Today I will be discussing the important concept of avoiding sexist language in English. By this I mean unnecessarily favouring ONE gender identity by using inaccurate language or words that are too broad in their meaning. As we will see, maintaining gender neutrality seeks to be inclusive and avoid overgeneralizations about people. You will be surprised how easily mistakes and incorrect assumptions might occur.
Consider the following sentences;
- When finished each student must take his paper to the Head of the Department.
- A nurse should wake her patient every 5 mins to check for alertness.
- For obvious logistical reasons a stewardess needs to maintain a certain weight.
- Life for early man was a horrible existence until the discovery of fire.
In sentence 1 it is assumed that a student will be a male. There is no necessity for this assumption and it seems to somehow suggest that it is even obvious that a student will be male. At the university level this is statistically inaccurate (there are more female students in fact) but it would be much better to simply avoid all gratuitous identification at all. The sentence might read;
- When finished each student must take their paper to the …..
Slightly wordier might be:
- When finished each student must take his or her paper to the….
Also the passive voice can be used:
- When finished the papers must be taken to the Head of the Department (by each student.)
Sentence 2 makes the huge assumption that a nurse must be female although male nurses are common and the word ‘nurse’ itself IS linguistically gender neutral.
Here we can avoid using the possessive pronoun by saying:
- A nurse should wake the patient to check….
In Sentence 3 there is a very odd sounding word that has long been seen as incorrect insofar as it is completely sexist and exclusionary. There have been many examples of such language that we have moved away from in an attempt to be more inclusive.
|Old Term||New Term|
|Actress||Actor (in a female role)|
|Clean Lady||Cleaner / Custodian|
People have even joked that the words person, human, history and even woman are sexist because they contain male suggestive pronouns such as his, man, son etc. Even alternative spellings have been suggested such as Herstory, womyn, humyn etc. but these are beliefs that have not yet become mainstream and those who seriously feel a need to go so far as to change the spellings remain on the fringe.
Sentence 4 – The concept of ‘man’ as a word to encompass the entire human experience has been problematic for a long time. In Ottawa, Canada until the 1980’s there was a museum called the Museum of Man whose theme was the development and anthropological achievements of civilisation over the past 15,000 years. There was a lot of discussion in the late 80s about the name of the museum resulting in it being renamed The Museum of Civilisation. This was a very good step forward and is a far less exclusionary and sexist name. Sentence 4 could easily be found in any older school text book however by our modern standards it should read:
- Life for early human civilisation was a horrible….
- Life for the earliest people was a horrible….
These are some tactics used in English to avoid sexist language that offends or excludes entire groups of people. English is relatively ‘tame’ with respect to gender identification in grammar. Consider for a moment languages that depend much more heavily on gender-identifying words. In Polish for example not only the nouns themselves but even the verbs will tell you if the speaker (or spoken of) is a male or female. Pani nauczycielka powiedziała że jej ….itd. Gender-neutrality is MUCH more difficult to maintain.
There are sometimes arguments that a fuss is being made over nothing and this whole issue is quite silly and a non-issue really. Others claim that a lot more ought to be done in language to be more inclusive to other genders. Many other genders are slowly arising and management of the language may be necessary to accommodate people who identify as neither male nor female.
What do you think? Is the issue of gender non-specific language on the rise in your country and in your language? Has English done enough to accommodate people. Let us know in the comments below.
- Gratuitous – unnecessary, without any reason
- Insofar – (not a mistake) to the extent that
- Wordy – containing a lot of words
- Fuss – drama, showing too much worry or concern about sth