The Historic Role of Gender in Language

By Dr. Sarojini Sahoo

At Louvre Art Gallery in Paris, this is an art of Botticelli . According to Heidi Harley, an Associate professor of Linguistics at the University of Arizona, one of these lovely young ladies in the art would represent Grammar.

In her book The Myth of Mars and Venus, Deborah Cameron, a professor of Language and Communication at Worcester College of the University of Oxford and a leading expert in the field of language and gender studies, describes the ‘men are from Mars, women are from Venus’ position.

Every language reflects the prejudices of the society in which it evolved and as the patriarchal control over the society prevailed for a long time, the language has also been organized with male-centric views. So, in many languages, we find there are multi-gender systems similar to biological differences of nature. In most of the languages (except Japanese), the nouns and pronouns either have ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ gender. In English, there is also a third gender known as ‘neuter.’ But in Hebrew, Greek, German, Spanish, French, and Portuguese and in Indian languages like Hindi, there are only two genders and the prepositions or verbs have been modified according to the gender of the subject.

In comparison to these languages, my own language, Oriya, has gender-neutral characteristics. Though like English, in my language, there are three genders, but the variation is that our pronouns have no gender and unlike Hindi, our verbs and prepositions are not modified according to the subject. Many Indian languages besides Oriya like Tamil, Assamese and Bengali have also gender-free pronouns.

This type of characteristic can also be seen in Persian, Finnish, Estonian, Hungarian, Basque, Japanese, Korean, Indonesian, Quechuan, Filipino, and Tagalog. In some way, Chinese language can be marked as gender-neutral unless it contains a root for “man” or “woman.”

For example, the word for ‘doctor’ is ‘y?sh?ng’ and can only be made gender-specific by adding the root for “male” or “female” to the front of it. Thus, to specify a male doctor, one would need to say nány?sh?ng. Under normal circumstances both male and female doctors would simply be referred to as y?sh?ng.

The Pronoun Problem

In English, if the gender of a subject is not known, then often, the ‘masculine gender’ is used. For example: When a student comes into the room, he should pick up a handout. Here ‘student is a gender-neutral subject but a masculine gender ‘he’ is used for the pronouns. Like in Hindi, if anyone is coming, they say: Koi ata hai. Here the verb ‘ata hai’ is modified according to masculine gender whereas the gender of the subject (Koi: Anyone) is not known. In Oriya, we have no such baffle situation. Here Kehi asuchhi does not cite the gender of the subject. But in most of language, this gives feminist a good reason to think that this ‘male dominance’ contributes to making women invisible from grammar. The generic use of masculine pronouns, in referring to persons of unspecified gender is also termed by the feminist thinkers as ‘sexist’ norm of language.

In English the pronouns are highly gender-concerned. But how will they be treated when the gender of the pronoun is not known? Feminists have advised us to use singular ‘they’ instead of using ‘he’ or ‘she.’ For example , we can say , When a student comes into the room, they should pick up a handout. The Chicago Manual of Style (abbreviated in writing as CMS or CMOS, or verbally as Chicago) is a style guide for American English published since 1906 by the University of Chicago Press. The CMS, in its 13th edition, strongly reviewed this attempt of using singular ‘they’ and wrote: “Nontraditional gimmicks to avoid the generic masculine (by using he/she or s/he, for example) or to use they as a kind of singular pronoun. Either way, credibility is lost with some readers.” But later in its 14th edition, the manual revised its stance and recommended: “The ‘revival’ of the singular use of ‘they’ and ‘their,’ citing…its venerable use by such writers as Addison, Austin, Chesterfield, Fielding, Ruskin, Scott, and Shakespeare.” 15th Edition §5.204 deals specifically with gender bias and nowhere does it mention the writers stuff. So they changed it again — proves it’s a hot topic!

The Gendered Nouns Problem

Some feminists also find the use of some terms like Chairman, Fireman, Policeman, Mailman, Fisherman, Businessman, Milkman, Spokesman, Gunman, Mankind, and Brotherhood objectionable as the words reinforce the idea that men are more powerful and have higher priority over women. A women’s femininity becomes invisible when they accept being categorized in male gender-biased terms. It also means that women are only being recognized when classified in a masculine group. During the 19th century, attempts were made to make a feminine term for these masculine job-specific terms. This produced words like ‘doctress’ and ‘professoress,’ and even ‘lawyeress,’ all of which have fallen out of use; though waitress, stewardess, and actress are in contemporary use for some speakers.

