Friday, April 10, 2015

Linguistic Sexism: Can we make gendered languages more inclusive?
Author: Kelsey Briggs

To speakers of many romance languages, “gendering” nouns is an unconscious exercise that is ingrained in daily communication. In Spanish, all nouns and pronouns are ascribed either a feminine “la” or masculine “el”, similarly in French, Italian, and Portuguese. Assigning a gender to words like “la fresa” (strawberry in Spanish) or “le lion” (lion in French) is so second nature that it becomes easy to forget to question why every object, and more importantly, every person described in that language must be classified as either male or female. A rising debate in the linguistic world is how to address queerness and gender neutrality in languages characterized by gender binaries.

Some Spanish speakers choose to use the ‘’@’’ symbol in writing to be more gender inclusive (e.g.: tod@s instead of todos or todas), but there still remains confusion about how to verbally pronounce gender neutral or queer pronouns. Others propose to create an entirely new third gender pronoun, similar to “zie”, “xe”, or “they” in English. Incorporating gender neutrality into languages founded upon a system of gender binaries would be a challenge, but is certainly not impossible. 

In Germany, for example, gendered pronouns are transforming to be more arbitrary and inclusive.  Many propose getting rid of gendered articles entirely, and now in Low German both men and women are referred to as “de” instead of the previous “der” and “die”. The state justice ministry is pushing for citizens to adhere to “’gender-neutral’ formulations in their paperwork” as well.[i] While many linguists argue that it is difficult and cumbersome to change the grammatical structures of a language through human will, we see modifications in languages occur all the time. This is especially so with the introduction of new words and concepts that are adopted across languages due to the technology boom and globalization. Convincing an entire population to actively change the way they speak and in turn conceptualize gender, however, could be a more lengthy and arduous process.

A study in 2012 led by psychologist Jennifer Prewitt-Freilino compared languages with global gender inequality, showing that “those who read in gendered languages responded with higher levels of sexism to a questionnaire they took after the study.” Gendered languages showed the highest rates of gender inequality. Interestingly enough, however, languages with no gender ascribed to nouns or pronouns didn’t rank as well on the gender equality scale as predicted. Prewitt-Freilino said speakers of gender neutral languages, like Persian, are actually likely to assume male characters when the gender is up to the speaker’s discretion. Natural gender languages, such as English (in which gender is assigned to pronouns but not nouns), fell somewhere in the middle.[ii] The study thus showed significant variability among languages and gender equality. Based on these results, incorporating gender neutral pronouns into gendered or natural gender languages may not contribute to actively reducing sexist tendencies. However, recognition of non-binary identities remains a crucial issue in many societies, particularly in the interest of individual identities.

[i] Oltermann, Philip. “Germans try to get their tongues around gender-neutral language”. The Guardian. Mar. 24 2014.
[ii] Pappas, Stephanie. “Gendered Grammar Linked to Global Sexism”. Live Science. Feb. 21, 2012.