that show traces of a less progressive society:

- Many words contain the suffix man, yet refer to both male and female genders: chairman, councilman, policeman etc.

- Some words are formed by adding a morpheme of feminine gender to masculine gendered nouns:  prince ➭ princess, host ➭ hostess, god ➭ goddess, hero ➭ heroine.

- ‘Mr.’ refers to a man and whilst ‘Mrs.’ and ‘Miss’ refer to a woman, they also make her marital status public. The alternative is to use ‘Ms.

By using gendered terms and masculine forms by default in English, we end up differentiating genders and implying that one social gender is the norm.

Why Gender-Neutral language matters

With growing awareness, people are embracing gender-neutral language.

According to the Gender-Neutral Language Guidelines in the European Parliament, “Gender-neutral language is a generic term covering the use of non-sexist language.”

Why is it important? Gender-neutral language matters because, not only does it include all individuals and collectives, avoiding discriminatory words, but it also promotes social change and contributes to achieving gender equality.

As language reflects and influences attitudes, if we want to treat all genders equally we need to first change the way we speak.

Alternatives we can use

Below are some examples of gendered nouns and alternatives we can use below.

Gendered noun

Gender-neutral noun

Mankind

Humankind

Chairman

Chair

Policeman

Police officer

Fireman

Fire fighter

Sir (“Dear Sir,”)

To Whom it May Concern

Freshman

First-year student

Congressmen

Members of Congress

   

We also need to avoid expressions that reinforce gender stereotypes like “she runs like a girl” or “men don’t understand”.

It may feel like we have a long way to go, but by making these small changes, we can pave the way to living in a more just and equal world for everybody.

From all at GlobaLexicon, hope you had a Happy International Women’s Day!

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