Janice Moulton first marked her objection on the use of ‘Lady Doctor’, ‘Lady Typist’, ‘Lady Supervisor’ as these jobs are meant for men, whose use has been extended to cover both men and women. She thinks that these norms are highly insulting for a woman and a number of new words are also recommended such as: chairperson, spokesperson, firefighter, mailcarrier, etc., as substitutes for the “sexist” words in common use. [See: Moulton, J., 1981, “The Myth of the Neutral ‘Man’”, in Sexist Language, M. Vetterling-Braggin (ed.), Totowa. NJ: Littlefield and Adams: 100–115].

Another common gendered expression, found particularly in informal speech and writing, is “you guys.” This expression is used to refer to groups of men, groups of women, and groups that include both men and women. But “a guy” (singular) is definitely a man, not a woman, and that most men would not feel included in the expression “you gals” or “you girls.” Similarly, the way the words Mr., Miss, and Mrs. are used also make the feminists annoyed because “Mr.” can refer to any man, regardless of his marital status while women are defined by their relationship to men (by whether they are married or not). A feminists solution to this problem is to use “Ms.” (which doesn’t indicate marital status) to refer to women.

Feminists hope that by means of such reforms in the universities, the language of all society might gradually will be reformed, and that by means of such a reform in the language, the consciousness of people would be rendered more favorable to feminist ideas. But they oppose the job-specific terms when used to define the gender-specific status of the job holder. In India, nobody would ever call Mrs. Indira Gandhi as “Lady Prime Minister” or Ms. Pratibha Patil as “Lady President.” But these words in Hindi or other languages have been treated as ‘masculine.’ Still now in India, these maleness of norms are not being identified by neither any feminists nor any intellectual.

But in Western linguistics, the scholars and feminists are more concerned about these ‘maleness’ of language. Increasing numbers of women are calling themselves actors rather than actresses, especially in the live theatre. The Screen Actors Guild of America (SAG) annually gives out awards for “Best Male Actor” and “Best Female Actor.”

When my first novel was translated into Bengali and was published from Bangladesh, the Pratham Alo, a leading daily of that country, reviewed that novel. The reviewer of that book cited me as a ‘Lekhika’ (woman writer) in his review and to that, the translator of that book, Morshed Shafiul Hassan, got irritated with the use of such a gender -biased term for me.

The Patriarchal Problem in the Bible

Though Semitic religions are more male-centric (here God is always masculine), it is in the liberal Christian mind that attempts have been made by the churches to make a non-sexist, generic, and gender-neutral version of the Bible. The earliest example of such an effort was the Inclusive Language Lectionary published by the National Council of Churches in 1983. This new Bible excluded 1 Corinthians 11:3-16, 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, Ephesians 5:22-24, Colossians 3:18, 1 Timothy 2:11-15, and 1 Peter 3:1-6. In 1990, the excluded portions were also adapted into the new version of that Bible. It did not, however, substitute gender-neutral language in reference to God, and it did not incorporate many of the misinterpretations proposed by feminists. And in doing so, it did not satisfy many liberals.

The American Bible Society published an abridged version of the New Testament in 1991 and then a complete version of the Bible in 1995. In that edition, while they did not use gender-neutral language for God, in Genesis 2:18, Eve is called not a “helper” but a “partner” of Adam.

In another example, the Greek text of Matthew 16:24 is literally, “If anyone wants to follow me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” The Contemporary English Version shifts to a form which is still accurate and at the same time, more effective in English: “If any of you want to be my followers, you must forget about yourself. You must take up your cross and follow me.”

Later in 1994, a group of liberal Roman Catholics published The Inclusive New Testament and the next year liberal Protestants published a similar version of The New Testament and Psalms: An Inclusive Version. Both these versions featured gender-neutral language for God along with many other politically-correct alterations designed to combat racism, homophobia, and ageism, etc. The liberties taken with the text of Scripture in these versions were however so blatant, that they were met with resistance in the popular press.

Up until 2004, 18 versions of the Bible had been published in non-sexist, gender-neutral generic language. [See: The Gender-Neutral Language Controversy by Michael D. Marl owe, 2001, (revised January 2005)]

Solving the Problem

In 1999, The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) issued guidelines for eliminating sexist stereotypes and language in common writing. This can be downloaded from HERE.
Gender-neutral language has gained support from most major textbook publishers and from professional and academic groups such as the American Psychological Association and the Associated Press. Today, many law journals, psychology journals, and literature journals do not print articles or papers that use gender-inclusive language.

But in India, there is no debate so far insisting on gender-neutral language. This is due to lack of gender discrimination consciousness and awareness. So while some progress has been made, there remains much room for improvement and development.

Sarojini Sahoo for more

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