The future of gender in English

Posted by on September 01, 2011

Gender English month continues with a guest post by Aneta Naumoska, a Lector of Contemporary English Language at the “Blaze Koneski” Faculty of Philology in Skopje, Macedonia. Aneta’s first book, Gender Marking in the English Language, was published in December 2010. Her particular interests lie in the field of Sociolinguistics. She is also an avid Twitterer (@ELTane).

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The strict feminist ideals of revolutionizing the so-called masculine English language have been looked upon by some in a favorable way, while others simply disagree by complaining that such an immense language change will only bring about “sloppy” euphemisms. As Michiko Kakutani has noted (1):

Certainly no decent person can quarrel with the underlying impulse behind political correctness: a vision of a more just, inclusive society in which racism, sexism and prejudice of all sorts have been erased. But the methods and fervor of the self-appointed language police can lead to a rigid orthodoxy – and unintentional self-parody – opening the movement to the scorn of conservative opponents and the mockery of cartoonists and late-night television hosts.

Nonetheless, there have been a multitude of attempts (around 80) by grammarians over the past 200 years to coin new words that will free women from their position of being lexically obscure, yet maintain grammatical competence. Many have advocated gender-free – or epicene – pronouns (such as ne, ter, thon, heer, hiser, en, et, ip), which have one form to indicate either sex, but without any success, which is the reason why they were quickly labeled “the words that failed.” On this topic, Dennis Baron states that “epicene pronouns are not transparent, unambiguous, or easy to use; they are phonetically and visually awkward; and they are the creations of a feminist conspiracy” (2).

Prescriptivists find the gender-specific pronoun he to violate the rules of pronoun agreement (hence the emergence of epicene pronouns), and they have the same objection to the singular they used as a replacement for the generic masculine or the third person singular it. Employing a plural pronoun to refer to both singular definite and indefinite nouns (everyone, somebody, anybody) is a clear example of semantic agreement, but not grammatical agreement. Jespersen and Quirk are both tolerant on this issue, but accept the existence of singular they only for informal constructions.

In the second half of the 20th century, The Second Barnhart Dictionary of New English listed over 40 outrageous examples of unlikely replacements for several everyday terms: e.g.:

amen-aperson, freshman-freshperson, history-herstory, human-huperson, manhole-personhole, manipulating-personipulating, manslaughter-personslaughter, manners-personners, mantle-persontle, nomenclature-nopersonclature, sportsmanship-sportsoneship, etc.

Miller and Swift have given quite an attention-grabbing solution (3):

Searching the roots of Western civilization for a word to call this new species of man and woman, someone might come up with gen, as in genesis and generic. Like the words deer and bison, gen would be both plural and singular. Like progenitor, progeny and generation, it would convey continuity. Gen would express the warmth and generalized sexuality of generous, gentle and genuine; the specific sexuality of genital and genetic. In the new family of gen, girls and boys would grow to genhood, and to speak of genkind would be to include all the people of the earth.

What do you think? Are these solutions for a gender-free English language appealing? Or are they simply over the top and unrealistic?

Notes

1 Goshgarian, Gary. Exploring Language, 7th ed. 1995. New York: Harper Collins College Publishers
2 Baron, Dennis. Grammar and Gender. 1986. New Haven: Yale University Press
3 in Goshgarian, 1995

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Comments (10)
  • There’s a symbiotic relationship between language and behaviour, although which comes first is open to debate. Perhaps suitable non-gender specific words will naturally find their way into common parlance when our behaviour changes i.e. when we live in a more genuinely gender-balanced world.

    Posted by Averill Buchanan on 1st September, 2011
  • Linguistic relativity is definitely an interesting area that has held my interest for quite a while (since I learned of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis) but I do think that such changes as removing gender-specific words or parts of words can’t be forced via prescriptivism nowadays. Younger generations (myself included) are no longer strictly taught grammar or ‘the correct way to write’ in school – it was only when I took German classes much later in life that I learned about accusative/dative/etc. cases. It was only at university that I actually heard the phrase ‘subordinate clause’. From my educational experience, the trend today seems to be moving towards descriptivism, which is part of the reason why I believe such linguistics shifts must occur naturally.

    For an interesting dystopia with a genderless (both linguistically and in reality) future, I recommend Marge Piercy’s ‘Woman on the Edge of Time’.

    Posted by Samantha Rawson on 1st September, 2011
  • […] blog wrapped up Gender English month with a guest post from Aneta Naumoska who questioned the creation of completely gender-free English. Stan Carey discussed the once scandalous word bloody, and on his own blog told us the difference […]

    Posted by This Week’s Language Blog Roundup | Wordnik ~ all the words on 2nd September, 2011
  • TO S. RAWSON: YES MARGE PIERCY’S BOOK IS EXCELLENT – RECENTLY REREAD IT AND WAS AS IMPRESSED AS THE FIERST TIME SO MANY YEARS AGO

    Posted by ROSE HICKMAN on 2nd September, 2011
  • Whilst I agree with the general idea, it’s utterly ludicrous to alter many of the words as suggested by Barhart. Most of them have roots with nothing to do with gender – for example history – it’s not his-story, but a modern form of a Greek word meaning research.

    Posted by Alex Openshaw on 3rd September, 2011
  • Really enjoyed the article. I tend to use the plural (‘they’) instead of he or she, etc. to be more objective or gender non-specific. I like Miller and Swift’s proposal to use “gen” in words like “genkind” etc. – the other attempts are way too clumsy and superficial to hold.

    Posted by Marian S. on 6th September, 2011
  • Thank you for all your comments. I appreciate your contributions. Researching gender in the English language and the effects it has had in methodology has been inspiring ride for me. My view is that in Macedonia when English is spoken people aren’t very aware of this issue, and it is only when I ask them “Why did you use HE for the noun DOCTOR?” that they stop for a moment and consciously grasp this idea. I try to make my students as aware of gender as I can, not correcting them at the very moment but afterwards asking them a question similar to the previous one. It’s interesting to view all the suggestions for a genderless language, but I think gender-neutral would be a better word. If you come across something you’d like to share with me, feel free to send me an email or message via Twitter. If I have other gender-connected ideas I’d like to share with you, the Macmillan Dictionary blog is where I’d turn to.

    Posted by Aneta Naumoska on 11th September, 2011
  • Aneta, I absolutely agree with you that the students are not aware of this issue of gender role in English language so I recommend your book to all of my colleagues. 🙂 When it comes to the use of ‘he’ or ‘she’, as in the example with the noun DOCTOR which you have given, I think that the use of the impersonal ONE is a very common solution, although it may sound a bit formally.

    Posted by Lea G. on 16th September, 2011
  • Aneta:
    I’ve studied French, German, classical Greek, and Spanish, and dipped into a smattering of other European languages over the years. They all employ the male-female polarity. On the positive side, gender identification results in more specificity of comprehension in SOME semantic contexts; on the downside, the arbitrary identification of a noun or pronoun as male or female is disadvantagteous to language learners, and serves no useful purpose, although it proves no obstacle to native speakers. While I refuse to advocate English as “superior” in this instance, the loss of gender makes the language more facile in most cases. Where gender works to provide clarity, I applaud its existence; where its use is arbitrary, I do not. On a societal basis, most such changes seem to take time; how much, is anyone’s guess. As an optimist, I would assume that over time this issue may be mitigated by usage.

    Posted by Marc Leavitt on 28th September, 2011
  • Samantha, thanks for suggesting Marge Piercy’s book. I’ve since ordered it and I’ve just started reading it. An interesting read, indeed! Thanks once again! Aneta.

    Posted by Aneta Naumoska on 12th November, 2011
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