Can Language Keep Up With Gender Politics?

January 25, 2018 by Alison Tunley

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Can Language Keep Up With Gender Politics

Society and culture frequently move at a pace which leaves language flailing in their tracks. And so it is with the vocabulary around gender. In case you have been hiding under a rock, gender politics are a hot topic and the issues relating to gender identity and gender roles are particularly controversial. Perhaps in response to society’s rather conservative attitudes, today’s teenagers seem keen to ditch gender altogether, defining themselves as non-binary or gender fluid, not to mention gender-queer, gender expansive, gender nonconforming and even gender awesome. Switching names to confound gender expectations is all the rage, with teenagers adopting gender-neutral names or taking on a traditionally masculine/feminine name which contrasts with whatever “gendered” name they were given at birth.

Meanwhile language plods its traditional path, struggling to keep up with these developments. The feminist movement in the 1960s and 70s took to task the traditional use of “he” as a supposed catch-all term to cover references to both men and women. British English texts happily make use of “s/he” or “she/he” and there are also good arguments in some cases for adopting the plural “they” as a gender-neutral, and less cumbersome option. Interestingly the use of singular “they” can be traced back to the 14th century but apparently fell out of favour in the late 19th century on the grounds that a plural pronoun shouldn’t be applicable to a singular person. Note that this pedantic quibble did not apply to the use of a male pronoun to refer to a woman! At any rate, that particular debate appears to have been won with singular “they” now widely accepted not just in spoken language but also in formal and legal texts.

As ever, the cutting edge teenagers have taken things one step further. So today’s teenagers happily use “they” to refer to a single person, even when they know the individual concerned and conventionally either “he” or “she” would have been used, e.g. “My friend X is going to Paris and they are really excited”. This can be utterly confusing to the uninitiated adult who assumes a group of people are being discussed.

While English offers a degree of flexibility here, for languages where gender is entrenched in the grammar, things can be more complex. German legal documents referring to the defendant/claimant, for instance, insist on knowing the gender of the individual involved so the choice can be made between “Antragsgegner/Antragsgegnerin” and “Antragsteller/Antragstellerin” (where the gender may also be determined by the grammatical gender of the noun involved).

French has similar issues – for nouns used to describe a group of people, you are forced to pick between the masculine or feminine ending. By convention the masculine form is used to describe any mixed gender group, even if women overwhelmingly outnumber the men. So, for example, a group of MPs consisting of 5 women and 1 man would be called députés, rather than députées. An alternative shorthand form when writing has been proposed to cover everyone député-e-s.

The Académie Française, which has a reputation for resisting linguistic change at all costs, has thrown up its hands in horror at this proposal, declaring that the French language finds itself in “péril mortel”, mortal danger. Their opposition to “écriture inclusive” was adopted unanimously by its members in a meeting on October 26th 2017. Cynics will point out that only five of the forty academy members are women and at any rate it seems unlikely that French teenagers are paying much attention to their pronouncements.


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